At Aretha’s Funeral, A Late Poet Sighs

We remember the hat.

Nearly everyone who attended or tuned in to Aretha Franklin’s televised funeral on August 31, admired, discussed or wondered about the umbrella of ruffles that arched over the brow and sloped around the cheeks of African-American actress, Cicely Tyson.

In the process, they may have missed the historical significance of the tribute she gave to one of America’s greatest 19th century poets. Paul Laurence Dunbar.

When the regal Tyson performed before the worldwide audience (estimated  at well over 10 million viewers), she did more than honor Franklin. She gave a down-home salute of “R.E.S.P.E.C.T” to a man whose talent was diminished by white critics who referred to him as an “anomaly” and “freak of human nature.”  They proclaimed that blacks weren’t smart enough to spin phrases the way he did. He was an exception, they said. “An oddity.”

Then Tyson stepped onto the stage and proved them wrong. Dunbar, the son of former slaves, was a black literary pioneer. He wrote eloquent sonnets like “We Wear The Mask” and “By The Stream,” and he conjured up rhymes that echoed the despair of his people. His words reached deep into the throats of the anguished and borrowed their battered vernacular to create clever, entertaining ditties.

The one Tyson read, “When Malindy Sings,” is a lyrical work penned in the foot-stomping dialect Dunbar captured so well:

“G’way an’ quit dat noise, Miss Lucy

Put dat music book away;

What’s de use to keep on trying?

Ef you practice twell you’re gray.”

How appropriate that Tyson, the godmother of black cinema, chose Dunbar to honor the Queen of Soul. After all, both Franklin and Dunbar could touch the spirit in a way it’s not used to being touched. They both knew how to prick those tender places inside of us, to make us tremble and ache and bare emotions we’d prefer to keep buried.

Franklin was feted for this prowess, but Dunbar’s contributions, though heralded by scholars, rarely received the fanfare they deserved. Then along comes a diminutive, 94-year-old thespian with a powerful voice. Cicely Tyson placed Dunbar’s classic work before Franklin’s grieving fans, and in doing so, exposed him to a new audience. A larger audience. Perhaps the largest contemporary audience to ever experience a poem by the gifted poet.

It was a glorious moment, and, for that, I will always be grateful to Tyson. But I’m saddened because so many just didn’t get it. How many realized the man Tyson was quoting was one of the first black poets to break through racial barriers? Who, among us, knew the title of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical book, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” is a line from a Dunbar poem? Or that, despite his vision, he was a broken man — a sensitive soul who drank far more than he should have, frustrated with a world that ignored his full intellectual capacity.

Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872, Dunbar — the only African American in his high school graduating class — never actually spoke the dialect that became his trademark. He churned it out for one reason. It sold. Mainstream audiences loved it. It paid the bills. And, make no mistake about it, he was good at it. After he died of tuberculosis at the age of 33, others tried but no one could recreate that folksy style quite like Dunbar.

At the funeral, we were given a peek at his unique flair. Now, it’s up to us to open our minds and dig a little deeper. That’s much more important, I think, than what anyone was wearing.  Let’s forget the superficial and focus on the poetry:

“Ain’t you nevah hyeah Malindy?

Blessed soul, tek up de cross!

Look hyeah, aint you jokin, honey?

Well, you don’t know whut you los’

Y’ought to hyeah dat gal a-wa’blin,

Robins, la’ks, an’ all dem things,

Heish dey moufs an’ hides dey faces

When Malindy sings.”

14 thoughts on “At Aretha’s Funeral, A Late Poet Sighs

  1. I know of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Studied him in high school in the early 70’s in Virginia when a few Black teachers pulled together some materials to teach us the history and literature that was excluded from our textbooks. I didn’t know he died at age 33 and I didn’t know that was his poem she was reciting. I wish she had said so. I am looking forward to your blog opening more exploration of thought

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  2. Dunbar’s poem about the power of Malindy’s singing was a perfect tribute to Aretha Franklin. Aretha’s soulful, heartfelt musical renditions made everyone within ear shot pay attention. Whether her song demands R E S P E C T or is merely Saying a Little Prayer for You — we feel the intensity in our spirit. She was definitely the Queen of Soul and will be missed. Rest in peace.

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  3. Thanks for pointing out Cicely Tyson’s effort to link this historic poet w/ a modern legend. Your insights give us historic perspective and honor both Dunbar and Aretha.

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  4. Paul Dunbar would feel quite honored to be linked with Aretha in such a dramatic way! I’m so grateful to know that his work hasn’t been forgotten. I enjoy reading and reciting Paul’s poems, and always required my students to memorize at least one of them.
    Perhaps this whetting of the appetite will entice others to learn more about him.

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  5. My heart smiled when I read Cicely Tyson’s tribute to Aretha via Paul Dunbar. It reminded me of the many times I recited his poems to my students who were required to memorize at least one of them. Hopefully, remembering Paul in this way will encourage others to read his poems. What a wonderful way to whet one’s appetite for poetry by dramatically putting these two intelligent souls together in this way.

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  6. My heart smiled when I read Cicely’s tribute to Aretha. It reminded me of the times that I recited Dunbar’s poems to my students and required that they memorize one of them. Memorizing poetry seems to be a lost Art. Perhaps Tyson’s ingenuity will encourage those in education to introduce his poems to their students.

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  7. I admit I was one of the hat critics. However, your blog prompted me to review Ms. Tyson’s words. I gained a far greater appreciation of her tribute. The hat was a bit much, but not as much as the lesson I learned. Thank you.

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