Around 1900 while James D. Corrothers was the pastor of a Methodist church in Red Bank, N.J., he attended a banquet at a New York hotel.
The dinner honored Elbert Hubbard, a socialist, writer, self-improvement fiend, and adherent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, now largely lost to history.
In his autobiography, Rev. Corrothers described how he stood out as the sole black person among 250 dinner guests. He sat near a woman journalist who wrote for the New York Times. She tried to guess his identity, he recalled years later.
“I know that coloured man!” she exclaimed. “It’s Booker T. Washington!”
But she learned her mistake.
“Oh, I know now whom he is! It’s Paul Laurence Dunbar!” she declared.
Then somebody told her my name and calling.
“Oh, I know whom he is now, she explained. “He’s only a darky minister from Red Bank!”
In Reverend Corrothers’ autobiography, In Spite of the Handicap, he noted that the journalist, a Southerner named Zoe Anderson Norris, and the man she married, the illustrator J. K. Bryans, would become warm personal friends.
Indeed, Bryans, who specialized in comics and silhouettes, drew the pictures for Corrothers’ book, The Black Cat Club, Negro humor & folklore, published in 1902.
That book is a bit of a surprise, written as it is entirely in Negro dialect.
“I have grown to consider the book a very poor one, and regret exceedingly that it was published,” Corrothers reflected in 1916.
But he explained that his inspiration lay in the work of the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who popularized the use of Negro dialect.* In fact, some black authors embraced “dialect literature” until the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance around 1920. And black intellectuals of the day, including Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, lauded it. **
Historians and critics have analyzed this phenomenon. Was it a satirical device? A roundabout way for the black elite to distinguish itself from less sophisticated brethren? A means to preserve black folklore after the Civil War? Various interpretations exist.
|Illustration, The Black Cat Club|
(by J. K. Bryans)
It appears that Rev. Corrothers intended The Black Cat Club to be a send-up of the pretensions of well-educated blacks and their delusions about assimilation. The book opens as its main character, Sandy Jenkins, nicknamed “Doc,” exults in his newly established Black Cat Literary Club in Chicago. Doc celebrates with a drink:
“You black people been raisin’ san’ wid yo’ Shakespeare ack,” observed Billy “Spooks,” the bartender, pouring out Doc’s drinks. . . “See whut de papahs said ‘bout you dis mo’nin’?”
“Nevah pays no ‘tention to such small mattahs,” answered Sandy; “might, ef I wuz raised pickin’ cotton in de backwoods down South lak you. I’se a genamun ma’safe.”
The Black Cat Club is an interesting artifact.
However, a poem entitled “An Indignation Dinner,” which Corrothers published in The Century Magazine in 1915, is far more compelling. It starts:
Dey was hard times jes fo’ Christmas round our neighborhood one year;
So we held a secret meetin’, whah de white folks couldn’t hear,
To ‘scuss de situation, an’ to see what could be done
Towa’d a fust-class Christmas dinneh an’ a little Christmas fun.
As the meeting progresses, the men become increasingly angry about the deprivation they routinely endure, and decide to steal a turkey, chickens, hogs, and sweet potatoes from a nearby farm. The last stanza:
Well, we lit right in an’ voted dat it was a gran’ idee,
An’ de dinner we had Christmas was worth trabblin’ miles to see;
An’ we eat a full an’ plenty, big an’ little, great an’ small,
Not beca’se we was dishonest, but indignant, suh. Dat’s all.
*Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), the son of slaves, began writing at an early age and published books, stories, and poems although he was never able to support himself. His work, while admired widely, has been criticized for promoting racial stereotypes.
**During these years, white writers and artists also employed Negro dialect in books, songs, and plays for white audiences. Its use by whites was considered deeply derogatory.
Continued in August 24, 2016 post.
Continued in August 24, 2016 post.