Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First CenturyAn Introduction
Why must we recover Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the twenty-first century? Because she was a prolific, influential, and often brilliant writer whose output never ceased from her teens in late-nineteenth-century New Orleans until her death in Philadelphia in 1935. Because she worked in a dizzying array of forms—poetry, short fiction, novellas, essays, newspaper columns, editorials, literary and theater reviews, play and film scripts, diaries, literary analysis, and more—and published in the most influential black periodicals and anthologies of her era. Because she was a lifelong activist, organizer, teacher, and orator whose work for black racial advancement, gender equality, and social justice took her around the country, before diverse audiences, and into the White House. Because Dunbar-Nelson left an archive. Expertly preserved by her beloved niece, Pauline Alice Young, her papers may represent the most extensive and complete archive extant from an early US black woman writer. These materials, housed in the University of Delaware’s Special Collections Library, offer richly detailed insight into the worlds within which Dunbar-Nelson moved, revealing overlapping networks of friendship, intimacy, influence, [End Page 213] collaboration, and competition among black intellectuals, artists, and leaders during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They present a woman writer whose intellect, appetites, and creative energies reached out, constantly, in multiple, simultaneous directions, defying unifying characterization.
The first and most significant recovery of Dunbar-Nelson was conducted nearly four decades ago by R. Ora Williams and Akasha (Gloria) Hull. These scholars brought Dunbar-Nelson’s writing into print after decades of obscurity and developed provocative and densely researched critical frameworks for interpreting it. The significance of Hull’s monumental contribution—producing a biographical overview and comprehensive critical treatment of Dunbar-Nelson’s oeuvre, an edition of her diary, and three edited volumes of her writing for the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers series in the early 1980s—cannot be overstated: her work continues to shape every aspect of Dunbar-Nelson scholarship, including this special issue. And yet that scholarship remains limited in scope, and for most contemporary literary critics Dunbar-Nelson has returned to obscurity. When she is remembered, it is chiefly for a single volume of regional fiction, her 1899 collection The Goodness of St. Rocque, or as the widow of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Many of the explanations for Dunbar-Nelson’s neglect that Williams and Hull identified four decades ago still obtain. Both cite the sexism and racism that once designated any black woman writer as “minor” and that continue to limit the degree and quality of attention she receives, and both note the tendency of famous husbands to overshadow brilliant wives. In Color, Sex, and Poetry (1987), Hull argues that the temporal and geographical frames that organize our criticism and curricula also play a role, pointing out that the timing and geography of Dunbar-Nelson’s career placed it largely in advance to the Harlem Renaissance and away from the cultural epicenter of New York City—in Wilmington; Washington, dc; and Philadelphia.1 She also reminds us that male-centered networks of patronage and support made it difficult for women like Dunbar-Nelson to publish as widely as their male contemporaries, rendering them less visible to readers now. Williams observes, as well, that Dunbar-Nelson did not serve the agendas that motivated early African Americanist and feminist literary scholarship—a factor that is still worth considering, despite the massive expansion and diversification that have transformed both areas of criticism since the 1970s (R. Williams, “Alice” 10–11).
We began imagining this special issue of Legacy following a panel on Dunbar-Nelson that we organized for the 2012 meeting of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers in Denver, as we were bombarded with requests for more information. Many from our audience expressed shock that they had never heard of Dunbar-Nelson or knew only a few of the early stories [End Page 214] or her oft-anthologized poem “I Sit and Sew.” Now they wanted to read and teach more. Our response is this special issue, which we hope will encourage more interest in Dunbar-Nelson from previously uninitiated readers as well as from those who have known her only as a regionalist writer from New Orleans, not realizing that she left the city in her early twenties and never stopped writing for the next thirty-five years, exploring every genre and style and subject she encountered in a lifetime of voracious reading. Because the large majority of previous criticism focuses on The Goodness of St. Rocque, we have emphasized other aspects of Dunbar-Nelson’s writing and activism. The five critical essays presented here address Dunbar-Nelson’s lifetime of work as a journalist and nationally syndicated columnist (Emery), as a political organizer and platform lecturer (Garvey), and as a leader in black education (Christian). They examine texts on which little or no previous scholarship exists: her first novella, A Modern Undine, unpublished in her lifetime and, thanks to the recent discovery of the manuscript’s final pages, analyzed in its entirety here (Storm), and her Creole tales that appeared in the Southern Workman or were rejected by editors wishing to avoid the unpopular subject of the color line (Gebhard). Also featured here are several pieces of Dunbar-Nelson’s own fiction and poetry: a story that explores heterodox gender formation, a truly frightening portrait of a voudoo zombie ritual, a poem that asserts black US national belonging, and an antiwar poem where Dunbar-Nelson’s modernist technique demands that we discard any impression of her as an amateur writer of quaint regionalist sketches. These pieces, most published here for the first time, suggest the diversity of her literary interests and experiments.
Still, this collection of writing about and by Alice Dunbar-Nelson only begins to demonstrate the extraordinary range, variety, and nature of her life and work. So, in the remainder of our introduction we want to expand upon the query that opens it: why must we (again) recover Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the twenty-first century? This requires asking, first, what are the conditions of critical legibility that have obscured and may yet obscure her from view? This is a question that other scholars working on the recovery of black women writers have posed before us. Critics such as Carla L. Peterson, Frances Smith Foster, Claudia Tate, Elizabeth McHenry, P. Gabrielle Foreman, and Ann duCille have exposed the problematic effects of reading black women both in relation to a white (supremacist) literary history and canon, and as primarily concerned with white readerships. They have also warned against reifying critical paradigms that have developed from and in service to the process of recovering African American writers and African American women writers, showing how these can harden into criteria for inclusion—and exclusion. Our investigation builds on their work and more particularly on arguments from Williams [End Page 215] and Hull concerning Dunbar-Nelson’s invisibility to twentieth-century audiences. Identifying the critical and historical frameworks that have governed her recovery thus far, and recognizing what they have illuminated and what they have obscured, is indispensable to recovering her for the twenty-first century.
At the same time, we turn our question in a slightly different direction to explore how recovering Dunbar-Nelson might enable—indeed, compel—us to recognize and reassess such frameworks, to renovate the terms by which we identify and interpret, produce and consume writers. In this we emphasize the word “for” that appears in our title—we believe that Alice Dunbar-Nelson is a crucial figure for our contemporary moment, a writer who will reward the attention we bring to her by necessitating new approaches. Her work and life speak in important ways to already lively areas of scholarship and teaching, including black print culture and periodicals; the rethinking of periodization; and the reconsideration of relationships between author and work, race and writing, genre and literary historiography, and politics and aesthetics. Our confidence in making this prediction is based to no small degree on the availability of Dunbar-Nelson’s remarkable archive, which we discuss at some length in a separate introduction to this issue’s Features section. As will become apparent, it stems most fundamentally from the vibrancy and variety of the writing itself.
alice dunbar-nelson as author
Posing theoretical questions about authors and authorship has long been a vexed proposition in criticism on African American writers. As Barbara Christian famously pointed out in “The Race for Theory,” the putative “death of the author” seemed to occur just as minority literatures were finally receiving attention and the lives and creative labors of black and women writers, in particular, gaining recognition. She asserted that retaining the figure of black authorship in conjunction with textual analysis was critical to the ongoing recovery of black cultural legacies, to the rising status of black literature in the academy, and to keeping the politicized conditions of all literary production in view. In the decades since, critics have continued to debate the relevance of poststructuralism to African American cultures and investigate problems relating to historicism, presentism, and the nature of individual agency within early print cultures. Efforts to decenter the figure of unified and originary authorial intention continue to provoke concerns about putting black writers under a kind of postracialist erasure.2
Dunbar-Nelson presents a fascinating test case for evaluating and extending these conversations. Certainly, there is much in her story to support Christian’s argument. Her experiences of racialization and gender normativity affected [End Page 216] every aspect of her life and literary career—which some considerations have failed to recognize—and contributed to her near erasure from literary history and criticism for decades following her death.3 Born Alice Ruth Moore on 19 July 1875 in New Orleans, the daughter of a former slave, Patsy Moore, and a father who remains unidentified, she was positioned by race, sex, and class to follow her mother in work as a washerwoman and domestic servant.4 Nevertheless, Patsy managed to send both of her children—Alice and her older sister, Leila—to elite African American schools. Alice attended Southern University in Baton Rouge and Straight (now Dillard) University in New Orleans. Publishing in black New Orleans periodicals after earning her teaching degree from Straight in 1892, Alice was promoted as a brilliant young writer and exemplary African American woman. But when she sent her first book, Violets and Other Tales (1895), to her city’s white-run newspaper, the Daily Picayune, it was dismissed as “slop” (“Recent Publications” 23)—an assessment that, as Caroline Gebhard argues in this issue, had everything to do with its young author having crossed the color line by presuming to submit it for review at all. Dunbar-Nelson was keenly aware that black women writers were largely overlooked by white readers in her own time. In a fanciful sketch she wrote in 1897, “The Grievances of the Books,” the narrator falls asleep and suddenly becomes privy to a heated meeting or “convention” in which books themselves are the participants and speak of themselves as “poets”: “Phyllis [sic] Wheatley’s Poems” announces, “As we the poets of the Afro-American race are not read, appreciated or in fact even known by others . . . be it resolved, that we the poets in convention assembled, do declare our indignation at being so ignored” (10–11). Black authorship (and public conceptions of “black authorship”) motivated, shaped, and became a playfully self-conscious theme within her early writing. We would suggest that Dunbar-Nelson’s authorial biography holds critical value for scholarship on later writing by African Americans as well. Tracing her collaborations with other black leaders—Victoria Earle Matthews, W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Edwina Kruse, and others—not only illuminates a densely networked array of activist and intellectual communities. It also reveals and reframes conversations among works—her own and others’—in ways that simply cannot be bracketed as extraneous to literary analysis.
