Paul Dunbar published his final novel in 1902 and in the process created foretold the coming of the Harlem Renaissance. The Sport of the Gods is a landmark work of African-American fiction partly by virtue of its being the first fictional portrayal of black life in Harlem. It also represents a break with the traditions of the past by situating it plot and themes in such a way that it becomes the first novel to explicitly raise a protest against the treatment of blacks by whites in the North rather than confining the criticism to the safely targeted post-Reconstruction mindset of whites to the South.
Dunbar accomplishes this dual call for breakthrough status in The Sport of the Gods through a plot following the decision by a Southern black family to escape the oppressiveness atmosphere of the white family they have worked for the past two decades. New York’s Harlem district becomes for the geographical representative of all the symbolism inherent in the term “Going North” which carried with it a mythic promise of coming out of bondage and making it to the Promised Land.
The reality, of course, turns out to be an unfulfilled promise. What the family finds waiting for them Harlem prejudice from the whites whose lineage stretches back to the Union soldiers fighting to end slavery rather than to the Confederate soldiers willing to die to protect it. Harlem also turns out to be a more dangerous place for blacks than Virginia. It is marked by high crime and profound poverty all surrounded by a toxic landscape of urban decay.
The title alludes to the how this typical family making the pilgrimage to the North comes to view themselves as mere pawns existing only for the entertainment of the fates. The inexorable playing out of this theme ultimately invests The Sport of the Gods with one more innovative achievement in the history of the African-American novel: it is also the first to engage irony as its primary means of expressing the black experience in American society.