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.



Targeted Police Brutality and Racial Profiling – America Progressing or Rapidly Declining?

This is a photo recently sent out by the NAACP.  This image is particularly powerful because it represents the fact that humanity puts too much stock in the differences between people, and so often we forget that we all are human. This picture is important and relevant to my topic especially because it serves as an important reminder that underneath our skin tones, we are all the same.

This is a photo recently sent out by the NAACP. This image is particularly powerful because it represents the fact that humanity puts too much stock in the differences between people, and so often we forget that we all are human. This picture is important and relevant to my topic especially because it serves as an important reminder that underneath our skin tones, we are all the same.

This is an image released during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. This picture is particularly interesting and also relevant to my topic because it depicts almost the exact same idea as the previous photo, with the exception of this photo being from a completely different time. It is interesting to examine these two photos within their respective contexts, because they depict the same or similar ideas, but one of these photos was created a little less than 70 years earlier.

This is an image released during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. This picture is particularly interesting and also relevant to my topic because it depicts almost the exact same idea as the previous photo, with the exception of this photo being from a completely different time. It is interesting to examine these two photos within their respective contexts, because they depict the same or similar ideas, but one of these photos was created a little less than 70 years earlier.

This is a project created by Clare Shaffer for ENG 238 African-American Literature, Pre-1945 at Elon University (Spring 2015), taught by Dr. Crystal Anderson. It is a conversation between two African-American writers who discuss a contemporary issue. travelogue for a fictitious character that reflects the historical and cultural realities of the Atlantic world. This dialogue gives students an opportunity to engage in close reading and relate literary texts to contemporary ideas.  The two authors that I chose to hold this conversation are Martin R. Delany and Zora Neale Hurston. I believe that conversation between these two writers would be interesting because of the different settings and time periods that their writing takes place in. Delany’s The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States is written before the Civil War, and describes the societal problems and the rampant discrimination, dehumanization, and abuse of African-American people in both the North and the South. Zora Neale Hurston was a writer during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Civil War has ended, and now racial discrimination and segregation is a common theme in the US. The Harlem Renaissance, unlike the pre-Civil War era, was a time for the development and celebration of African-American culture.  My contemporary issue that I have chosen is the controversy of targeted brutality and racial profiling that has become a pattern among many, though not all, police forces across the country. I believe that both of these authors would be interested in this topic, but their different backgrounds could provide different perspectives on this issue. 1

This photo depicts the patterns of police brutality, which specifically targets young African American men.

Delany: The patterns of brutality and racial profiling among police forces across this country are further evidence of the hypocrisy and deprivation of equal rights that has been a characteristic of the United States for hundreds of years. In my narrative, I speak of these deprivations,  “Denied an equality not only of political but of natural rights, in common with the rest of our fellow citizens, there is no species of degradation to which we are not subject”(Delany 201). Instead of making progress, black people are still subjected to the same kinds of torment and hate that they experienced hundreds of years ago. What has changed since the time of slavery? Racism and discrimination are still a constant theme of today’s society. The race-based wealth disparity in this country is at a staggering high, and African-American people of all ages are still being targeted in the streets of their own cities based on the color of their skin. Topics of race-based discrimination and white privilege are in the newspapers almost every single day! Why is this still a problem that has not been solved, a conversation that still needs to be had? Hurston: I hear and understand your anger and its source, but we need to examine the facts at hand. Despite your qualms about racism and discrimination in present-day society, we must address the fact that in our time, these themes would not be in newspapers. We would not be having discussions about them on news channels for millions of people to watch, and even if we did, people of our race would not be equally or accurately represented. Today, we have a black President sitting in the White House, doing his best to protect the interests of our people. Every time there has been a national instance of police brutality, he has made a comment deploring such acts, and launching the nation into discussion about how to inspire change. Comparing the status of blacks during our time with present day shows that though racism is far from its complete demise, progress has been undeniably made. 2 Delany: But can this issue ever be resolved? Can we ever move forward instead of this constant dance of moving one step forward and three back? I believe the answer is no. The United States, like so many ancient civilizations that have since risen and fallen, cannot function without the presence of racial oppression because it has been written into our history and founding. I outline this in my narrative, “…there will be little or no sympathy for the oppressed, the oppressor being left to prescribe whatever terms at discretion for their government, suits his own purpose” (Delany 201). Since you were never exposed to slavery, you cannot comprehend the source of this anger. You lived in a time of segregation and hatred, and for me, it is hard to see what progress has been made other than the banishment of “colored” bathrooms. What you must understand is that despite what looks like progress on the surface, the deeper issues of oppression and discrimination remain unsolved.

