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.”