To be sure, Dunbar-Nelson’s case can also be taken as an object lesson on the damage that biography sometimes inflicts on literary scholarship. Her marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar was, for years, the only thing making her visible and the primary thing obscuring her from view. Seeing her picture and poem in the black periodical Boston Monthly Review in 1895, Dunbar pursued her through letters; they met two years later and married in 1898. The most successful black writer of his generation and the first to support himself as a writer, Dunbar [End Page 217] was enshrined as an icon of black literary achievement well into the twentieth century. Thus, Dunbar-Nelson’s significance became a function of his. When her niece Pauline A. Young first contacted research libraries to gauge interest in Dunbar-Nelson’s voluminous papers, nearly every archivist who considered acquiring the collection did so because it included letters from Dunbar.5
During the late twentieth century, scholars became preoccupied with the unhappiness of the Dunbars’ marriage, focusing on their violent quarrels over his alcoholism and infidelity and his physical abuse that led to their 1902 estrangement.6 With the recovery of the couple’s surprisingly intimate letters, a sensationalized narrative developed that vastly oversimplifies their complicated relationship. Alice has been cast in polarized terms—as abject victim or, alternately, as color-struck and class-obsessed goad.7 Here, as too often before, the label of wife has flattened and hindered our interpretation of a woman writer. We are still waiting for scholarship that fully examines the complexity of their relationship and its effects upon them both as writers. Long after Paul’s death from tuberculosis in 1906, Alice strove to keep his name and writing before the public, giving countless readings of his poetry over the years and producing the Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, an anthology organized around his works. For his part, Paul encouraged Alice’s literary ambitions—“I admire so your style of writing that I have no doubt of the outcome, if you will only try the little tales again,” he wrote to her during their engagement (qtd. in Metcalf 370)—and helped her place her second book, The Goodness of St. Rocque, with his publisher Dodd, Mead. Again, the link to Paul clearly limited the early reception of those stories: reviewers condescendingly applauded the charming, if slight, first attempt at literature by Mrs. Paul Dunbar, wrongly assuming it was her first publication.8 But, if his name elides her achievement at some points, it is also the case—as Ellen Gruber Garvey demonstrates in her piece for this issue—that in later years Alice appropriated and refashioned his reputation to serve in a variety of her professional and activist projects. Then, too, there is the fact of her prodigious output during their four years together: Alice may have been overshadowed by her first marriage, but she was never silenced.
We believe, then, that knowledge of Dunbar-Nelson’s life as author greatly enriches interpretation of her work. But we also argue that the same biography and work can illuminate problems with how the figure of “author” has been made a unified and unifying frame for analysis. In the ways she does not answer to our critical expectations for what “the author” looks like, Dunbar-Nelson invites different approaches. We refer here, first, to the fact that only a fraction—perhaps not even half—of her output was published. With few exceptions, the male editors who controlled white literary culture in Dunbar-Nelson’s time—and whose choices have, until recently, delimited what remains [End Page 218] in circulation since—refused to publish her submissions. Bliss Perry, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, turned down her short stories because, he said, the market was oversaturated with short fiction; he also told her not to expand her short piece “The Stones of the Village” into a novel because the public “dislike[d]” reading about the color line (qtd. in Hull, Introduction xxxvi). Thus, much of her fiction and other belletristic writing simply did not see print. When she did publish it was generally in African American venues, many of them highly visible but to a narrower readership—the Crisis, Ebony and Onyx, The Messenger, and some, like the Chicago News or the Wilmington Advocate (which she and Robert Nelson ran from 1920 to 1922), relatively obscure and no longer extant. To do justice to Dunbar-Nelson as author, we must turn to manuscripts in her carefully assembled and preserved archive. We must also consider the writing she produced for use outside of print, such as the plays she wrote for her students at Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware, to perform and the political speeches for which she was in great demand, to understand how she conceived of her role as author.
Another way that prevailing rubrics for recognizing and recovering authors may obscure Dunbar-Nelson concerns her relationship to genre. Perversely enough, her remarkable facility with form—her ability to work in myriad genres and styles—may contribute to her neglect by contemporary readers. This is not only because she often used forms that typically have garnered less critical interest, such as the column, the sketch, the diary, and the essay, but also because it is difficult to anchor our sense of her as an author via the synecdochic figure of one representative genre or text.9 Certainly, The Goodness of St. Rocque qualifies as a major work—indeed, as Hull observes, it is among the first collections of short fiction by an African American writer—and scholarly treatment has demonstrated its depth and complexity (Color 53). But centering Dunbar-Nelson’s authorial reputation on Goodness has all but eclipsed the copious output that preceded and followed (much as the Conjure Tales functioned for so long to [mis]signify the whole of Charles Chesnutt’s legacy, or Contending Forces stood in for Pauline Hopkins’s). More significant, perhaps, is that it deflects attention from her interest in formal juxtaposition and eclecticism. In some ways, her 1895 collection Violets and Other Tales, which is often dismissed as miscellaneous juvenilia, provides better insight into Dunbar-Nelson’s aesthetic. Taking seriously its generic and topical diversity and its tonal shifts allows us to recognize this early collection as the only freestanding instantiation we have of her lifelong practice of writing in many genres at the same time. The multi-genre nature of the collection underscores the experimental nature of the book’s composition, which critic Adenike Davidson argues anticipates later works like The Souls of Black Folk and Cane, mixing short stories, sketches, lyric and satiric [End Page 219] poems, essays, and reviews, and of its effort to manifest in heterogeneous display the voices, affects, politics, pleasures, texts, and events that shaped her New Orleanian existence (53). The singular expression of creative vision through which we trace authorial presence—putatively available in the novel or volume of poetry—is not necessarily where her interests resided.
Confronted with “the multiple strands of . . . [Dunbar-Nelson’s] complex personality and poetics,” Hull diagnosed the writer as driven by an “ambivalence (I want to say schizophrenia) that makes W. E. B. Du Bois’s racially ‘warring bloods’ and Virginia Woolf ’s female ‘contrary instincts’ look simple” (Introduction xxix). Hull was the first to wrestle with the array of contradictory opinions, loyalties, and endeavors that characterize the writer’s life and oeuvre and to bring them into legible form. The chronology she developed for her annotated edition of Dunbar-Nelson’s diary, Give Us Each Day, is crucially useful in this regard. It organizes the multiplicity, plotting it neatly across time and geography. But as this lifeline reveals, it also, inevitably, conceals. Like all chronologies, it unfolds through a linear sequence of important dates or eras and, in doing so, posits a unified author—the creator of a series of discrete works that coordinate with particular times, places, and associates (for Dunbar-Nelson these are typically her first and third husbands, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Robert Nelson). This author narrative—the story of a singular individual traversing her singular path—was essential for putting Dunbar-Nelson on the map in the 1980s. But it has contributed since to expectations that sharply restrict and distort that writer’s recovery—expectations of self-coherence and consistency and of a linear development of awareness, skills, ambition, and subject matter. It has informed, for example, a tendency to view the scarcity of explicit racial content in the New Orleans collections as a symptom of youth and timidity, and to see her later essays and columns as expressions of awakened political consciousness. It underwrites the judgment that Dunbar-Nelson’s literary ambitions went unrealized because she never “progressed” from the short-form sketches, stories, and poems to publish a novel.
A different chronology reveals Dunbar-Nelson as a writer and person whose commitments were always multiply directed and multiform, and almost never ambivalent, and suggests new approaches to the interpretive frames of author and career. One area for investigation is Dunbar-Nelson’s recursive approach to writing—her habit of circling back to earlier material, concerns, or motifs in order to expand upon, resignify, or resituate them. She often revisited previous works to try them in new settings and forms. “Titee,” published in Violets and Other Tales, reappears with modified dialect and a very different ending in The Goodness of St. Rocque; in 1921 she reworked an early piece, “By the Bayou St. John,” into a treatment for a film script in which she hoped to interest the [End Page 220] director Oscar Michaux.10 Always intensely appreciative of nature—her lifelong love of Wordsworth is not surprising—Dunbar-Nelson frequently wrote poetry with themes of seasonal change or nature’s endurance. Spring flowers were favorites: she adored violets, and daffodils were a preferred motif. Far from evincing a taste for simplistic romantic imagery or an unwillingness to address political concerns in literary works, Dunbar-Nelson’s flower imagery adapts over the years—we do not say “develops”—to respond to differing tasks at differing moments. Her 1917 sonnet “Violets” explores the denaturalization of flowers as an urban commodity sold with “bows and pins, and perfumed paper” (line 6) and as hackneyed poetic subject during a period when many black writers, such as James Weldon Johnson in “My City,” are negotiating their relationship to the Western literary tradition. In 1927 she returned to springtime imagery in “April Is on the Way” following the defeat of an important anti-lynching bill for which she had campaigned strenuously. The poem juxtaposes seasonal renewal and the bright beauty of daffodils with the fragmented, frightened thoughts of a black man fleeing a lynch mob. Over nine stanzas, the springtime motif modulates to evoke the fragile limbs of an abused woman, a lynching tree, and—in a hauntingly ambiguous line—the “bloom” of new life from the lynched man’s rotting body (line 91). Attention to recursivity and reuse reveals depth and complexity, a writer in conversation with her own oeuvre and the traditions from which it drew.
Dunbar-Nelson also invites us to rethink chronology with the synchronicity that animates her work and life at every stage. Even as a teenager and young adult in New Orleans, she pursued wide-ranging interests. She was a public school teacher, a stenographer and private stenography instructor, an actor and director with the amateur theatrical group the Whittier Club, a lover of opera and classical music, and a member of her (Protestant) church choir; she was a passionate reader of African American literature and of literature from the Western tradition; and she was committed to writing directly to and about African Americans. As a member of the editorial board of the New Orleans African American newspaper The Journal of the Lodge she wrote its “Woman’s Column”; she was co-founder and correspondent of her city’s Phyllis Wheatley Club; and in 1896 she was elected recording secretary of National Association of Colored Women Clubs. If we isolate Violets and Other Tales and The Goodness of St. Rocque from this rich array of cultural production, making them stand as one-dimensional signs for Dunbar-Nelson’s early authorship, we lose the breadth and diversity (and racial unambivalence) of her creative life, and we lose sight of the aesthetic of multiplicity that informs Violets. Throughout her life, as we will argue below, Dunbar-Nelson calls us to read not just through, but also across and within, a given period, resisting its focalizing logics.
