“A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men and women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.” ~from Education of a Wandering Man: A Memoir by Louis L’Amour ©1989
Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of America’s first celebrated Black poets. His work is in the public domain, and can be read or downloaded freely from Project Gutenberg, HERE.
Most of his poems were written in standard English, but he wrote quite a few using Black, German, and Irish vernacular. If I were to read one of these poems out loud today, there is a good chance I would be assaulted; at a minimum, I would be excoriated on social media and precluded from public office.
But in his time, this wasn’t considered demeaning. As a poet, I’m sure his intentions were quite the opposite. He was exploring and celebrating different speech rhythms, something that in his time was quite ordinary and widely accepted.
Things change. I’m sure today he would have written differently; but, like all of us, he was of his time. His talent and works transcend something so ephemeral as current social mores, and should be appreciated against the canvas of their own time.