Little Brown Baby – A Poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar


“Little Brown Baby” is a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906). Dunbar was an American poet, novelist and playwright. His parents had been slaves before the Civil War. He started writing as a child and had his first poems published at age 16.

Dunbar wrote in both standard English and the dialect known as Black English. Black English is also known as African-American English. According to Wikipedia it’s “the set of English dialects primarily spoken by most black people in North America; most commonly, it refers to a dialect continuum ranging from African-American Vernacular English to a more standard English.”

On Mama Lisa’s World, we refer to the dialect that Dunbar sometimes wrote in as “Historical Black American English” to distinguish it from what’s spoken today. We added “American” so that our international audience will know at a glance where it was spoken. We have a whole section on the site devoted to Songs & Rhymes in Historical Black American English. This material dates back over a century.

“Little Brown Baby” was written in Historical Black American English. In the YouTube video below you can watch a wonderful rendition of the poem by Phillip Cherry Sr. You’ll find the text after the video.

Little Brown Baby

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,
Come to yo’ pappy an’ set on his knee.
What you been doin’, suh — makin’ san’ pies?
Look at dat bib — you’s es du’ty ez me.
Look at dat mouf — dat’s merlasses, I bet;
Come hyeah, Maria, an’ wipe off his han’s.
Bees gwine to ketch you an’ eat you up yit,
Bein’ so sticky an sweet — goodness lan’s!

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,
Who’s pappy’s darlin’ an’ who’s pappy’s chile?
Who is it all de day nevah once tries
Fu’ to be cross, er once loses dat smile?
Whah did you git dem teef? My, you’s a scamp!
Whah did dat dimple come f’om in yo’ chin?
Pappy do’ know you — I b’lieves you’s a tramp;
Mammy, dis hyeah’s some ol’ straggler got in!

Let’s th’ow him outen de do’ in de san’,
We do’ want stragglers a-layin’ ‘roun’ hyeah;
Let’s gin him ‘way to de big buggah-man;
I know he’s hidin’ erroun’ hyeah right neah.
Buggah-man, buggah-man, come in de do’,
Hyeah’s a bad boy you kin have fu’ to eat.
Mammy an’ pappy do’ want him no mo’,
Swaller him down f’om his haid to his feet!

Dah, now, I t’ought dat you’d hug me up close.
Go back, ol’ buggah, you sha’n’t have dis boy.
He ain’t no tramp, ner no straggler, of co’se;
He’s pappy’s pa’dner an’ play-mate an’ joy.
Come to you’ pallet now — go to yo’ res’;
Wisht you could allus know ease an’ cleah skies;
Wisht you could stay jes’ a chile on my breas’—
Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes!

We have posted more Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems in the past. Check them out!

This article was posted on Monday, September 17th, 2018 at 6:11 pm and is filed under Countries & Cultures, Dialects, English, Historical African American, Languages, Mama Lisa, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Poems, Poems about Children, Poetry, Poets, USA. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

7 Responses to “Little Brown Baby – A Poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar”

  1. Phillip Cherry Jr Says:

    This is my father Phillip Cherry Sr with my son Cason, and I just love this poem, I grew up hearing it all the time and now it is great to see my hearing the same poem from grand dad!! When I hear this it brings me back to my younger years!
    Thank for sharing love the blog!

  2. Lisa Says:

    Thanks for writing Phillip! I love your father’s rendition of the poem and your son did a great job too!

  3. Phillip Cherry St. Says:

    I loved performing with my grandson Cason Cherry in ” Little brown baby “

  4. Lisa Says:

    It’s a great performance!

  5. Lisa Says:

    PS If you’d ever like to record some poems for us, we’d be happy to post them!

  6. Paula Says:

    I am 71, grew up listening to my elders recite Mr. Dunbar. My Mom taught me how to speak Negro Dialect, that’s what it was called. They were not allowed to speak the King’s English, even though a lot of them could. The Dialect was learned, I remember my Mother teaching others how to pronounce the words when they had to recite. My parents were from the south. My favourite poems were “The Party, The Rival, and In The Morning”.

  7. Melissa Says:

    Thank you for sharing this! I love how Mr. Cherry has recited this poem. So rich and playful. It’s like he’s actually the one with the sparkling eyes. What a treasure. I’ll be sharing this video with my kids today since we are reading poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar in our homeschool for a few months, but I can’t read them with this kind of beauty or depth (or authenticity, since I’m white), so thank you so much for posting this. I’m grateful this video found me this morning! (and we just might have to make some sand pies today :)

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