Ask A Librarian

"I sing my song, and all is well" – When Malindy Sings comes to the WVRHC

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
January 18th, 2016

Blog post by Ashleigh Coren, Resident Librarian, WVU Libraries.

Portrait of Paul Laurence Dunbar


The Rare Book Collection in the West Virginia & Regional History Center recently acquired Ohioan Paul Laurence Dunbar’s (1872-1906) When Malindy Sings, an illustrated book of poems and photographs published in 1903 by Dodd, Mead and Company. While the Rare Book Collection is home to a variety of wonderfully illustrated rare books, the six Dunbar books in our collection: Howdy, Honey, Howdy; Poems of Cabin and Field; Candle-Lightin’ Time, Folks from Dixie, Li’L’ Gal, and now When Malindy Sings, are in a category of their own. Dunbar, who Darwin Turner hails as “a symbol of the creative and intellectual potential of the Negro,” died at the early age of 33. The six decorated books in the Rare Book Room showcase the wonderful marriage between text and image that was prevalent in the 19th and early 20th century. The Dunbar collection is a great example of what booksellers and bibliophiles refer to as decorated Publishers’ Bindings. 


Cover of book titled When Malindy Sings, with trellis and floral vine design

When Malindy Sings (1903), cover designed by Margaret Armstrong

Although each individual book has its own unique design and coloring, many Publishers’ Bindings were processed in the same manner as When Malindy Sings. Books during this period were made through a process using unpatterned cloth stamped with designs and lettering in gold and colored inks. These covers usually reflected the artistic movements and trends of their time, and at the end of the 19th century the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements were a big influence. In the 1890s many American and British publishers used illustrated cloth for their publications, and many of these books are in the Rare Book Room.


Internal pages of book titled Candle Lightin Time, with text from "Dinah Kneading Dough" and a photograph of the edge of a lake

Dinah Kneading Dough,’ from Candle Lightin’ Time.
West Virginia Regional History Center. Photo Credit: Stewart Plein


A large part of Dunbar’s legacy is the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in his work. Although writers Mark Twain and Joel Chandler Harris previously employed AAVE in their work, Dunbar’s use of dialect celebrated the everyday lives of African Americans in the late 19th century. This deliberate choice made his work accessible to certain audiences, but also courted controversy amongst Black intellectuals in his lifetime. Dunbar’s poetry, although significant, is just one of the many fantastic qualities of these books. There are so many fascinating conversations to unpack with each book, which makes writing a blog post a little too much fun!  It’s impossible to talk about these illustrated books without addressing their noted illustrators, which include E.W. Kemble, Margaret Armstrong, and Alice Morse.  Armstrong and Morse were prominent illustrators in the 1890s and 1900s, and each artist had her own distinctive style. Armstrong, whose work is very popular among book collectors, designed six covers for Dunbar.


Cover of book Poems of Cabin and Field, with floral design

Cover designed by Alice Morse, 1899

Cover of book titled Candle Lightin' Time, with flowers and moon design

Cover designed by Margaret Armstrong, 1901


Another important aspect of these books is the photographs of ‘everyday life’ captured by the Hampton Institute Camera Club. The club, which consisted of faculty members from the historically Black college, began as an amateur photography club. From 1899-1903 the group produced hundreds of photographs for Dunbar’s published works, including the cover shot for Dunbar’s Howdy, Honey, Howdy. These images served as a contrast to the popular racist imagery of the 19th century, which depicted African Americans as irresponsible, unkempt, and grotesque.


Postcard with text "You can plainly see how miserable I am" and image of African American with comically large mouth eating a watermelon slice

Racist postcard, early 20th century.


With nods to the photographs of Hampton students by West Virginia native Frances Benjamin Johnston, Dunbar’s books provide an alternative to images like the postcard above. Although staged, readers were able to see polished African Americans at work, with their families, and in loving relationships. These photographs, in combination with Dunbar’s words and the work of Armstrong and Morse, make these books wonderful works of art.


Cover of book Howdy Honey, Howdy, showing African-American woman in front of house

Howdy, Honey, Howdy (1905),
West Virginia Regional History Center. Photo Credit: Stewart Plein.



Photograph of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Wikimedia Commons:

When Malindy Sings, Caliban Books:

Poems of Cabin and Field, University of Minnesota Archives:

Candle Lightin’ Time, Pinterest:

“You can plainly see how miserable I am,” Wikimedia Commons:

Mellinger, Wayne Martin. 1992. “Postcards from the Edge of the Color Line: Images of African Americans in Popular Culture, 1893–1917”. Symbolic Interaction 15 (4). [Wiley, Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction]: 413–33. doi:10.1525/si.1992.15.4.413

Oldfield, Philip. 1991. From boards to cloth: the development of publishers’ bindings in the nineteenth century: guide to an exhibition at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, July-September 1991. [Toronto]: The Library.

Oswald, Emily. “Imagining Race: Illustrating the Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Book History 9, no. 1 (2006): 213-233.

Otto, Calvin P. 1998. Only in cloth: publishers’ bookbindings 1830-1910: an exhibition from the collection of Calvin P. Otto on display in the Rotunda of the University of Virginia, 18 September-22 December 1997. Charlottesville [Va.]: Book Arts Press.

Sapirstein, Ray. 2007. “Picturing Dunbar’s Lyrics”. African American Review 41 (2). St. Louis University: 327–39.

Turner, Darwin. 1967. “Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Rejected Symbol”. The Journal of Negro History 52 (1). Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.: 1–13.


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