Poem of the Week

“Jealous” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Hyeah come Cæsar Higgins,
Don’t he think he ‘s fine?
Look at dem new riggin’s
Ain’t he tryin’ to shine?
Got a standin’ collar
An’ a stove-pipe hat,
I ‘ll jes’ bet a dollar
Some one gin him dat.

Don’t one o’ you mention,
Nothin’ ’bout his cloes,
Don’t pay no attention,
Er let on you knows
Dat he ‘s got ’em on him,
Why, ‘t ‘ll mek him sick,
Jes go on an’ sco’n him,
My, ain’t dis a trick!

Look hyeah, whut ‘s he doin’
Lookin’ t’ othah way?
Dat ere move ‘s a new one,
Some one call him, “Say!”
Can’t you see no pusson–
Puttin’ on you’ airs,
Sakes alive, you ‘s wuss’n
Dese hyeah millionaires.

Need n’t git so flighty,
Case you got dat suit.
Dem cloes ain’t so mighty,–
Second hand to boot,
I ‘s a-tryin’ to spite you!
Full of jealousy!
Look hyeah, man, I ‘ll fight you,
Don’t you fool wid me!

 

Originally published in Lyrics of the Hearths (1903).

 

Born in 1872, Paul Laurence Dunbar was the son of emancipated slaves. He began writing and reciting poems from an early age and this skill for language did not go unnoticed. Despite being the only African-American student at his high school, he was elected president of the school’s literary society and eventually became editor of the school newspaper. As a young man, he had hopes of attending law school, but his family’s financial limitations instead pushed him to take a job as an elevator operator. It was not until 1892 that Dunbar published his first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy with the United Brethren Publishing House. Though Dunbar took on the printing costs, he was still able to earn a profit by personally selling copies. Throughout his career he published a dozen books of poetry, four short story collections, and four novels. His poems are considered his most significant literary contribution, but because of the prejudice that existed against dialect verse, much of his dialect poems were ignored. Instead, titles such as “We Wear the Masks” and “Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eye” reign over classrooms and anthologies as representations of his best work.

In “Jealous,” Dunbar uses dialect to discuss black dandyism—that is, the practice of framing and enveloping black bodies with “stylish” clothes. Black dandyism was a way of shaping one’s identity, especially one’s masculine identity, in an environment that constantly delegitimized one’s personhood. It made clothing political, subverting traditional notions of race, gender, class, and nationality. Yet, there is a deep irony inherent in black dandyism, which Dunbar is keen to pick up on. While the black dandy defies notions of whiteness that are inherently gendered and classed, it also falls into the exclusionary rhetoric of that whiteness, for not everyone can be a black dandy. One can only be a black dandy if they possess the economic means. Dunbar acknowledges through the speaker who says, referring to the fine clothes, “I ‘ll jes’ bet a dollar / Some one gin him dat,” (line 7-8). Imbedded in these lines is the implication that a disparity exists between the appearance of the speaker and the character, Cæsar Higgins. The explanation for this disparity is economic—presumably that Higgins has a benefactor who provides him with decadent articles of clothing like “a stove-pipe hat” (line 6). Dunbar argues that the image of the black dandy is dependent on the image of an impoverished black person—it is a reflection of that poverty and thus, cannot exist without it. The cause of this distinction is jealousy. The speaker’s harsh tone is captured in his comments, the assertion that Higgins is “puttin’ on…airs” (line 22), that he should not be provided with any special treatment. “Don’t pay no attention,” the speaker orders (line 11). Jealousy fuels the speaker’s anger, pushes him toward violence: “Look hyeah, man, I ‘ll fight you, / Don’t you fool wid me!” (line 31-32).

“Jealous” is a deeply political poem not just because of its content, but also its form. At its core, Dunbar’s poem contains a critique of blackness, but even more potently, a critique of its relationship and subservience to whiteness. Yet, the deeply political and subversive nature of this commentary is hidden within the dialect verse, which a white audience had always considered “entertaining,” never the substance of serious literature. By using dialect, Dunbar plays into the desires of his white audiences who wanted the spectacle of blackness and the playfulness of dialect verse. Yet, fully aware of this bias, Dunbar uses dialect verse as a safe space into which he can plant a message for his black audience—something that speaks to the immediate concerns of the African-American experience, and offers a critique that works against the oppressor.

—Arlette Hernandez

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