John Keeling: On "When Malindy Sings"

While we may find it easy to be drawn into the speaker's point of view, the concrete details of the poem, those which interrupt the narrative, force us to call into question the speaker's excessive sentiment. We might note first that Malindy never appears in the poem; the only singing represented is that of Miss Lucy, whose song is described by the narrator as "dat noise." In fact, it is the futility of Lucy's dedication to singing—"Put dat music book away; / What's de use to keep on tryin'?"—that launches the speaker into his tribute to Malindy. In effect, the poem begins with the discord of Miss Lucy's song which the speaker attempts to restructure into harmony. Unfortunately for the speaker, just as his embellishment reaches its peak (with the "sinnahs" crying at Malindy's feet), he is interrupted by a blues voice of dissension. We can infer what the listener's comment was by the speaker's response:

In these lines not only is the efficacy of the gospel questioned but, perhaps, the very existence of Malindy as well. In the next stanza the speaker attempts to continue but is completely undermined as we reach the final stanza:

Instead of Malindy we are introduced to Mandy, and, with the image of the crying child, harmony has once again fallen into discord. The speaker's failure to harmonize leaves him desperate—"Let me listen, I can hyeah it"—and somewhat alienated from Mandy and the rest. Yet there is a sense that in the last lines Malindy's song has taken on a more poignant, personal relevance for the speaker, in the sense that his narrative's fictiveness has been exposed. We might even imagine the speaker singing the final three lines (with all of those long vowel sounds), beginning a kind of blues song out of the narrative which fails. In such a reading, Dunbar undermines the stereotype of the gospel singer Malindy and, at the same time, affirms the power of blues creativity. The speaker's exaggeration is subverted, but his creativity, faith, and spirit are confirmed.

From "Paul Dunbar and the Mask of Dialect." Southern Literary Journal 25:2, (Spring 1993).

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Criticism Overview
Title John Keeling: On "When Malindy Sings" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Keeling Criticism Target Paul Laurence Dunbar
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 17 Aug 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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