Candle-Lightin' Time

Candle-lightin' time ... /

Candle-Lightin’ Time by Paul Laurence Dunbar (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1901)
Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867 – 1944), binding designer
M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings, Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives, Delaware Art Museum

For the first three volumes, the Camera Club divided the work of illustrating the poems among its members. After selecting the poems that they thought best to illustrate, a three-member editorial committee drew up a schematic plan, much like a storyboard, conceiving photographs that would correspond to imagery in Dunbar’s poetry. A small group of members were then assigned to cover each poem. After making the photographs, members gathered negatives and prints for a general meeting, and images were selected by a panel of judges and a general vote by the members. Dunbar, however, exercised control over the content of the photo books, demonstrated on at least one occasion in which he vetoed one of the Camera Club’s images.

Candle-lightin' time ... /

Photograph, not dated, from “When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers,” in Candle-Lightin’ Time by Paul Laurence Dunbar (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1901)
Hampton Institute Camera Club (est. 1893)
M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings, Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives, Delaware Art Museum

“When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers,” is narrated by an enslaved woman whose beloved son ‘Lias has left to join the Union Army, while her enslaver’s husband and son fight for the Confederacy. Ultimately, both families would feel the pain and anguish of war, as the men do not return. In this, the enslaved mother and her mistress are shown to share an experience, despite their political differences. The poem was no doubt inspired by Dunbar’s own father, who escaped from enslavement in Kentucky and enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War.

In the past, some critics have viewed Dunbar’s dialect poems and use of plantation settings as an anachronism that suggests African American inferiority. However, recent scholarship promotes a different interpretation, one that sees Dunbar’s use of African American dialect and plantation conventions as a creative means to undermine the legacy of racial oppression inherent in these conventions. By reflecting on the Civil War, “When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers” found an acceptable yet powerful way to set Black suffering alongside white, to testify to African American contributions and sacrifices, and to build a case for the equal claim of African Americans to belonging and liberty in the here and now.