Of course, rethinking the chronology of an author narrative does not necessarily [End Page 221] disrupt the author function itself. In fact, it may lead us to compensate by reifying the author as an organizing center. Or, it may not. Returning to Dunbar-Nelson’s unpublished piece “The Grievances of the Books”—used above to illustrate her awareness of black authors’ neglect—we now draw attention to the playful disjuncture it stages between writers and books. After all, it is not Wheatley but “Wheatley’s Poems” that presides over the “convention,” and “Lyrics of Lowly Life” that chimes in to admit “he” has no complaints: “they are all reading me, and buying me” (13). Writers never make an appearance. The narrator is the only human present, and when she offers to participate, “the book survey[s her] thoughtfully,” then explains, “Well, we couldn’t do that, because you’re not a poet” (7). Dunbar-Nelson understood the public life of black authorship as something that operated (and perhaps originated) outside of herself, and the print public sphere as a domain—or “convention”—organized by rules and dynamics not reducible to authorial consciousness. She renders her narrator unconscious, making her fall asleep, in order to explore the racialized and gendered identities of texts as these function with and apart from the racialized and gendered lives of authors. This experimentation with the author function in “Grievances” calls to mind the proliferating variety of signatures that Dunbar-Nelson affixed to her published and unpublished writing—Alice Ruth Moore, Alice Dunbar, Alice Moore Dunbar, Mrs. Paul Dunbar, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Aliceruth Dunbar-Nelson, Alice Dunbar-Nelson—often using multiple variations within the same period, and even, in The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, within one volume. It urges us to reconsider what might seem a schizophrenic deployment of genres, personae, and positions, to discover in them a writer who inhabits every rhetorical occasion fully and committedly, taking up compositional forms as devices for exploring disparate cultural logics and enunciating non-identical selves. Weighing the implications of that practice does not require adherence to any theoretical orthodoxy. It does not displace—or even decenter—Dunbar-Nelson’s lived experience. Rather, it follows her lead to investigate the spaces and tensions that open up between the author and the work, to ask how these connect without conflating them.
alice dunbar-nelson as regionalist
As we have suggested, the multiplicity of Dunbar-Nelson’s interests and projects throughout the 1890s belies her classification as “regionalist writer.” When she produced Violets and Other Tales and The Goodness of St. Rocque—the books from which that classification derives—she was also writing about subjects that ranged far beyond New Orleans and using forms and styles that [End Page 222] diverged from any regionalist idiom. Few critics take into account the fact that Dunbar-Nelson wrote and published The Goodness while living in Boston, New York, and Washington, dc, having left New Orleans at the age of twenty-one. During those same years she became a member of Boston’s Woman’s Era Club, wrote essays on explicitly racial subjects—one characterizing white Boston women, another reflecting on Augustus Saint-Gauden’s memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment—and became an avid follower of the Harvard Crew. She moved to New York City to teach in the city’s integrated public school system, helped Victoria Earle Matthews found the White Rose Home for Working Class Negro Girls on East 86th Street, and participated in organizing and fund-raising campaigns for African American advancement. She also wrote a number of never-published stories that drew on all of these experiences. Intended for a collection she titled “The Annals of ’Steenth Street,” the stories center primarily on a group of immigrant children from the eponymous—and fictitious—Lower East Side neighborhood, examining the effects of poverty on childhood and children’s capacity for resilience and joy. During the four years she lived with Paul in Washington, dc, and concentrated more exclusively on writing, her output expanded significantly. She may have written some of the “’Steenth Street” pieces during this period; she definitely penned several stories for a planned volume titled “Stories of Men and Women,” her masterful exploration of racial passing titled “The Stones of the Village,” and a witty play about the domestic travails of a male writer. Also from this period is a discomfiting satire on a married woman’s unsuccessful search for dependable help in the city’s so-called colored town, a piece tinged with the colorism and class bias Dunbar-Nelson sometimes exhibited, despite her dedicated activism for racial justice and advancement.
Placing The Goodness in this expanded context not only alters our sense of Dunbar-Nelson’s career but also suggests approaches for reading this and other regionalist texts that respond to calls from scholars like Stephanie Foote, Tara McPherson, William Hardwig, June Howard, and others to rethink regional, national, and transnational interpretive frames in relation to each other. With Chesnutt’s Conjure Tales, Dunbar-Nelson’s early stories helped disrupt the account of regionalism promoted by white cultural arbiters William Dean Howells and Horace Scudder, which cast regions as self-contained repositories of coherent and authentic tradition. More recently, critics like Judith Irwin-Mulcahy have developed this analysis further, showing how the porous spaces that make up Dunbar-Nelson’s New Orleans reframe region and regionalist narrative as sites of heterogeneity, creolization, and interpenetrating flows—a perspective that has been particularly important to critics and historians working to understand the US South within hemispheric and global frames. [End Page 223]
In addition to illuminating the circulation of effects within regionalist works, Dunbar-Nelson’s New Orleans writing also exemplifies the transregional circulation of regionalist works. To illustrate we turn to “The Praline Woman,” a sketch she first published in The Goodness in 1899 and reprinted in The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer in 1920. Approached as part of a self-contained collection of regionalist fiction, and in accord with a biographical narrative that separates the naive Alice of New Orleans from the racially conscious Alice of the Northeast, this piece has been judged on the basis of identifiable racial content. Initially deemed “aracial” (Hull, Introduction xxxii), it was later defended by critics who point to details like a character’s “brune” hands as racial coding that would have been legible to New Orleanians but generally not to northern metropolitan readers (“Praline” 175). The collection, the story, and the character have remained firmly grounded in static conceptions of region and cultural production and consumption. However, documents from Dunbar-Nelson’s archive call for a more dynamic interpretation. A handwritten manuscript reveals she wrote “The Praline Woman” in New York City on 2 May 1897, and the program for a Cooper Union concert (sponsored by several black churches as a benefit for the White Rose Mission) indicates she performed it in person eleven days later, on 13 May (see Gallery, figs. 6 and 7). That she initially wrote the piece to be read aloud points to its virtuosic use of the dramatic monologue, which transforms the poetic form Robert Browning had made popular into a prose sketch. It also enables us (following Meredith McGill’s recent work on Frances E. W. Harper) to frame “The Praline Woman” not in terms of the book in which it eventually appeared, or of Dunbar-Nelson’s singular authorship, but of its fluid oral production and the black publics her performance sought to address and constitute. Such a reframing helps us also to reconsider how region inflects “The Praline Woman.” What happens when we envision this scene—a beautiful, decorous young African American woman taking on the voice of an elderly southern Creole of color who hawks her wares in a sometimes beguiling, sometimes aggressive mixture of English and Creole, who engages some customers sympathetically and others nastily, respectful of a priest but biased against an Irishman and a Native American woman? We must rethink assumptions concerning the piece’s racial dimension by digging into the layered implications of Dunbar-Nelson’s impersonation, as well as the intersections of race with class, ethnicity, and gender that shaped its reception. We must also consider the piece within the setting of the concert as a whole, asking how it resonated with and against other featured performances. Ultimately, we arrive at a much more complicated understanding of “The Praline Woman,” its racialist-regionalist meanings, and the politics thereof. We gain vivid insight [End Page 224] into the everyday life of the regionalist text: the ways that it “travels”—to borrow McPherson’s term—and how widely its cultural and political uses vary as it does (35).
alice dunbar-nelson as harlem renaissance writer?
When not categorized as a regionalist, Dunbar-Nelson has often been identified as a writer of the Harlem Renaissance.11 In fact, the two classifications tend to displace each other, functioning as what Francis Smith Foster characterizes as scholarly “silos” of our own making (“Genealogies” 368). Mapping period, geography, and genre onto one another, they produce two distinct versions of Dunbar-Nelson that critics seldom consider in conjunction with each other. They also, of course, omit some twenty years of her creative output. This is not to say that Dunbar-Nelson was not a Harlem Renaissance writer. In the 1920s, most of her poetry and some of her essays appeared in leading Harlem Renaissance journals and collections, including Ebony and Topaz: A Collecteana of Negro Poets and Their Poems and Caroling Dusk, and in the naacp’s the Crisis and the Urban League’s Messenger and Opportunity. Some of these works, such as the poem “Harlem John Henry Views the Airmada” (reprinted in this issue), fit squarely within the modernist aesthetic we associate with the Harlem Renaissance. Dunbar-Nelson herself moved within the movement’s cultural and social networks: she worked closely with W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, was an intimate friend of the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, and socialized with an array of the usual suspects, including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and George Schuyler, among others.
Yet, regarding the Harlem Renaissance as the epicenter of Dunbar-Nelson’s post-1902 writing—or life—elides the quantity, generic variety, and temporal and geographic reach of her early-twentieth-century contributions. We lose sight of the many unpublished stories and poems she produced in those three decades—of her novel-in-progress This Lofty Oak and of works she did not preserve, such as her suffrage lectures. We do not take into account the international focus and national distribution of her newspaper columns, or the essays she published on subjects ranging from education and party politics to domestic labor in the A. M. E. Bulletin, the Southern Workman, the Wilmington Every Evening, and The Messenger. We also miscast as a matter of secondary interest her work as educator and activist, setting it apart from the writing. In this, Dunbar-Nelson is like many other black women writers from the early twentieth century who, as scholars including Cheryl Wall, Deborah McDowell, Hazel Carby, Thadious Davis, and Akasha (Gloria) Hull demonstrate, have been marginalized by a Harlem Renaissance frame that is too narrow in its [End Page 225] dates, geography, and conception of literary production.12 In her own lifetime, Dunbar-Nelson worked to broaden perspectives on black culture, publishing columns and articles about black organizations throughout the country and traveling to work with groups in Iowa, California, western Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and elsewhere. A 1926 column captures her ethos: celebrating an eighty-four-year-old man who had just learned to read and write at an “Opportunity School” for non-literate adults, she declares, “The New Negro is not always to be found among the poet and artist in the metropolis. He may be found in the aged but erect bodies of back-woods dwellers, or the farmer or the small town denizens. It is the spirit of the age that counts—not the years, nor the artistic achievements” (“Une Femme” 152). Here Dunbar-Nelson acknowledges Harlem but also insists that it is only one center of gravity for African Americans. Evoking “the New Negro” in a political and broadly cultural sense, she uses the term to encompass the newly literate, the elderly, and the rural. She affirms the achievements of her fellow educators and uplift workers as well as the daily lives of ordinary people everywhere—including artists and poets in the “metropolis.”
Following Dunbar-Nelson’s lead, we want to open the frame to present a fuller account of her work in the twentieth century and, in particular, how doing so foregrounds an often-symbiotic relationship between writing and political and educational activism. To organize this exploration, we focus loosely on her longtime friendship and alliance with Du Bois—himself a kind of Harlem Renaissance misfit, often considered a forebear rather than full participant in the movement, and as political rather than literary. Tracing their association helps break down silo-ization by highlighting activities that predated and extended through the Harlem Renaissance era, involved people and organizations around the country, and linked politics and writing as mutually constitutive. Not insignificantly, this friendship also helps us out of gender silos, correcting literary historiography that has marginalized women and pointing to camaraderie and collaboration between black women and men. Although Dunbar-Nelson confronted her share of sexism, she relied on male as well as female mentors and allies throughout her life.
