- Masculinity, Criminality, and RaceAlice Dunbar-Nelson’s Creole Boy Stories
Desires and anxieties, both collective and personal, shape how and why an artist returns to the same subject. From 1895 until at least 1901, Alice Dunbar-Nelson turned repeatedly to the figure of a Creole boy or youth. He appears as the title character of “Titee” in her first book, Violets and Other Tales (1895). She republished the story with revisions as the final tale in her second book, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (1899). In 1900 she published two stories, “Edouard” and “Esteve, the Soldier Boy,” that feature young Creole men as protagonists. During this time, she also thought about expanding into a novel “The Stones of the Village,” her unpublished tale of a Creole man who decides to pass for white at a critical moment in his youth (Hull, Introduction xxxvi). Even her “’Steenth Street” stories set in New York City limn youthful male heroes. Nonetheless, critics have ignored the numerous representations of boys in Dunbar-Nelson’s work.
For the better part of a decade, Dunbar-Nelson crafted heroes of color who assert their masculinity in a white world that is quicker to suspect them of criminality than to recognize their virtues. She uses the Creole boy to probe constructions of race, gender, class, and history; by bringing together turn-of-the-century discourses on masculinity, “Negro criminality,” and race and ethnicity, she uses this figure not only to examine proscribed social relations but also to suggest new social meanings.1 Like the figure of the mulatta in nineteenth-century black women’s writing that Hazel Carby deciphers, Dunbar-Nelson’s Creole boy is a complex “narrative device of mediation” (89). Like the mulatta, a figure that inscribes history and speaks of forbidden desires, the Creole, too, in Dunbar-Nelson’s work is a carrier of history that reveals how the historical meanings of Creole are contradictory and multivalent: figuring the possibility of consensual relationships, Creole evokes not only slavery but also plaçage, an [End Page 336] extralegal arrangement resembling common-law marriage between white men and black women. However, Dunbar-Nelson does not examine only adult or female desires, nor are the themes she explores limited to racial identification and assimilation. Indeed, the figure of the Creole boy enables her to address other topics intertwined with race, notably poverty, boyhood, criminality, and even the convoluted racial and ethnic history of New Orleans; yet critics have often neglected these dimensions of her work and assumed, because of her unconventional representations of race, that she wrote for a white audience.
This essay will argue that, far from attempting to pass or to please white audiences, Dunbar-Nelson drew upon the figure of the Creole boy in order to address multiple themes that were difficult to articulate beyond stereotypes at the turn of the twentieth century, when segregation was becoming entrenched not just in the South but also in the nation as a whole. Carby similarly argues that the postbellum figure of the mulatta was not primarily an appeal to whites or only a means to counter stereotypes of African American women by endowing black characters with virtues thought to belong only to white women. Instead, Carby proposes that this figure functions as a “narrative device of mediation,” allowing the black writer to represent what was increasingly “socially proscribed”—that is, to talk about the historical conditions that had produced and the forces that sustained the separation of the races in a white supremacist system (89). White-looking black female characters thus not only embody the historical rape and continuing control of black women’s bodies but also challenge a society increasingly predicated on the idea that the races cannot mix. Carby contends that the black audience for these narratives at the end of the nineteenth century was just as, if not more, important than the white one because the mulatta characters also represent choices open to black readers: to deny their history, to pass or become like whites, or to choose blackness (90–91). Thus, the mulatta (sometimes mulatto) figure, as Carby argues, mediates whiteness and blackness in a complex way...