Dunbar's dialect poetry is rich in drama, irony, understatement, hyperbole, and caricature. The dual voice of Dunbar's poems is a natural result of the double vision that Dunbar inherited as a black and an American and that threatened to tear him apart. His creation of a double voice in his poetry allowed him to speak to two distinct audiences at once. In fact, Dunbar's use of caricature often renders whites more comic than blacks. In "When Malindy Sings," a poem written as a tribute to Dunbar's mother, Matilda, the dialect narrator addresses Miss Lucy.
G'way an' quit dat noise, Miss Lucy—
Put dat music book away;
What's de use to keep on tryin'?
Ef you practise twell you're gray...
You ain't got de nachel o'gans
Fu' to make de soun' come right,
You ain't got de tu'ns an' twistin's
Fu' to make it sweet an' light....
Easy 'nough fu' folk to hollah,
Lookin' at de lines an' dots,
When dey ain't no one kin sence it,
An' de chune comes in, in spots.
Using irony, caricature, and understatement, Dunbar here "signifies" on the whites' assumption of biological and intellectual superiority as well as their ability to read books and music. With all these supposed assets, Miss Lucy can't sing "right"; no amount of practice will render her singing "sweet an' light." And even her ability to "read" is suspect, with the tune coming in "in spots." Malindy may be the subject of the poem, but she is not the one being put down here. The comic use of dialect in "When Malindy Sings" cuts two ways, masking the speaker's critique of a white woman he is not free to criticize openly.
From The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.