The Harlem Renaissance debate about the relationship between literature and politics has often been posed in starkly uncomplicated terms, identified with the famous 1920s exchange between two elite male leaders: Alain Locke, who argued that political agendas hindered free aesthetic expression, and Du Bois, who flatly declared, “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda” (“Criteria” 296). As it turns out, Dunbar-Nelson was also writing on this question in the 1920s. In fact, her 23 April 1926 column on art and propaganda appeared two months before the speech Du Bois delivered on the [End Page 226] subject at the Spingarn Award ceremony for Carter G. Woodson and published in the Crisis that October as the landmark essay “Criteria for Negro Art.” “The real novel about, by and for the Negro,” she asserts, “will be written only when we can see clearly the sharp cleavage between the work of art and the propaganda pamphlet; when we learn to tell a story for the sake of the artistry and the sheer delight of a good tale, without an eye for the probable effect of the story on the consciousness of the white man” (“Une Femme” 125). Although Dunbar-Nelson, like Locke, distinguishes between aesthetic and polemical art, she does not regard them as mutually exclusive. For instance, in her 1928 review of Du Bois’s second novel, she wrote: “Dark Princess is artistic. The propaganda contained therein is so disguised that it is not obtrusive” (“As In” 215–16). Recognizing her participation in the debate complicates our understanding of it, most obviously by adding a woman and a non-elite publishing venue to the 1920s volley. More significantly, she encourages us to interpret black conceptions of the relationship between politics and writing in more nuanced and expansive ways.
Dunbar-Nelson’s interest in the relationship of art to politics, dating back to at least 1895, constitutes a productive point of departure for recovering her larger body of work in the twentieth century.13 For her, as for many other writer-activists of her generation, including James Weldon Johnson, Victoria Earle Matthews, Mary Church Terrell, Carter G. Woodson, and Du Bois, politics and literature often fed into one another, although she remained firm in her view that literature must shun didacticism. Her first piece to appear in the Du Bois–edited Crisis, the 1914 short story “Hope Deferred,” dramatizes—but never editorializes upon—the barrier that racism posed to a rising generation of educated African Americans. Set in the urban North, it portrays a young civil engineer forced to wait tables when he is denied work in his profession. With irony that Crisis readers must have appreciated, Dunbar-Nelson concludes with the hero’s wife attempting to console him by promising he will find work as an engineer once they return “home” to “our own southland” (188).14 Dunbar-Nelson’s activism also nourished her writing more directly. Like Du Bois, she was an naacp activist (a co-founder of the Delaware chapter), and when the naacp called in 1915 for political writing to counteract the effects of The Birth of a Nation she responded with her one-act play, Mine Eyes Have Seen, also published in the Crisis. Like Du Bois, Dunbar-Nelson hoped black contributions to the war effort would lead to fuller citizenship, and Mine Eyes Have Seen encouraged black participation in World War I. But it also emphasized the prevalence of lynching and blacks’ bitterness toward the nation that refused to confront it.15 When a national campaign was later launched to support federal anti-lynching legislation, she headed the Delaware chapter and [End Page 227] continued to write anti-lynching literature. Her columns address the issue in a manner that fuses polemic with literary technique—as in her bitingly ironic report on whites using the radio, a new medium, to broadcast a Florida lynching so that Floridians who could not attend would “have their cup of cruelty filled to its poisoned brim” (“From a Woman’s” 122). And, as we have seen, if her poem “April Is on the Way” employs ambiguity, juxtaposing flower imagery with brutalized black bodies, its effect is only more devastating for it.
With the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and white terrorist attacks designed to force returning black soldiers back into subordination, Dunbar-Nelson saw that, far from advancing racial equality, black participation in the war had fed into racist anxieties and violence. “Harlem John Henry Views the Airmada” (reprinted in this issue) situates this crisis within the long history of white Americans’ exploitation of blacks; an earlier poem, “The Lights at Carney’s Point,” casts laborers in the United States as domestic war fodder, responding to—without directly identifying—a series of widely reported explosions that had killed workers at a Du Pont gunpowder factory where production had been sped up for the war.16 Dunbar-Nelson’s activism, too, reflected her evolving analysis of war. With James Weldon Johnson, Mary Church Terrell, Emmett T. Scott, and others, she joined a delegation of black leaders who met with President Harding in 1921 to protest the government’s brutal treatment of black soldiers in Texas, and she became a strong proponent of peace. By the late 1920s she was volunteering at the Philadelphia-based American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee and was hired as its executive secretary in 1928. She soon persuaded Du Bois to join the advisory board.
Like many other black activists, Du Bois and Dunbar-Nelson advocated fiercely for equal citizenship for African Americans. Some of her early fiction reflects this commitment in (often negative) explorations of the relationship between race and electoral politics. “The Pearl in the Oyster,” published in the Southern Workman in 1900, portrays an opportunistic New Orleans Creole of color who keeps shifting racial alliances in an unsuccessful attempt to succeed at party politics. An unpublished story, “The Delegate from Adamsboro,” uses the trickster tradition to imagine a rural African American town turning the tables on a Democratic candidate who misleads its citizens in order to gain their vote. Both Dunbar-Nelson and Du Bois were firm in their conviction that equal citizenship meant suffrage for black women as well as black men. Like many black clubwomen, Dunbar-Nelson had supported suffrage since the end of the nineteenth century, and she became a paid suffrage field-worker in western Pennsylvania in 1915 (see Ellen Gruber Garvey’s essay in this issue on Dunbar-Nelson’s campaign scrapbook). At Du Bois’s invitation, she contributed to a 1915 feature on the black woman’s vote in the Crisis—which had [End Page 228] devoted an entire issue to the subject in 1912. Following passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Dunbar-Nelson was active in party politics, serving as the first black woman on the Delaware Republican State Committee but becoming a Democrat after Republicans failed to support the anti-lynching Dyer bill, and she wrote compellingly about the power of organized black women voters (the essay “Delaware,” discussed below, is only one example).
Both Dunbar-Nelson and Du Bois were educators and educational activists, and their lifelong commitments to teaching demonstrate that both women and men understood it as important political work. Both promoted a liberal arts education as critical to racial advancement, and both worked within a far-reaching network of black leaders and institutions, including Fisk, Howard, and Lincoln Universities, that likewise supported this position. In 1926, Dunbar-Nelson and Du Bois took part in a “Fact-Finding and Stock-Taking Conference” in Durham, North Carolina, along with many other black educators and activists, including Mary McLeod Bethune, Mrs. Benjamin Brawley, and up-and-coming young radical leaders like Hampton Institute teacher Allison Davis (Dunbar-Nelson’s diary reports sitting with Du Bois and “speculat[ing] on how long it will be before [the radicals] are conservative” [9 December 1927, Give Us 207]). As leading voices in debates about black education, each lectured and published widely: his writing on education is renowned, but Dunbar-Nelson also produced a sizable and influential body of work on this subject. Her essays on pedagogical and curricular issues include an early provocation, “Is It Time for the Negro Colleges in the South to Be Put into the Hands of Negro Teachers?,” and “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils.” The latter, which Shawn Christian discusses in this issue, reflects her acute awareness, after decades of teaching in public schools, of the need for materials that would feed the imagination and encourage the racial dignity of black students. Toward that end she also wrote plays for school performances, short fiction like “The Heathen,” and poems like “I Am an American” (reprinted here and analyzed in Jacqueline Emery’s essay) for black students; she also designed her anthology The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer for classroom use. Neither she nor Du Bois isolated teaching from other forms of activism, and when she was fired by a young principal who apparently objected to her dual commitments, Du Bois used the Crisis to stir up indignation, reporting that “The Democratic school board at Wilmington, Del., dismissed Mrs. Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a teacher of English in Howard High School, because she attended a political meeting at the home of Senator Harding against the wishes of her principal, Ray Wooten” (“Education” 79).17 The firing was not reversed, and thereafter Dunbar-Nelson lacked the kind of institutional support on which Du Bois counted, struggling occupationally and financially. Nevertheless, her commitment to education [End Page 229] continued, as did her alliance with Du Bois. In 1930 she organized a conference for teachers on “History in the Colored Schools” and recruited him as respondent: “Other folks will talk all day long and you will listen to them,” she advised in an 11 July letter to him. “Then you can get back at them.”
Thinking about Dunbar-Nelson and Du Bois together brings into focus something else that often falls below academics’ radar: the collaborative production and sharing of research among black scholars in the period. It is not surprising, given Du Bois’s prominence, that she read and referenced his writing in speeches, or that she reviewed his novels in her column. More telling is that he read her scholarship. Writing to express admiration for her two-part essay “People of Color in Louisiana,” Du Bois requested her permission to quote it in his own work.18 (That the essay appeared in the first African American journal of history, the Journal of Negro History, also bespeaks extra-institutional black scholarship: it was founded by independent historian and activist Carter G. Woodson.) For a piece on black education, he requested information from Dunbar-Nelson on Edwina Kruse, the principal who transformed Wilmington’s Howard High School into an educational institution of high quality; she sent him a great deal of material, including an obituary she had written. “Dear Dr. Du Bois,” she wrote in the accompanying letter, “I always do everything you ask me, and you have done so to my great joy several times” (11 August 1930). In answer to his query about an iron gate in New Orleans that was rumored to have been made by an enslaved man, she referred him to two of the city’s African American scholars: Edward Coleman, a professor at Straight College, and A. E. Perkins, a public school teacher who had devoted much of his life to research on blacks in Louisiana (Dunbar-Nelson to Du Bois, 8 March 1930). Perkins is one of many black intellectuals from the era whose work, though not published, was disseminated and put to use through informal exchanges with other activist-scholars. He also exemplifies a culture of research and writing by self-trained scholars such as Dunbar-Nelson’s friend Victoria Earle Matthews, who gathered, analyzed, and circulated statistics on black accomplishments to counter racist public accounts of racial decline, and members of the Woman’s Era Club, who, as Elizabeth McHenry reports, researched and presented papers on myriad topics (207). Dunbar-Nelson herself, though trained as a literary scholar and educator, also produced scholarship in history (as mentioned above) and in other areas for which she did not have formal preparation. Her 1927 essay “Women’s Most Serious Problem,” for example, analyzes statistical information about women’s employment and declining birth rates to ground an argument about the dilemma black women faced between entering the work-force and remaining at home to care for their children.
