Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay and the Black Urban Class

The rise of the black urban class has been an issue that has only gotten more serious and notable in the twenty-first century, culminating in civil unrest in urban areas like Baltimore. While police brutality definitely plays a role, allowing this group of working-class people in cities to go unheard of, and who are only heard from when a tragedy occurs, is the bigger problem. I’ve brought together Paul Laurence Dunbar and Claude McKay to discuss this rise of the black urban class, and what can be done to combat this.

For those who doubt this is a contemporary issue, I urge to to look below. These protests don’t happen for a lone reason.

Paul Laurence Dunbar: Claude, we have different experiences of being black in America. I can only imagine what

Paul Laurence Dunbar (photo via

your life must have been like as an immigrant. However, you not being from here means you don’t understand that these urban communities need a voice from within their community that understands their struggle. My writing accurately depicted the struggle of my black experience, which spoke to the average Southern black person at the time, including my use of dialect: “Oh dey’s times fu’ bein’ pleasant an’ fu’ goin’ smilin’ roun’, ‘Cause I don’t believe in people allus totin’ roun’ a frown, But it’s easy ‘nough to tittr w’en de stew is smokin’ hot, But hit’s mighty ha’d to giggle w’en dey’s nuffin’ in de pot” (913). There isn’t a voice such as this for the black underclass, a voice that would bring awareness to a community in need.

Claude McKay: Paul, I understand where you’re coming from, especially seeing as how that was your life and your experiences. But I disagree with the fact that you need to be a member of that specific community to make such an impact in it. We must raise each other up as a race, as a class of people looking to improve their lives. We must understand the only difference between us and other classes of people is circumstance: “But the Almighty from the darkness drew My soul and said: Even though shalt be a light Awhile to burn on the benighted earth, Thy dusky face I set among the white to prove thyself of higher worth” (1005). The black underclass must recognize that they are worthy, just as worthy as white folks, even black folks of a different class.

“We Wear the Mask” (photo via

Paul Laurence Dunbar: It is clear that we must raise each other up as a race. However, the plight of this developing black urban class is a scary development for our nation. We have more who are better off, but just as many are worse off. The disparity is higher than it’s ever been before, and it’s the urban communities that are suffering now. Is there even a way to rise up this group of people without turning it into a racial issue? We as black people must always appear happy, like I write in my poem “We Wear the Mask”: “Why should the world be overwise in counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask” (906).  I believe this should be looked at as a class issue, one that is more difficult for those not in the underclass to understand. I’m afraid people will turn it into a racial issue, and the people that truly need help will not get it.

Claude McKay: I definitely understand, the problem we are discussing is about a class of people, not a race of people. But at the same time this is the black underclass we’re talking about, and its possible creation. This is as

much about the Negro race as it would be about any race becoming an underclass of individuals. My experience as an immigrant is different, but that does not diminish my experience as a black man of a certain class. As I wrote in my novel From Home to Harlem, “We educated Negroes are talking a lot about a racial renaissance. And I wonder how we’re going to get it. On one side we’re up against the world’s arrogance-a mighty cold hard white stone thing. On the other the great sweating army-our race” (1007-1029). We as black people are fighting a specific battle, one that is different than the battle other races are fighting.

Paul Laurence Dunbar:  See, I don’t know if that is a different battle. Anyone living in an urban community is susceptible to living in the underclass. The more we ignore people in urban communities, the less we understand their plight and their struggle. I mean, look at my poem, “Not They Who Soar.” It talks about a group of people whose struggle goes unnoticed: “Not they who soar, but they who plod, their rugged way, unhelped, to God are heroes” (904). Why don’t we lift these people up? It seems we only wait until they are already among the urban class before we try to lift them out. Why don’t we look at how they get there in the first place?

Claude McKay (photo via

Claude McKay: But why do you think that is? There isn’t a level for respect for the black man unless he is upper-middle class or higher! They are afraid of us, and that is why they don’t help us! If the underclass is primarily black folk, than those in power can continue to keep us under their control. They know we do not struggle with power if we have it; as I wrote in “To the White Fiends,” “Be no deceived, for every deed you do I could match-out-match: am I not Afric’s son, black of that black land where black deeds are done?” (1005) We are just as capable as those in power, and those people know that, so they must keep us down. The underclass is the result of these actions.

Paul Laurence Dunbar: Claude, I don’t think you understand that all they want is to be heard. It sounds like a simple request, and honestly, I believe it is. But they want to know that their opinions have value, that their words matter. Have you never read my poem, “Worn Out?” It’s about a people who are tired of oppression, tired of being ignored, tired of being treated as second-class citizens based simply on their income and living situation as well as the color of their skin. “So sadly goes my heart, unclothed of hope and peace; it asks not joy again, but only seeks release” (897). The situation in the underclass is so bad that they’d rather just be free of it than having their lives improve. Is that really what it’s come to? That the folks in our urban communities accept their fate? No, we cannot stand for this!

Claude McKay: Paul, you don’t understand. These people are on the fringes of our society, and they are only this way because of what they lack. Respect, in our society, is predicated on class, on wealth. These people are outcasts! The black urban class is seen as a group of outcasts from our society! People don’t want to see them, don’t want to hear from them! Understand their struggle, Paul! Look at my poem, “Outcast”: “Something in me is lost, forever, lost, some vital thing has gone out of my heart, and I must walk the way of life a ghost among the sons of earth, a thing apart; for I was born, far from my native clime, under the white man’s menace, out of time” (1007). They’ve lost before they even have a chance to thrive! How do we combat that, Paul? How?

Paul Laurence Dunbar:  Wow, Claude…it seems like an impossible situation. How do we combat this? How do we give our people a chance before they succumb to the lowest rungs of society? But let me tell you one thing: I believe these are the people that are able to handle these circumstances the best, because they who know what it’s like at the bottom will be able to have the strength to get out, and will be a better people for it. I’ll direct you to my poem, “Not They Who Soar,” once again, because I believe that in it I tell you this very thing! “High up there no thorns to pro, nor boulders lurking ‘neath the clod to turn the keenness of the share, for flight is ever free and rare; but heroes they the soil who’ve trod, not they who soar!” (904) We are better for our struggle!

Claude McKay: Paul, I love how passionate you are about this topic, it’s amazing how two men who have such different backgrounds can come together on issues such as this. But the question is, how important is this topic to those in those in the struggle? You and I can figure out how to help combat the issue, but if our brothers and sisters don’t fight for themselves then they will be subjected to the same struggles they’re facing. It’s like I write in my poem “If We Must Die,” they must show their humanity by fighting through the struggle: “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” (1005) Obviously this situation is not the same as the one I was referring to when I originally wrote that poem, but that same fearlessness but be inside the people of this “urban class” if the situation is ever to change.