A quote from Oprah Winfrey, a prominent female black voice that has helped change the way we view both women and race in America.

Hurston: Your frustration with prevailing patterns of racism is understandable, but you must address the progress that has been made. As you say, I lived in a time of segregation and hatred, but it was also a time when people were just starting to take pride in their race and create a new identity for  black people  in America through art.Today, black identity is a source of constant pride and the culture of our people persists in a way that enriches not just the black community, but every community in the United States. I state this sentiment (which was rather ahead of my time) in my autobiography, “I am not tragically colored…I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it” (Hurston 104). However, as you so aptly stated, slavery and systemic oppression is written into the founding and history of this entire country. Something so deeply rooted in a nation’s history, however awful it may be, still takes time to completely disappear, but that does not mean that it cannot eventually go away. 3 Delany: Look at the case of Eric Garner! How can it be possible that a black man can be murdered in the streets of one of the most “progressive” cities in the world by a white man, and not receive justice? And what about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, or the countless other black men and women that have been unjustly treated by the very force that is supposed to protect all the people of this nation? I  find it the most troubling that something I wrote in my narrative over one hundred years ago still applies to our society today; “However unfavorable their condition, there is none more so than that of the colored people of the United States” (Delany 202). People wonder why blacks suffer from wealth disparities and high crime rates? Look no further than the prevalence of white privilege in today’s society. There are fewer opportunities, less advantages, more blacks living in lower-income neighborhoods, and lower life expectancy.

This depicts the racial wealth gap. Special attention should be paid to the enormous difference in white and black earnings, as it speaks to a larger issue of race-based disparities across the economic board.

Hurston: I agree with you on the prevalence of white privilege in the context of race-based socioeconomic disparities because the statistics are impossible to deny. However, my point is that though these separate cases are heartbreaking in their respective contexts, the pattern of these instances has launched a larger, more global conversation that could not have and did not exist during either of our times. There now are people like John Stewart (a white man) arguing with another white man (Bill O’Reilly) about whether white privilege exists! In the 1960’s, a white man never would have argued so openly in favor of white privilege without fear of retaliation. Does this not represent forward progress? 4 Delany: The fact that someone is still arguing that the remnants of what people of our time suffered through are not perpetuated throughout society today is ridiculous. The fact that this same person is allowed to speak on television and poison the minds of the next generation is what sickens me. Media bias and the portrayal of African Americans based on stereotypes perpetuate the issues of white privilege just as much as the founding fathers did, except media outlets are a modern invention! Explain to me, Zora, how the passing on of colonial ideologies through modern technology counts as forward progress? To me, it seems that no matter what decade it is, there will continue to be a racial double-standard in this country, as black men are called “thugs” for protesting racism and white men are called “rowdy celebrators” when they commit the same crime. Hurston: Ah, but you have stumbled upon one of the founding principles of this country that I believe to be a positive one: freedom of speech. I do not see the media necessarily as an outlet through which the perpetrators of white privilege may spread their message, but rather as a medium for all to express their opinion. Media bias does exist, but along with the bias of more close-minded men, the clear, loud voice of our people and our community can be heard as well. I believe that though the messages of those racists that still exist in our country can be unpleasant, we must allow them to speak to preserve the right to freedom of speech for all. I believe “that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” (Hurston 104). 5

Bill O’Reilly discussing his beliefs about white privilege to an audience of millions

Delany: I concede the importance of freedom of speech to you, Zora. I find that police brutality and racism too prevalent for anyone to insinuate that white people are not more privileged than blacks as a result of their skin color. Once again, white privilege rears its ugly head in the face of a complicated issue, giving people who perpetuate the problem a rose-colored lens through which to view the situation and grapple with their moral issues. “This is America,” they’ll tell themselves, “Racism is nonexistent! The Civil War ended hundreds of years ago!” Then they’ll sit on their couches with their children, smiling and nodding as Bill O’Reilly simpers at them from their 40 inch plasma screen that white privilege is not real, racism does not exist, and that anyone who is living in poverty could get out of it if they just worked a little harder. Parents smile as they teach the next generation of privileged white people the colonial values of their ancestors, and meanwhile, black people will continue to be targeted and wrongfully portrayed due to the color of their skin. Hurston: I suppose we will have to agree to disagree then, Martin. As much as it disgusts me, I believe that those like Bill O’Reilly should be allowed to participate in the national discussion around this topic just as anyone else. Though their ideas and moral value system may be wrong, they are not then exempted from their right to freedom of speech as promised by the Constitution. It is perfectly acceptable for you to not share the same beliefs as some of the citizens of the United States today, but the existence of these beliefs is not an indication that no progress was made: “Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person. That is natural” (Hurston).

