- Writing to BelongAlice Dunbar-Nelson’s Newspaper Columns in the African American Press
“Who Are Americans?” Thus did Alice Dunbar-Nelson open her syndicated column “Little Excursions Week by Week” in the Philadelphia Tribune on 22 March 1928. She broached this topic in order to start a conversation about the difficulties African Americans face when declaring their nationality. If the hypothetical American of African descent completes an application by “put[ting] ‘American’ for an answer,” she explains, “the interrogator usually looks hurt and says gently that he should have put ‘Negro.’ Some amusing and some heart-breaking incidents have grown from this” (15). Without further comment she then turns to a critique of Elias Lieberman’s 1916 poem “I Am an American,” which appeared in William D. Lewis and Albert Lindsay Rowland’s The Silent Reader used to teach children to read.1 Dunbar-Nelson laments that Lieberman “finds material in the melting pot, for his American, and in the Puritan stock of the Mayflower. He ignores the Indian and forgets the Negro”: “the only Americans” that impressionable children see “are the whites of native stock, or the European emigrants” (15). These statements call to mind later African American writers like Albert Murray, who contended that American culture was not merely white but also Indian and Negro.2 As a mixed-race woman and as a teacher who knew how “plastic” children’s minds were, Dunbar-Nelson was right to be concerned that Lieberman’s definition of what it meant to be an American rendered invisible the experiences of people of color and their contributions to the nation (15).3
In this column Dunbar-Nelson also voices her belief that literature is a powerful vehicle for redefining American identity to include people of color. She does so by adding a verse to Lieberman’s poem that, she explains, the African [End Page 286] American child can read. The verse highlights the contributions African Americans have made to the building of the nation. The second line— “They hewed the forests, tilled the fields, made the roads”— echoes Booker T. Washington’s famous 1895 Atlanta Compromise address (15). The verse ends with an assertion of the dual identity of African Americans that recalls the condition of double consciousness articulated by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and echoes the racial pride that Dunbar-Nelson openly expressed in her newspaper columns. She writes, “I am proud of my past. I hold faith in my future. / I am a Negro. I am an American” (15). By claiming an American identity and conveying a sense of belonging, the speaker of Dunbar-Nelson’s poem challenges conceptions of Americanness that exclude African Americans. Just as significantly, Dunbar-Nelson’s allusions to literary works by prominent African American authors underscore her belief that reading African American literature and engaging in conversations about it are powerful means of constructing identity and advancing the race. In this column and in many others, she tackled serious topics using techniques like miscellany and collage in an effort to provoke and shape conversations about identity and self-definition among African American readers.
As a columnist, journalist, short-fiction writer, poet, essayist, and diarist, Dunbar-Nelson produced a varied and extensive oeuvre, yet until recently she has usually been seen, as Gloria T. Hull explains, “as the wife of [Paul Laurence Dunbar,] America’s first famous Black poet who incidentally ‘wrote a little’ herself ” (“Researching” 317).4 Hull, who is widely considered the foremost scholar of Dunbar-Nelson, has been largely responsible for “rescu[ing]” Dunbar-Nelson from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “shadow” (“Researching” 317). Much of the existing scholarship on Dunbar-Nelson focuses on the short fiction and poetry she published in her two books, Violets and Other Tales and The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories. Early assessments of these collections underscore Dunbar-Nelson’s reluctance to write about issues like racism and sexism that shaped her lived experiences as an African American woman. She has been criticized for maintaining “so rigorously the separation between her real life and daily concerns, and her art” (Hull, Color 90). More recent readings seek...