These activist, literary, and scholarly collaborations among Dunbar-Nelson, [End Page 230] Du Bois, and many others exemplify the far-reaching “spirit of the age” that she describes in her column on the New Negro. They also demonstrate forcefully that in black praxis the relationship between literature and political action was supple and vibrant, determined more by the task at hand than by abstract aesthetic principles. If Dunbar-Nelson opposed didactic literature, she certainly made literature an instrument for political intervention. Indeed, her work challenges distinctions between literary and political writing, partly by disrupting the related distinction, so often imposed by her critics, between the so-called belletristic genres (fiction, poetry, and drama) and the putatively nonliterary essay and column. To illustrate, we conclude this section with a close look at one of Dunbar-Nelson’s essays, her 1924 “Delaware: A Jewel of Inconsistencies.” An elegant piece of political and cultural analysis, this two-part essay exemplifies not only Dunbar-Nelson’s mastery of the genre as literary-political intervention but also the deft appeal to a national readership that characterized many of her essays. “Delaware” was published as part of a series titled “These Colored United States” that appeared in The Messenger as a rejoinder to a series published by the Nation that celebrated “These United States” with virtually no mention of African Americans.
The Messenger series, in Adam McKible’s words, “challenges our very understanding of the Harlem Renaissance” because “its ‘map’ of America in the 1920s locates cultural and political possibilities well beyond uptown Manhattan” (124). Dunbar-Nelson’s “Delaware,” a canny exegesis of the local and national significance of the politics of a single state, fits McKible’s description: it is designed to encourage pride and activism in Messenger readers everywhere. Its analysis of the state’s “inconsistencies” highlights not only the persistence of racism but also the ability of African Americans to seize or create opportunities, both individually and collaboratively. Counterpoint, an appropriate rhetorical device for foregrounding inconsistencies, structures this approach in the first installment of “Delaware” by allowing Dunbar-Nelson to underscore racial division and hatred while spotlighting blacks’ achievements. “While the Ku Klux Klan flourished mightily,” she writes, “the Negro holds the balance of power politically, and has seen to it that Delaware was one of the first and one of the few states to forbid the showing of the Birth of the Nation or any such hate-stirring picture” (63). Counterpoint also structures an illustration of a successful black woman that concludes Dunbar-Nelson’s first installment and sets up the second installment’s complementary emphasis on blacks’ collective power. According to a legend “dear to the hearts of colored Delawareans,” Dunbar-Nelson writes—her tone shifting into literary anecdote—Sallie Shadd, a former slave, invented ice cream and sold it in the first ice cream parlor. The delicacy became so famous that Dolly Madison “came down to Wilmington [End Page 231] to taste, to admire, and to obtain the recipe from the old woman. So, though Dolly Madison is hailed as the inventor of ice cream, colored Delawareans will tell you that she obtained the recipe from Aunt Sallie Shadd, the founder of that famous Shadd family, afterwards so distinguished in Washington and elsewhere” (67–68). Neither Madison nor Shadd invented ice cream, which has been traced back to sixteenth-century Europe (Quinzio 1–25). Nevertheless, Dunbar-Nelson’s anecdote functions as pointed black counter-history, asserting that a white founding mother (and famed hostess) “obtained” her signature delicacy from a black source. Sharpening the effect is that, in contrast to Madison, whose only adult child had no known descendants, her contemporary, the black former slave, was the founding mother of a family that continued to be “distinguished”—and in the nation’s capital, no less.
Much of the essay’s second installment focuses on how African Americans exploited opportunities created by the state’s inconsistencies for political and civic gains. Dunbar-Nelson reiterates her earlier assertion that “the Negro . . . [holds] the absolute political balance of power” (73) and explains why: white votes divide between Republicans and Democrats. Her illustration is the Republicans’ defeat in 1922, when “Negroes rose in their might and swept the . . . party out of power” for not supporting the Dyer anti-lynching bill (59). She builds this lesson into the essay’s finale, a political analysis that casts in high relief how effective organized black women have been.19 Because the only institution in Delaware for female juvenile delinquents (to use the language of the era) admitted no African Americans, the state sent African American offenders to institutions in Pennsylvania and Maryland, where deplorable conditions often proved fatal. In response, the State Federation of Colored Women (of which Dunbar-Nelson was a founder, although she does not say so) raised funds and created the Industrial School for Colored Girls. When the new institution proved so successful that the state began to send it all Delaware’s female black offenders, the clubwomen recognized an opportunity and donated the institution to the state. Their gift came with one condition: “that the institution be supported by the state, and the board of Trustees appointed by the Governor be bi-racial, with the preponderance in favor of the colored people” (75). Later, the newly elected Democratic state legislature cut all funding for state institutions except the Industrial School for Colored Girls, whose request for funding it not only granted but exceeded. Dunbar-Nelson’s rhetorical question, “Was that an evidence of gratitude on the part of that Democratic legislature for the political labors of the colored women who punished [Republican congressman] Caleb Layton?” (75), not only credits women’s clubs and their organization of the black vote with this success but also indicates that “the political labors of colored women” pose a continuing threat to white politicians. Peculiar [End Page 232] though such opportunities may be to Delaware, given the ubiquitous and deepening entrenchment of racism, the essay identifies “inconsistencies” as important openings for black political maneuvering. The integration of razor-sharp analysis and rhetorical and stylistic dexterity apparent in “Delaware” is generally characteristic of Dunbar-Nelson’s essays, and this points, also, to the larger question of what recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson in our time entails. Like so much of her work, her essays urge us to conceive a new literary historiography, one that gives full due to the many literary forms that flourished before, during, and after the Harlem Renaissance and to the geographical and political reach of women’s activism as well as men’s.
alice dunbar-nelson as african american woman writer
The question of how to read Alice Dunbar-Nelson is linked, inevitably, to the question of with whom she should be read. In 1977, R. Ora Williams speculated that Dunbar-Nelson had been excluded from both the women’s tradition and the black tradition—the two most obvious frames for bringing her into critical currency—because neither feminist nor African Americanist critics perceived her work as consonant with their interests (“Alice” 11). Hull confirmed this theory a few years later with her assessment of Dunbar-Nelson as someone whose literary writing failed to uphold the radical politics of her own journalism, activism, and life choices. In Color, Sex, and Poetry, Hull writes: “Though race was the keynote and unification for practically everything else that she did, it rarely sounded in her poems and stories” (19), and “Almost all of the women in her work are depicted as traditional, with none of the interests and mettle that she herself possessed” (22). Hull’s disappointment in the hyper-feminized characters and heteronormative plotting of the stories may help explain why these still have not been taken up by many scholars of early women’s writing: they offer no Edna Pontellier to tragically resist the gender norms of late nineteenth-century New Orleans, no heroic New Negro Women like Sappho Clark or Iola Leroy, none of Jewett’s eroticized female friendships or women-centric communities. Likewise, early claims that Dunbar-Nelson created “aracial” characters and settings—whether to avoid alienating white readers or to imaginatively escape the Jim Crow United States—were soon echoed by critics including Judith Fetterley, Marjorie Pryse, and Violet Harrington Bryan. In her sharply critical account of the writer’s marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Eleanor Alexander accuses Alice of “spurn[ing] . . . racialized identity,” citing troubling passages from Dunbar-Nelson’s letters and diary that suggest colorist and class-elitist attitudes (71). [End Page 233]
In many ways, these early judgments of Dunbar-Nelson reflect the critical assumptions that Ann duCille set out to correct in The Coupling Convention, where she challenges the belief that black women writers whose plots focused on love and marriage had neglected to address political realities and “the real material conditions of most black Americans” and were, instead, victims of white-identified false consciousness (8). Her call for, and exemplary practice of, reading such texts without expectations for what a black woman’s writing should address, or how, marked a turning point. Other critics joined duCille in investigating the complex and idiosyncratic ways that black women writers engaged race and gender discourse, even while adhering to “conservative” literary forms. In Dunbar-Nelson scholarship that turn generated a small but rich body of work that has helped recuperate her writing for the feminist and African American canons. Critics looked again at the “slight” stories, sketches, and poems from the New Orleans collections and found much to say about their deeper implications. Research into regional history by critics including Bryan, Kristina Brooks, Jordan Stouck, Robert Clark, and Pamela Menke has greatly enhanced our understanding of the city’s Creole and Creole of color communities, showing how these racialized cultures differ from—yet also refract—the Jim Crow logics that organized the national discourse on race. Their analyses point to how Dunbar-Nelson uses this early work to expose the sexual and economic exploitation of racialized women, as well as the racism and misogyny of Catholicism. They observe that if The Goodness of St. Rocque is full of love plots, nearly all of these are marked by failure and tragedy in ways that index larger structures of oppression. Judith Irwin-Mulcahy and Thomas Strychacz, in particular, have helped us to recognize the non-insulation of Dunbar-Nelson’s New Orleans from national and transnational forces of capitalist, racialist violence. Other critics have turned to the later works, where politicized content is often more explicit. These works include, for example, “Ellen Fenton,” whose protagonist, Alisa Johnson argues, becomes a new woman at middle age, and “The Stones of the Village,” where racial identity and the color line are explicit themes. Koritha Mitchell, Claire Tylee, and others have drawn attention to Dunbar-Nelson’s dramatic works, showing how these contribute to anti-lynching campaigns and war activism, placing black women’s experiences at the center of each.
This work has only begun; there is much yet to discover in Dunbar-Nelson’s portraits of female settlement workers in the “’Steenth Street” tales, for example, or from the submerged, vengeful voice of an abused woman that she weaves into conversation with that of a man fleeing a lynch mob in “April Is on the Way.” Scholars have only begun to look closely at the longer texts: we are excited to include here Anna Storm’s essay on the unpublished novella A Modern [End Page 234] Undine—among the first pieces of scholarship on this work to appear in print. As yet, no work has been done on This Lofty Oak, the novel Dunbar-Nelson wrote about her former lover, education reformer Edwina Kruse. Indeed, there is a trove of unpublished material in the University of Delaware’s Alice Dunbar-Nelson collection that promises to expand and complicate our understanding of black women’s writing at the turn of the century—stories about voudoo (see “St. John’s Eve,” published for the first time in this issue), black electoral politics, black expatriation to Monrovia, and more. There is much to consider, also, in Dunbar-Nelson’s activism and non-belletristic writing. Only two scholars, Nikki Brown and Kevin Gaines, have explored her lifetime of work on behalf of women’s reforms and black advancements in education, electoral politics, and cultural expression since Hull’s exhaustive chronicling of these activities in Color, Sex, and Poetry. We are delighted to present new work in this issue from Shawn Christian, who looks at Dunbar-Nelson’s career in education, and Ellen Gruber Garvey, who examines the writer’s self-presentation on the suffrage lecture circuit. Jacqueline Emery’s contribution builds on previous research by Jinx Broussard to articulate Dunbar-Nelson’s extraordinary significance to black periodicals studies. Here, again, there is a wealth of material for new research on the feminist and anti-racist arguments that pervade Dunbar-Nelson’s newspaper writing. Her columns are especially rich with satires on patriarchal authority (see, for example, her pieces on pompous, self-aggrandizing male politicians [“Une Femme” 159, 191–92]); incisive analysis of white male violence against black women and its obfuscation via anti-miscegenation panics (“From a Woman’s” 118); and eloquent attacks on lynching and racist discrimination. One aspect of Dunbar-Nelson’s career that has yet to be considered is her interest in global imperialism and the racial politics thereof. “The dark nations are having a hard time,” she writes in a March 1926 column reporting recent US interventions in Liberia, Haiti, and the Virgin Islands: “Is it not true that the octopus is a white fish—reptile, creature of prey, what not? Its slimy white tentacles gripping, plunging, exploring, seizing, devouring all in its reach? Yes, surely it is white” (“Une Femme” 138).