Digital Assignments

I’m one of those people who believes that technology enhances the strategies we know work in a classroom setting. Just because you can use tech doesn’t mean you should use tech, especially if it doesn’t help to promote your overall pedagogical goals.

In “12 Steps for Creating a Digital Assignment or Hybrid Class,” Jesse Stommel does a wonderful job of posing some questions to ascertain whether or not you really need to use tech for an assignment and how to determine what those assignments might like. He starts with pedagogical issues rather than the practicalities of the tech itself.   The first two are indispensable: What is my primary goal for students with this course/assignment? What is my digital pedagogy?/How does my goal for this assignment intersect with my broader teaching philosophy?

For me, the answers to these questions sometimes relate to the materials to which I want to expose my students. For writing courses, where students are in a constant process of drafting, peer review and revising, I like students to see how this works (or, doesn’t work) in the real world. Showing my students how comments function as commentary on digital writing reveals what they might want to do and avoid in their own work. But students have to learn to navigate the Web, find comments and determine the difference between moderated and unmoderated comments. As a result, I not only have to consider my primary goal (honing their feedback skills) but also how technology intersects with that goal (information seeking on the Internet and information literacy).

In doing so, I have to allow time and space in the syllabus to do both. It is that dual-purpose that makes incorporating digital assignments different from using analog tools to do the same. But I find it rewarding, as I have developed new skills that help me in my own research, skills that I also pass on to students. At the same time, it takes different thinking, and definitely more time, especially in terms of the assessment of digital assignments.  In the future, I’ll talk about what’s being said about accessing digital assignments, and how I meet some of those challenges.

Jesse Stommel. “12 Steps for Creating a Digital Assignment or Hybrid Class.” Jesse Stommel. 18 Aug 2014. Web. 25 Aug 2014.

Tips for Screencasting

In her post for ProfHacker, Amy Cavender offers some tips for screencasting. Two of the best are time limits and scripts.

Cavender suggests that screencasts should be two to four minutes. in general, I would agree, but the screencast can be longer if the circumstances call for it. Some instructors use screencasts for lectures as part of blended learning. I have used screencasts for assessing student work, and this sometimes goes beyond the ideal “four minute” mark. For tutorials and student presentations, two to four minutes is ideal, but time limit should be determined by the function of the screencast.

Cavender also suggests a script. I think a script is great, especially, as she offers, if you plan to create a SRT file with captions. When I first started doing screencasts, I used a full script, and spent so much time on the script that it added labor to doing the screencast. I recommend using an outline, much in the way some opt to use an outline when presenting a paper rather than reading the paper. It makes the screencast seem more natural and less stilted, and more effective since you are not spending time perfecting a script.

I would add one additional tip on takes. While one may be tempted to barrel through recording the entire screencast in one take, I would recommend breaking it up. I use Screencast-O-Matic, which allows you to pause the recording and truncate so that you can eliminate parts you do not want to use.

Amy Cavender. “Simple Screencasting Tips.” ProfHacker. 11 Aug 2014. Web. 15 Aug 2014.

Prezi Essays

This past semester, I experimented with having my students write essays in Prezi, the web-based presentation software, in my Science Fiction class, a 200-level literature course for non-majors. I sought to improve the organization of the essays and improve the strategic use of evidence to support claims. I’ve tried more traditional ways of getting students to pay more attention to the structure of their papers, like outlines. I’ve also modeled citation in class from primary and secondary textual sources in an effort to get students to take only what they need, instead of unnecessarily long or unrelated passages.

I opted to experiment with Prezi to see if students would produce more structured and well-supported arguments if they could visualize them.  I scaffolded assignments as I normally would leading up to the final project for the class:  summaries of primary texts, drafts of thesis paragraphs and annotated bibliography entries.  I had students work out the “map” of their Prezi essays using a sentence outline or just grouping ideas together and using peer review to determine how they would move from one idea to the other.  As the rubric for the deconstructed essay shows, students had word count limits on slides. These limits were designed to make students more conscious of how they used text as evidence and how they explained the significance of video or visual evidence.

Overall, I was pleased with the way the essays turned out. Some students still had trouble with the idea of an essay, which they see only as text-based in a Word document, in a Prezi. Next semester, I plan to have students complete their major projects in Prezi.  This time, students will create an academic poster, an assignment often given in science and social science courses, for their analysis of literature and film in my Detective Fiction course. Students are familiar with academic posters, and the use of Prezi will allow them the ability to embed images and video, something they cannot do with traditional poster board posters.

My goals remain the same: to use Prezi to help students improve the organization of their writing and use evidence effectively.