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  • “Upon the Young People of Our Race, by Our Own Literature”Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils”
  • Shawn Anthony Christian

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was known for making compelling arguments about, on behalf of, and often to African America. Her 1922 Southern Workman article “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils” was an important element of this critical discourse. For example, early in its exposition, Dunbar-Nelson contends that “for two generations we have given brown and black children a blonde ideal of beauty to worship, a milk-white literature to assimilate, and a pearly Paradise to anticipate, in which their dark faces would be hopelessly out of place” (59). “There is,” she adds, “a manifest remedy for this condition, a remedy which the teachers of the race are applying gradually, wherever the need has been brought to their attention. We must begin everywhere to instill race pride into our pupils. . . . [W]e will give the children the poems and stories and folk lore and songs of their own people. We do not teach literature; we are taught by literature” (60).

Authoritative and timely, Dunbar-Nelson’s “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils” advanced an educational philosophy predicated on countering racism as much as it was on harnessing the dynamic race pride that characterized the early twentieth century. As Nathan Huggins argues, the “ethnocentrism that generated self-determination as an Allied aim in [World War I] informed a new racial awareness among blacks throughout the world. The war also forced a reevaluation of Western civilization and encouraged non-Europeans to esteem their own cultures as being as valid and civilized as Europe’s” (6–7). Through “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils,” Dunbar-Nelson argued similarly that the study of literature from “their own people” was possible for African American students because a range of works—from Phillis Wheatley’s poetry to Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery—were part of a literary tradition that African [End Page 267] American teachers of primary and secondary school students could embrace as a curricular imperative. Even more, Dunbar-Nelson urged that “Negro Literature,” marginalized but constitutive of American literature, would combat the internalization of racist stereotypes and “broaden [students’] knowledge of literature, philosophy, and politics in order to act socially and politically” (Knupfer 121–22).

In the context of African Americans’ circumscribed educational attainment by 1920, “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils” was a hopeful call to action. First, despite the visibility and resonance of W. E. B. Du Bois’s and other educators’ counters to the influence of Booker T. Washington’s advocacy of industrial education, “by World War I, vocational education was not only offered in the upper grades but also reached far down into the elementary grades” (Mohraz 67). The residual effects of sustaining African Americans’ education as training for “work and social adjustment” slowed currency in the belief that formal education should foster race pride, especially as “[t]he intended purpose of these schools [in the South especially] was to make black children think and feel that traditional, high-quality academic education was incongruent with their station in life” (Anderson 147). One educator from such an institution argued early in the century that for “those thoroughly acquainted with rural Negroes there can be no doubt that the education they need is that which will lead them to be frugal, self-respecting, and intelligently and purposefully industrious.” She continued: “The literary course at present certainly need not be more than elementary; but it should be thorough, and should include . . . a carefully arranged course in English and American literature” (Bemus 648, 652). Persistence of such thinking would compel Elise McDougald to argue in 1923 that many of her white counterparts were “still dazzled to a large extent by a one sided programme of vocational education for all Negroes” (219).1

Responding to the reliance on vocational education for African American youth, several educators broadened their instruction and rendered it racially affirming. Their efforts were similar to what Madge Scott experienced as a student in a segregated and white-controlled school system in Florida during the 1920s. A teacher herself in later life, Scott remembered that

[e]ven though the schools were segregated...


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