‘The Ingrate’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Dunbar, Paul Laurence 1899

The Ingrate by Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1899

The magic trick:

Allowing the villain of the story – the slave owner – to think that he is the hero

It’s difficult to imagine a more negative characterization than that of the malevolent slave owner of the Antebellum South. But how about this? The benevolent slave owner.

Enter the Lost Cause – the southern narrative that took hold in the years following the Civil War that posits the Confederacy as defenders of states’ rights (not slavery) and the slaves as happy members of the warm, little plantation family.

“The Ingrate” attacks this myth and obliterates it. And remember this is published in 1899, so that narrative was still relatively fresh at the time. This is an important story.

The slave owner in the story, from his badly misguided point of view, is generous and progressive. He thinks he’s doing Josh a favor by letting him read and learn math. Imagine.

The story hints at his real selfish, financial goals, but mainly leaves him to his world of smugness. It’s left to the reader to judge. The story doesn’t outright condemn the slave owner but rather lets him hang himself. Which he does.

And that’s quite a trick on Dunbar’s part.

The selection:

“Yes, that’s just what is against my principles. I know how public opinion and the law look at it. But my conscience rises up in rebellion every time I think of that poor black man being cheated out of his earnings. Really, Mrs. Leckler, I think I may trust to Josh’s discretion and secretly give him such instructions as will permit him to protect himself.”

“Well, of course, it’s just as you think best,” said his wife.

“I knew you would agree with me,” he returned. “It’s such a comfort to take counsel with you, my dear!” And the generous man walked out onto the veranda, very well satisfied with himself and his wife, and prospectively pleased with Josh. Once he murmured to himself, “I’ll lay for Eckley next time.”

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