Yet, we also want to champion the ways that Dunbar-Nelson remains an uneasy fit with some of the very frames that have begun to bring her back into visibility. Even as we recover her as a feminist and race woman, it will be crucial to avoid over-accommodating her to those categories—as we imagine them in her time or our own. On the issue of race, especially, we caution against over-reacting to the early critics, making Hull and others into straw women against whom to defend Dunbar-Nelson’s bona fides as a black woman writer. Not only does this disregard the extraordinary wealth of information and critical insight provided by Hull’s scholarship; it also elides the writer’s own self-consciousness [End Page 235] about the requirements of gendered and racial belonging and how these shaped political, social, and literary success. It neglects the way she anticipates and turns some of those demands back upon themselves, offering them up to us—her readers, then and now—for reflection. Dunbar-Nelson, we mean to suggest, not only rewards but also solicits the work that duCille maps out in The Coupling Convention—of reading in a way that interrogates the strategies and assumptions by which we read (9).
A few months after beginning to write her widely praised column “From a Woman’s Point of View,” Dunbar-Nelson announced that she was changing its name. So many other female columnists had begun using the original title, she explains, that she “found herself reading articles that bore her title, but not her imprint” (“Une Femme” 130). Resolving to continue under the heading “Une Femme Dit,” she adds,
the English language not being large enough to accommodate all the female columnists extant, recourse must be made to the French. So—“One Woman Says” in French is the future caption of these burning thoughts. Never did like anyone to have a hat like mine. If someone did buy one—even though imitation may be the sincerest flattery—said imitated hat went promptly to the rummage sale—even though to go hatless was the alternative.
This passage is surely a rebuke to plagiarizers, but it also insists on Dunbar-Nelson’s refusal to speak for or in unison with other women—an insistence emphasized by that shift from the indefinite article “a” to the pointedly definite and singular “one.” We take this as a cue from Dunbar-Nelson on how she wishes to be read: both with and against group identity, as like and unlike, as a black woman who compels us to read beyond the lens of identification without discarding it altogether. For example, one important point that could be obscured by reading Dunbar-Nelson too fully into what might be considered an early-twentieth-century “woman’s tradition” is that her most radical feminist gender critiques may well be those concerning masculinity. Her analysis of the structural oppression particular to black men often seems to anticipate the insights on intersectional identity that Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins would formulate decades later. This is evident in her treatment of the emasculating effects of the color line upon black male professionals like Louis Edwards in “Hope Deferred” or Victor Grabért in “The Stones of the Village”; her Creole boy tales that, as Caroline Gebhard shows here, challenge racist theories on savagery and black boyhood; the ambivalent advocacy for black soldiers that Bethany Wood and David Davis find in her wartime plays; and her exploration of a small boy’s gender development in her story “His Heart’s Desire” (published for the first time in this special issue). [End Page 236]
We are interested in what might be revealed by foregrounding, rather than trying to resolve or compensate for, Dunbar-Nelson’s seemingly contradictory responses to discourses on femininity. For illustration we offer a sequence of arguments from the very first month of “From a Woman’s Point of View.” The first appears in her inaugural piece, which responds to recent outcry against the evils of new womanhood by portraying an army of domestic angels—the constantly self-sacrificing mothers and wives who exist “all over this jazz-mad, radio-crazed hysteric nation” (106). This figure transcends region, race (“black and brown and yellow and white”), and history (“she’s a pretty stable article, woman. . . . cool, placid, unmoved, eternal. Basic womanhood. The backbone of the world”), but she doesn’t “break into print” like her modern sister “because she does nothing spectacular” (107). Just a few weeks later, these rather conservative sentiments are followed by a scathing attack, reminiscent of Ida B. Wells’s A Red Record, against lynching apologists who invoke the figure of sacrosanct southern womanhood to silence calls for justice—and against the American public that swallows it: “Pouf! Away go facts, truth, everything, and out trots the same old lie. . . . There is no getting past it. There is no breaking it down. You may argue until you are purple in the face” (116). Dunbar-Nelson includes a gesture of solidarity with white southern women at this point, conceding that they “look facts in the face, and tell the truth,” unlike their men. Within a week, though, her column accuses those same women of maintaining silence and countenancing racial terrorism via the very logics of feminine purity and long-suffering service to male authority that the earlier column had embraced: “I have often wondered” she muses, “[w]hat must a klanswoman think, if she thinks at all, . . . of the concomitance of violence and mobocracy that follow in the trail of the organization? . . . Poor white women! One cannot but be sorry for them; they have so much to bear—their own men—the burdens of the white race, and all the other sorrows of womanhood” (117–18). What are we to make of these apparent reversals? Having begun in accord with domestic ideology, affirming the existence of a transcendent and specifically pan-racial feminine essence, Dunbar-Nelson proceeds, in the course of three weeks, to identify it with racial violence and contemptible self-delusion. As feminist critics, our first impulse is to prioritize the later arguments as evidence of the writer’s developing analysis or retroactively subversive intent. However, if we refrain from making Dunbar-Nelson’s writing confess a putatively authentic black female perspective, other things come to light. One is her canny understanding of gender ideology as a malleable form of publicity. Another is her willingness to fully articulate conflicting aspects of a question, or a discourse, without feeling obligated to resolve them into consistency. We cannot know if Dunbar-Nelson finally believes her own tribute to “basic womanhood,” but we [End Page 237] can suppose that she was interested in putting the tensions surrounding that ideal on display and in staging her own black female identity amid them to discover what clarifications or complications might arise.
These explorations were not new to Dunbar-Nelson in the 1920s. Thirty years earlier she wrote a piece for Violets and Other Tales titled “The Woman” in which the speaker reflects on a recent debate among the male leaders of her literary club about “whether woman’s chances for matrimony are increased or decreased when she becomes man’s equal as a wage earner” (21). Her response begins on a gratifyingly feminist note by changing the question to “Why should a well-salaried woman marry?” and then cataloging the advantages of single life for several pages (22–25). The tone shifts, however, when the speaker assures us “It is not marriage I decry, for I don’t think any really sane person would do this”; promises that men actually respect an independent woman, “and admire her, too” (27); and concludes by imagining that, despite this independent woman’s many responsibilities, “when the right moment comes, she will sink as gracefully into his manly embrace . . . and cuddle as warmly and sweetly to his bosom as her little sister who has done nothing else but think, dream, and practice for that hour. It comes natural, you see” (28). In the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries alike, critics have taken sides on whether this sketch supports or opposes marriage. What happens if we focus, instead, on the double-voicing of these remarks—so typical of Dunbar-Nelson—that places the debate itself under investigation? The story compels its readers to ask, is it “insane” to decry marriage because it transcends questioning? or because of the public censure that such questioning would provoke? We are made to wonder, also, about that final sentence: is it cuddling that “comes natural” (and, if so, why must little sister “practice”?), or rather the ability to thereby manage a husband? Such moments of ambiguity create multiple possible readings. More important, they draw attention to readers and readerly judgment, even shifting occasionally into extra-dramatic address. At the points where her meaning is most ambiguous, the speaker’s self-conscious awareness of our gaze is most overt. The result is self-consciousness on our own part. We feel caught out in our nonplussed uncertainty about where the speaker finally stands, whether she is with or against us on the woman question. Like “A Woman” and “One Woman,” “The Woman” invites and deflects identitarian demands, refusing to personify our convictions for us.
