The first collection of short stories written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Folks from Dixie (1898) is also considered the first volume of short stories by an African American to be published in the United States. Most of the twelve stories in Folks from Dixie had been published previously in popular magazines; the volume sold well and was reprinted in England in 1899. Setting the tone for the short fiction that Dunbar collected in three subsequent volumes, the stories in Folks from Dixie celebrate the simple pleasures of “down-home” living for African Americans, who find fulfillment in their own communities apart from and seemingly unmindful of the world of whites. Only a comparative few of Dunbar's stories offer candid assessments of social problems occasioned by race.
Five stories in Folks from Dixie are set in the antebellum era and portray slaves according to the myths of the plantation tradition. “The Colonel's Awakening” and “The Intervention of Peter”, for instance, represent the loyalty of slaves and ex-slaves to whites in ways that substitute sentimentality for thoughtful reflection on the relationships of whites and blacks in the South. In “The Trial Sermon on Bull-Skin” Dunbar employs stock characters from the plantation tradition but also offers insight into the folkways and superstitions of a rural southern black community as it seeks a pastor.
More noteworthy in Folks from Dixie are Dunbar's studies of the social and economic realities of life for ordinary African Americans at the turn of the century. “Aunt Mandy's Investment” warns that African American self-help and solidarity can be betrayed as much by misplaced trust in black shysters as by dependence on white patrons. “At Shaft Eleven” speaks frankly about labor strife in a coal-mining town and focuses on a heroic African American foreman, although some critics have felt that Sam Bowles's loyalty to white bosses is troublingly similar to that displayed by exslaves to their former masters in plantation fiction. “Jimsella” anticipates Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods (1902) in describing the plight of a working-class African American couple who have migrated from the South to New York in the hope of finding better opportunities. “The Ordeal at Mt. Hope” offers a distinct critique of racial discrimination, demythologizes slavery, and explores the social and political philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Typically, however, the difficulties that African Americans face in Dunbar's short stories arise from their own self-deceptions and misplaced priorities, not from deeper causes, such as white racism, that would require a profounder analysis of social and economic forces.
Arlene A. Elder, The “Hindered Hand”: Cultural Implications of Early African-American Fiction, 1978.Robert A. Bone, Down Home: Origins of the Afro-American Short Story, 1988.
William L. Andrews and Patricia Robinson Williams