restricted access Writing Black Modernism: Two Poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson
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Writing Black Modernism
Two Poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

We are pleased to republish two poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson that have rarely attracted scholarly comment. Both reveal her responsiveness to the literary and political currents of her time and to African Americans’ literary and cultural history. Although often anthologized as a poet, Dunbar-Nelson only wrote a small number of poems in comparison to her considerable output in other genres. Her recollection of writing “Harlem John Henry Views the Airmada” was that “words leapt at me from somewhere,” a description indicating that poems could come easily when she was inspired (Give Us 434). But apparently this was rarely the case. Writing to an editor who had requested a poem, she explained that she could not comply: “Mr. Dunbar tells me that I average one poem in six months, and that there will be none due for several weeks to come” (qtd. in Hull 54). Her poems often seem to spring from deeply personal experiences or states of mind. Dunbar-Nelson speculated that her friend and fellow poet Georgia Douglas Johnson had been inspired by a love affair to write poems that Dunbar-Nelson regarded highly, just as several of the poems she herself published had come from her “Dream Book,” a private poetic record of her secret affairs (Give Us 88).1 Unfortunately, this book has never been found. The poems reprinted here also owe their existence to specific circumstances that triggered their composition. [End Page 392]

In a handwritten note at the top of her poem-in-manuscript, “I Am an American,” Dunbar-Nelson explains that her composition is a “[c]ompletion of ‘I am an American’ by Elias Lieberman in [the] Lewis & Roland 8th Reader”—she adds a final verse to a poem included in this standard teaching text. She may have originally written the additional verse for her students to recite to affirm the African American’s equal claim to being an “American,” a pedagogical use she advocated for the poem. The Christmas stamp on the manuscript indicates that this verse was composed before March 1928, although it could have been written anytime between 1920 and 1928. Dunbar-Nelson published the verse on 22 March 1928 in her column “Little Excursions Week by Week,” which was syndicated by the Associated Negro Press.2 She was provoked to publish it by “Americans All,” an editorial in Collier’s that appeared on 17 March 1928 and purported to answer the question “Who is your true American?” Emphasizing the ethnic diversity of the United States, Collier’s invoked the Puritans at Plymouth Rock, the Dutch, the Spaniards, the French, the Swedes, the Italians, the Germans, the Irish, and the Slavs—everyone except black Americans. Even Collier’s editor’s reference to the Ku Klux Klan’s “ill-will toward all not of old Protestant stock” (58) erases the black presence in America by suggesting that the Klan’s ire is at base religious, not racial. Lieberman’s popular and, at the time, widely taught two-stanza poem similarly makes no mention of African Americans. It contrasts two types of Americans: one whose ancestors fought in the American Revolution, and one who, like Lieberman himself, descends from Russian Jews who died in massacres under the czar. Both speakers in his poem proudly proclaim “I Am an American,” although his ending suggests the future belongs to the children of immigrants.3 Sharply critical of Lieberman’s exclusion of Native and African Americans from the American “melting pot,” Dunbar-Nelson voices the increasing exasperation of African Americans at being forced to segregate themselves by a racial label, while newcomers from distant shores were readily accepted as simply Americans. Her poem underscores not only the long history of blacks in America but also her faith in her country’s—and her people’s—future. Her themes of patriotism and racial pride speak to a literary lineage going back to Frederick Douglass’s writings in The Orator and the 1905 speech in which Pauline Hopkins declares “I am a daughter of the Revolution,” even if white America refuses to acknowledge its “black daughters” (Hopkins 537). Dunbar...


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