Dunbar-Nelson’s early stories challenge readers in a similar way in their treatment of race, both encouraging and frustrating interpretive strategies. Indeed, her engagement with racial discourse has often proved unintelligible to critics. Shaped by the legacy of New Orleans’s antebellum tripartite legal system, which distinguished among whites, enslaved blacks, and free people [End Page 238] of color, Dunbar-Nelson’s representation of racial dynamics diverges from the familiar, binary idiom of the color line that dominates most race literature from the period. In her New Orleans writing, the dynamics of Jim Crow racial ascription and inequality are refracted through the internal color politics of Creole society, through the complicated racialization of the city’s many immigrant populations, and through intersections with gender, class, religion, cultural geography, and ethnicity. As a consequence, Dunbar-Nelson’s approach to race has been simply unrecognizable for some readers—and been rendered too recognizable by others. As Kristina Brooks shows, for example, some critics flatten the complexity of Dunbar-Nelson’s portraits by treating class as code for race, ignoring the nuanced intersections between them (19–20). Others have approached literary criticism as a project of racial detection, devoting assiduous and reifying attention to brown hands, dusky eyes, and dark locks in efforts to verify and redeem Dunbar-Nelson as a black writer. And yet, as R. Ora Williams succinctly explained long ago, Dunbar-Nelson “was a writer who decried proselytizing blackness for commercial purposes”—or for critical-doctrinal ones, we might add (“Alice” 11). It makes sense, therefore, to consider these phenotypical clues as something more complicated than proof. For example, when she seeds her narratives with images and details that seem, in P. Gabrielle Foreman’s words, to “invite racial scrutiny,” she may well be thinking of black readers and “the pleasure of recognition” that, Foreman shows, characterized black print culture—and especially women’s participation in it—at the turn of the century (Activist 123, 130). She might also be using those details to confront and thwart racial surveillance and conjecture, practices she often thematizes within such narratives. Here, as in “The Woman,” her use of second-person direct address is significant. As Brooks and Strychacz both show, Dunbar-Nelson’s narrators frequently address us directly in order to toy with our assumptions about racial norms. The phrase “as you know” typically presages a scene in which we will discover that we do not know and are in danger of looking foolish (Brooks 16–18). Important here is that Dunbar-Nelson’s own race was never masked from her readers. From the beginning of her publishing career, The Journal of the Lodge, the Woman’s Era, and other black periodicals promoted her as an example of what a young woman of African American heritage could accomplish. Thus, if racial blackness isn’t conspicuously visible in her early work, it is always in play, always in tension with the text’s more ambiguous signifiers.20 Finally, we should also recall Dunbar-Nelson’s nonfiction responses to racial scrutiny. The autobiographical essay “Brass Ankles Speaks” recounts the “terror, horror and torment” of surveillance by other blacks who, throughout her life, judged her extremely light skin as a mark of inadequacy and difference (311). Her diary records a trip to the movies with her dark-skinned stepdaughter [End Page 239] and a friend: “[I was] conscious of misgivings, and a pounding in my throat when we approached the ticket taker. Suppose he should not let us take our seats? Suppose the ticket seller had sold the seats to me thinking I was white, and seeing Elizabeth and Ethel should make a scene.” In this case there was no trouble, but Dunbar-Nelson is forced to wonder: “How splendid it must be never to have any apprehension about one’s treatment any where?” (6 September 1921, Give Us 69).21
Elsewhere, as we have seen, Dunbar-Nelson does explicitly embrace black identity. Indeed, the phrase “we as a race” appears frequently in the columns and essays as she reflects upon the status of African Americans and advocates for advancement. But even in these contexts the race concept is often treated critically—sometimes in resistance to its ubiquity, the “cloud of books, articles and pronunciamentos on the subject” that, she feared, too often went in circles (“Brass Ankles” 311); elsewhere in sardonic observations about the racially unmarked status of whiteness, as in a reference to “we colored people—or shall I say Race people? Other individuals in the world, apparently being non-Race people” (“Une Femme” 161). The concept of a racial “we” is also something Dunbar-Nelson reflects upon throughout her career. One illustration is her satirical reaction to recent revelations “that a certain well-known actress has colored blood in her veins, hence her understanding delineation of a mulatto gamin. Well, the accusation places her right in the ranks of the immortals” (“Une Femme” 136). Here Dunbar-Nelson’s target is, in part, a white public made uncomfortable by “accusations” about its idols. But the wisdom of such claims is also under review: “We claim them all; it is a sign that they have arrived, when we put forth our arresting hand and call them ours—Alexander Hamilton, Robert Browning, one of the Kings of Spain, Warren G. Harding, Charlie Chaplin, and there are still others. If the Germans can claim Shakespeare, what is to prevent us from claiming everything in sight? It’s good politics” (“Une Femme” 136–37). The identity “politics” of ascribing black belonging posthumously—and, she implies, generously—seems to strike Dunbar-Nelson as presumptuous (“our arresting hand”) and, more important, as tractionless (“what is to prevent us from claiming everything in sight?”). Her comments here suggest that, for her, racial membership should be considered, not as a value in itself, but as a lived commitment and instrument to be actively inhabited and deployed. This is a writer who embraced and labored incessantly on behalf of black people, including herself, and understood that work to require an interrogation of belonging—a refusal to make a piety of it. She recognized and took pleasure in the occasional and inherent absurdity of group identification, and she was alert to its dangers. Her political works frequently address the problem of a white-controlled national discourse on [End Page 240] race, including the disciplinary function served by its projection of a black collectivity and consensus. Her 19 June 1926 “Une Femme Dit” responds eloquently and angrily to advice from a white acquaintance that her people must work harder to avoid disagreement: “Twelve million Negroes,” she exclaims, “grown from four millions, pitched into a strange and half hostile civilization, and fighting barehanded against fearsome odds. Managing somehow to pile up tremendous assets of property, education, and all the rest of the statistical talk that we all know so well. But they must agree. They must never know any difference of opinion” (171). Dunbar-Nelson’s response to these strictures moves through multiple areas of black diversity: ethnic heritage, regional origin, political views, culinary tastes, and more. On religion she fumes: “Catholics and Protestants, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Seventh Day Adventists, must merge into a common mould and worship Jesus and sing only spirituals. The free thinker, the Unitarian, the pantheist must not be. All must be similar in thought and speech” (“Une Femme” 171). Black belonging is mode of action for Dunbar-Nelson—action that is both individual and collective but only rarely univocal and that, when confused with consensus, becomes a mode of silencing and an “alibi” for white tokenism, condescension, and containment.
These investigations of black racial belonging also shaped Dunbar-Nelson’s ideas about a black aesthetic and the relationship of race to art and literature. She promoted black artists and writers—as black writers and artists—incessantly in reviews and lectures, urged the necessity of teaching black authors to cultivate racial pride and race consciousness in young people in her influential essay “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils,” and published anthologies of black oratory and literature. And throughout all of these efforts to establish and preserve a black tradition, she also sought to complicate expectations about what such a thing should comprise. The 19 June 1926 outburst discussed above concludes with her reflections on black tastes in art and music:
Some of us like jazz music, and some of us are fond of Verdi and Wagner, and some of us don’t care a rap about the later musicians, and don’t see anything to rave at in Galli Gurci. Some of us see beauty in the Cubists and some prefer Millet and Tanner. And some of us are not crazy about the spirituals, and yet will walk two miles to hear Dett’s “Music in the Mine,” if it is well done, and if it is not well done, don’t feel that we are traitors to the race if we say so.
The final line of this passage may be directed at black readers who objected to her frankness as a cultural critic of other black artists: several years later, in a review of Plum Bun, Dunbar-Nelson argues that Jessie Fauset has been poorly served by “critics, who in their sentimental rush to hail every book written by a [End Page 241] Negro as one more perfect specimen of Exhibit A, stumble over themselves with injudicious laudation, which is just faint praise disguised in subtle regalia” (“As In” 259–60). But the majority of these remarks aim, again, to resist the white imposition of homogeneity—and, we might infer, correct white assumptions that the scope of black cultural tastes would not exceed spirituals and jazz, or black composers like Robert Dett who drew upon those vernacular forms in his classical works.
In all of these respects, the column pairs interestingly with her 1920 anthology, The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, her antidote to the American public’s “one-sided reading” in an exclusively white canon (Hill 12). As fellow educator Leslie Pinckney Hill notes in his foreword to the volume, this incomplete canon has “mischievious results” for readers’ conception of American identity (12). The anthology includes nearly thirty pieces by white men and women and a footnote following the table of contents that states without explanation, “The names marked with an asterisk are the names of members of the Caucasian Race” (9). Also significant is Dunbar-Nelson’s interesting habit of referencing white-authored texts to express her ideas about black consciousness and cultural expression. William Wordsworth, on whom she published a much admired scholarly article drawn from research she conducted at Cornell, serves in this way repeatedly.23 For example, she concludes a piece on Laura Wheeler Waring with reflection on the “tragic quality” of that painter’s black portraits: “We may be a humorous people, but the bitterness of proscription lies so close to the surface that the humor brushes it with a fragile wing. . . . [E]very artistic expression that we have had—literature, music, painting or sculpture—is inexpressibly and profoundly sad, but not gloomy, with Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” (“Une Femme” 145).24 (Waring’s portrait of Alice Dunbar-Nelson appears in this issue; see Gallery, fig. 5). Later, Dunbar-Nelson invokes “Intimations of Immortality” again to characterize the suppression and reawakening of black race consciousness: “We admit that we are a superior race, with a civilization dating back before the Ten Commandments, and that our birth on this continent has been but ‘a sleep and a forgetting.’ Now our race consciousness is alive, alert, vivid” (“Une Femme” 173). Of course, many other black writers of Dunbar-Nelson’s era also allude to white literary works. Du Bois famously references Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” in the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, imagining freedpeople’s loss of innocence as enclosure within “the shades of the prison house” (10). But there is a vast difference between using a white literary tradition to figure the death of political ideals and using it to assert the priority and necessity of a distinctly African American history and essence. In fact, Dunbar-Nelson frequently draws from white authors to illustrate the particularity of [End Page 242] black art: quotations about music from John Milton, Wordsworth, and William Shakespeare to praise the “lilting swing” of black oratory (“Une Femme” 166); Rudyard Kipling and John Keats on beauty for a critique of black modernist painting (“Une Femme” 175); Thomas Carlyle on tragedy to theorize the conventions of black theater (“As In” 201); Sir Walter Scott’s stag—always poised to flee—as a figure for black readers anticipating racist content (“As In” 202).
This recurring device of blending cultural references may suggest that Dunbar-Nelson refused the polarized terms of the argument taking place between Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes throughout 1926—her first year as a columnist—by which the embrace of a white Western canon stood as antithetical to a distinctly black aesthetic. The complexity of her position is evinced by her 1926 review of Lulu Belle, a white-authored and white-produced play about Harlem’s “demi-monde” that was controversial among blacks for depicting “the worst side of Negro life” (“Une Femme” 131). Dunbar-Nelson sounds a lot like Hughes in her dismissal of these objections to unrefined black characters, observing, “[o]ur so-called ‘best people,’ our lovely drawing rooms and high types of men and women are uninteresting. Just as uninteresting as would be a pageant written around—well the Coolidge family for instance.” But she grounds this position—and her unconcern over the play’s authorship (“And why should a white man do our propaganda for us?”)—in thoroughly non-Hughesian terms, asserting there is nothing peculiarly African American in its portrait of human passion: “Lulu Belle is Carmen, and Carmen is Lulu Belle, and both are ageless, eternal, universal, of no race, no clime, no color, no condition. They are in the jungles, and in the drawing rooms of the most exclusive Nordics. They are white and yellow and brown and black. They have always been and always will be” (133). Important to note is that Dunbar-Nelson’s assertion that character types can transcend race implies no aspiration to racial transcendence for herself or others as artists, none of the desire to be considered just “a poet—not a Negro poet”—that Hughes would argue, in a thinly veiled attack on Cullen, really meant “I want to be white” (692). Dunbar-Nelson’s ideal of black literature emphasized separation without insisting on difference, and it celebrated difference without requiring separation. It was capacious enough to incorporate white-authored texts, evince high-and lowbrow tastes (contra accusations that she held an “Ivory Tower conception of literature,” her allusions are frequently from popular and folk culture sources [Hull, Color 23–24]), and embrace beauty alongside politics.
Most fundamentally, we suggest, Dunbar-Nelson’s complicated approach to the question of an identity-based cultural tradition points to her extraordinary erudition, the omnivorous reading that is evident in all of her writing as resource and provocation. It reflects her unquestioning belief that the classical, [End Page 243] European, and especially Romantic traditions are hers to claim—as a reader, intellectual, and lover of beauty.25 There is never any sign that she considers the works of Wordsworth and Jean-François Millet any less part of her heritage than the works by black authors that she argued must be taught in black schools. Nor does it seem that she considers black culture exclusively the property of blacks. She writes in one column of her delight in the “Nordic” bus driver who was whistling a popular black-authored tune “vigorously . . . as if he loved it. He threw in little lilts and runs, and ran in a double note or so. . . . I could not help but smile at him” (“Une Femme” 165). Informing all of this is not that Dunbar-Nelson discarded the notion of a cultural tradition, or of a specifically black cultural tradition, but that she approached every tradition as a kind of intellectual commons. Tradition, for her, had a definite shape, use, and effect but no defined or exclusive content. It provided a mode of group belonging, without belonging to any one group.
recovering alice dunbar-nelson for the twenty-first century
I recall above all Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Enthusiasm—she said it meant the gods-with-in-one. It is my favorite word. She filled me with enthusiasm.
Throughout this introduction we have explored reasons for Dunbar-Nelson’s neglect and proposed that her recovery presents occasions for considering those reasons—those conditions of normative critical legibility—in new ways. But, of course, the best argument for Dunbar-Nelson’s recovery is the work itself. Vividly compelling from the first encounter, it demands and rewards our full attention. It evinces and inspires enthusiasm—a doubled effect that her former student and eulogizer, J. Saunders Redding, also ascribes to Dunbar-Nelson herself. Remembering her always active curiosity, intellect, and humor, her compassion for the foolish, her contempt for bullies and small-mindedness, he lauds her enthusiasm and its contagious effect.
Another word we might propose is responsiveness. Dunbar-Nelson used her writing to engage, think through, extrapolate from, and signify upon everything she encountered in a life that ranged far and wide—geographically, socially, intellectually, and romantically. Boys playing outside her classroom, conversations overheard on the streetcar, electoral campaigns she oversaw, and global politics she studied—everything was transformed into writing and action. Redding remarks on this responsive quality, as well, when he pairs his former teacher with other great writers: “The substance of the stuff of Lincoln [End Page 244] is gathered up in a few letters and the Gettysburg address: the substance of Milton is left us in a sonnet[—]. . . . the living answers to problems, conflicts, struggles with which these great were faced, as necessary for them at the moment as is the first stroke of the swimmer in a rough sea” (2). We find Redding’s figure of the swimmer wonderfully apt: writing as survival, as self-propulsion, as Dasein. In his formulation, writing is a mode of being-in-the-world that is driven by duty and struggle. We would add that, for Dunbar-Nelson, this being-through-writing was also fundamentally about pleasure. The pleasure of appetite: people, places, ideas were sources of gratification—erotic, intellectual, aesthetic, affective. Dunbar-Nelson often championed pleasure: she defended the man drinking his glass of beer against temperance workers (“Une Femme” 176) and devotees of the Charleston dance craze against moralists, arguing that young people needed joy (the white ones, that is; the black youth had already moved on to more difficult dance steps) (“From a Woman’s” 127). The pleasure of beauty: her works constantly attest to the joy she took in natural and human beauty and in consuming visual, dramatic, literary, and musical works by others—as though writing about beauty remembered was a way of sustaining and reexperiencing it. The pleasure of form: Dunbar-Nelson read everything, and she experimented with everything she read. She wrote in every genre, exhibiting a knack for exquisite precision and economy that she also relished in work by others: the focus of her praise for Georgia Douglas Johnson’s 1928 collection, An Autumn Love Cycle, for example, is the lapidary perfection of the poems: “Each one finished, polished to perfection, admitting of no change of syllable or inflection” (“As In” 243).
Dunbar-Nelson herself identified responsiveness as a guiding aesthetic principle when she bid readers to pay homage to “the God of Things as They Are” in a column about black music (“Une Femme” 167). Art, her phrase suggests, requires engaging life as we find it, clear-eyed and worshipful. Interestingly, she appeals elsewhere to “the eternal fitness of things” (“Une Femme” 185). Writing critically in this case about a musical parody of “The Lord’s Prayer”—“the most sublime expression that ever fell from the lips of man”—she judges the performance an offense “not to religion, but to art, and the eternal fitness of things” (184–85). Bringing these invocations together, we believe, captures something crucial about Dunbar-Nelson’s practice and philosophy of writing and life: her faith that art was both phenomenal and essential, human and transcendent.
We are grateful for the expert assistance of the staff of Special Collections at the University of Delaware Library, Newark, who aided our research on Alice [End Page 245] Dunbar-Nelson at every turn. We also thank the staff of the Archives Research Center, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia, for their generous help. Thanks are due to the W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. We also wish to thank the staff at Oberlin College Library, Tulane University’s Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, and the Amistad Research Center for their assistance with locating materials. Finally, we thank Akasha (Gloria) Hull, Sarah Jane Kerwin, and Madeline Murphy Rabb for their invaluable contributions to this essay.
1. One premise of Color, Sex, and Poetry is that Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Grimké, and Georgia Douglas Johnson were made peripheral by excessive critical focus on the Harlem Renaissance because they were active from the late nineteenth century well in to the twentieth and because they did not live in New York City. See, for example, pp. 2, 3, and 12.
2. For a recent episode in the ongoing debate concerning African American literature and theorizations of authorship see Cohen and Stein’s introduction to Early African American Print Culture; Foreman’s response to it in her essay for Legacy, “A Riff, A Call, and A Response”; and Bassard’s contribution to the Legacy forum subsequently curated by Foreman.
3. In her much-cited account of the writer’s marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alexander accuses Dunbar-Nelson of shunning her race and class circumstances and suggests that this led to their deep unhappiness as a couple (see 72–73).
4. Almost nothing is known of Dunbar-Nelson’s father. A letter accusing then-husband Paul Dunbar of alluding to her shameful past during a fight suggests her parents may not have been married. See Hull, Color 34–35.
5. Young corresponded with more than a dozen university libraries and foundations in her search for a permanent home for Dunbar-Nelson’s archive (boxes 5 and 6, Pauline A. Young Papers, Archives Research Center, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University, Atlanta, ga).
6. The nature of Paul’s abuse is unclear. While some scholars have characterized an incident that occurred during their engagement as rape (see Alexander, especially pages 130–45, and Green 136), others—including Hull—have refrained from drawing conclusions. Alice and Paul’s correspondence provides the only direct information we have on the matter, and it never specifies what happened.
7. When discussing Dunbar-Nelson and Dunbar in relation to one another, we refer to them by their first names.
9. Dunbar-Nelson’s essays represent a particular area of neglect, perhaps because, as Cheryl Wall notes, the essay has been marginalized as “occasional writing” produced while “between novels or books of poetry,” despite its importance for African American writers (Chadwick). Her columns also cry out for attention. See Foster (“Genealogies”) on the African American advice column as a genre whose recognition promises to reconfigure our sense of nineteenth-century literary and political culture.
11. The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature lists Dunbar-Nelson under “The Harlem Renaissance” and includes just two of her poems. Most general anthologies of American literature omit her altogether. An exception, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, includes selections of her New Orleans fiction under “Regionalism” and of her poetry in “A Selection of Poetry by Late-Nineteenth-Century American Women.”
12. In their groundbreaking work on Dunbar-Nelson, both Williams and Hull called for widening the frame of the Harlem Renaissance geographically and scholars’ knowledge to women participants who were not part of the picture of the Renaissance that late-twentieth-century critics had constructed. Hull included two other women, Angelina Grimké and Georgia Douglas Johnson, in Color, Sex, and Poetry. Other scholars whose work also calls for such a reconstruction include Wall (Women of the Harlem Renaissance), McDowell (Changing Same and introductions to editions of works by Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Jessie Fauset), and T. Davis (Nella Larsen).
13. In a letter to Paul Laurence Dunbar dated May 1895, Dunbar-Nelson proclaimed her dislike for writers who “wedge the Negro problem and social equality and long dissertations on the Negro into their stories” (qtd. in Metcalf 38).
14. It seems possible that this story was a source text for Langston Hughes as he composed his similarly titled “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” or for Angelina Grimké, whose naacp-sponsored anti-lynching play, Rachel, also features a trained engineer reduced to waiting tables in the urban North.
15. Du Bois’s papers suggest that response was positive. He received requests to perform the play from a high school in Kansas City, Missouri, and another from Pittsburgh (see James Williams’s letter to Crisis, 6 May 1918; and Margaret Jackson’s letter to Crisis, 29 April 1918).
16. Massive explosions in early January 1917 were felt and seen in Wilmington. On 13 January 1917 the New York Times ran an article on the plant’s many explosions and Du Pont’s explanation that they were tied to the war effort (“Du Pont Powder Plant”).
17. The notice stirred up at least one reaction: Ray Wooten sent increasingly enraged letters to Du Bois requesting that he correct this statement, which Wooten claimed was inaccurate and clearly regarded as damaging to him personally. See letters from Wooten to Du Bois, 6 and 7 December 1920. [End Page 247]
18. See Dunbar-Nelson’s letter to Du Bois, 11 September 1924, offering praise for his recently published book, The Gift of Black Folk, and thanking him for his interest in her article. He responded with gratitude for both on 18 September 1924.
19. Photographs accompanied many of The Messenger essays; Dunbar-Nelson’s emphasis on women in “Delaware” is augmented by five images featuring black women activists.
20. For African American readers, we should add, the racial significance of the early works was entirely unambiguous. One black newspaper proclaimed, “No one can afford to be without this book, and claim to love your race”; another hailed it as an important contribution “to eradicating unjust prejudices . . . [and] the fallacy of racial discrimination against any people” (The [St. Joseph Montana] Mirror; “A Southern Woman Authoress”).
23. For details about this essay and its reception, see R. Ora Williams’s scholarly introduction to the anthology she edited, An Alice Dunbar-Nelson Reader.
24. Here Dunbar-Nelson quotes Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” beginning a new paragraph midsentence with the word “Thoughts” just quoted.
25. This claim also reflects Dunbar-Nelson’s identification as activist. See Foreman (Activist chapter 4) and McHenry on the integral place of critical and dialogic reading within black women’s reform work.
26. Redding (1906–88) became a renowned professor of literature and literary critic and historian. He taught at historically black colleges, including Morehouse and Hampton, as well as at Cornell and was part-time director of the Division of Research and Publications of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1966 to 1970 (A. Davis 157–61).