Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Harlem Renaissance Figure

Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Adapted from a public domain image

About Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Dates: July 19, 1875 - September 18, 1935

Occupation: writer, poet, journalist, teacher, activist

Known for: short stories; tumultuous marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar; figure in Harlem Renaissance

Also known as: Alice Dunbar, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, Alice Ruth Moore

Background, Family:

  • Father: Joseph Moore (merchant marine)
  • Mother: Patricia Wright (seamstress)

Education:

  • Straight College, New Orleans (nursing, teaching; graduated in 1892)
  • Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art
  • University of Pennsylvania

Marriage:

  • Paul Laurence Dunbar (married 1898, separated 1902; he died in 1906; writer)
  • Henry Arthur Callis (married 1910-1911)
  • Robert J. Nelson (married 1916; journalist)

Alice Dunbar-Nelson Biography

Born in New Orleans, Alice Dunbar-Nelson's light-skinned and racially-ambiguous appearance gave her entrance into associations across racial and ethnic lines.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson graduated from college in 1892, and taught for six years, editing the woman's page of a New Orleans paper in her free time. She began publishing her poetry and short stories at age 20.

In 1895 she began a correspondence with Paul Laurence Dunbar, and they first met in 1897, when Alice moved to teach in Brooklyn. Dunbar-Nelson helped found the White Rose Mission, a home for girls and, when Paul Dunbar returned from a trip to England, they were married.

She left her school position so they could move to Washington, DC.

They came from very different racial experiences. Her light skin often allowed her to "pass" while his more "African" appearance kept him out where she was able to enter. He drank more heavily than she could tolerate, and he also had affairs.

They also disagreed about writing: she denounced his use of black dialect. They fought, sometimes violently.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson left Paul Dunbar in 1902, moving to Wilmington, Delaware. He died four years later.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson worked in Wilmington at Howard High School, as a teacher and administrator, for 18 years. She also worked at State College for Colored Students and Hampton Institute, directing summer classes.

In 1910, Alice Dunbar-Nelson married Henry Arthur Callis, but they separated the next year. She married Robert J. Nelson, a journalist, in 1916.

In 1915, Alice Dunbar-Nelson worked as a field organizer in her region for woman's suffrage. During World War I, Alice Dunbar-Nelson served with the Women's Commission on the Council of National Defense and the Circle of Negro War Relief. She worked in 1920 with the Delaware Republican state committee, and helped found the Industrial School for Colored Girls in Delaware. She organized for anti-lynching reforms, and served 1928-1931 as executive secretary of the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee.

During the Harlem Renaissance, Alice Dunbar-Nelson published numerous stories and essays in Crisis, Opportunity, Journal of Negro History, and Messenger.

More About Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Selected Writings:

  • Alice Ruth Moore, Violets and Other Tales, 1895, short stories and poems
  • Alice Dunbar), The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories, 1899, stories about Creole life
  • Alice Moore Dunbar, editor, Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence: The Best Speeches Delivered by the Negro from the Days of Slavery to the Present Time, 1914
  • Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, 1920
  • stories and essays in Crisis, Opportunity, Journal of Negro History, Messenger
  • "As in a Looking Glass," column, 1926-1930
  • "A Women's Point of View," column, 1926
  • "So It Seems to Alice Dunbar-Nelson," column, 1930
  • Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, posthumous publication

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Selected Alice Dunbar-Nelson Quotations

• [F]or 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.

• In every race, in every nation, and in every clime in every period of history there is always an eager-eyed group of youthful patriots who seriously set themselves to right the wrongs done to their race or nation or sometimes to art or self-expression.

• If a people are to be proud and self-respecting they must believe in themselves. Destroy a man's belief in his own powers, and you destroy his usefulness -- render him a worthless object, helpless and hopeless.

Tell a people over and over again that they have done nothing, can do nothing, set a limitation for their achievement; impress uponi them that all they have or can hope to have is the product of the minds of other peoples; force them to believe that they are pensioners on the mental bounty of another race, -- and they will lose what little faith they may have had in themselves, and become stultified non-producers.

• Any parent or child knows how disastrous is the result of telling a child how splendidly some other child has done, and asking why he does not go and do likewise. The one so adjured usually does the exact opposite, in a bitterness of resentment and gloom, it being one of the vagaries of human nature to act contrariwise.

• Men do like to keep women's personalities swallowed!

• You ask my opinion about the Negro dialect in literature? Well, frankly, I believe in everyone following his own bent. If it be so that one has a special aptitude for dialect work why it is only right that dialect work should be a specialty. But if one should be like me -- absolutely devoid of the ability to manage dialect, I don't see the necessity of cramming and forcing oneself into that plane because one is a Negro or a Southerner.

• It's punishment to be compelled to do what one doesn't wish.

• Nothing will do me any good unless I learn to control this body of mine.

• We are forced by cruel challenges to explain, show our wares, tell our story, excuse our shortcomings, defend our positions. And we insist that every Negro be a propagandist.... We forget that didacticism is the death of art.

• On two occasions when I was seeking a position, I was rejected because I was "too white," and not typically racial enough for the particular job.... Once I "passed" and got a job in a department store in a large city. But one of the colored employees "spotted" me, for we always know each other, and reported that I was colored, and I was fired in the middle of the day. The joke was that I had applied for a job in the stock room where all the employees are colored, and the head of the placing bureau told me that was no place for me -- "Only colored girls work there," so he placed me in the book department, and then fired me because I had "deceived" him.

• Far be it for women to gloat over the way the sister-hood is attaching to itself the formerly exclusive masculine prerogatives. Not to mention women governors who are in danger of impeachment, there are bandits, bank robbers, embezzlers, female Ponzis, high flyers in finance, and what not. Is it voters for women, sun spots, post-war hyusteria, the restless age, or the adolescence of the sex? Short skirts and cigarettes, fancy garters and sheik bobs, and all the rest of the feminine adornment or exposement, whiever happens to be the fad; Turkish women doffing the veil, Chinese women demanding the vote, the Orient donning the habiliments of the occident, Japanese women rolling their own, and college girls demanding smoking rooms, fur coats and chiffon hose; German women demanding the right of their own method of self expression, the youth movement, and the barefoot cult, artists and models dressed in a scant bunch of grapes, modiestes threatening Victorian bustles, upheaval, unrest. Whatever is the blatant sex coming to? [from a 1926 essay]

Sonnet

I had not thought of violets late,
The wild, shy kind that spring beneath your feet
In wistful April days, when lovers mate
And wander through the fields in raptures sweet.
The thought of violets meant florists' shops,
And cabarets and soaps, and deadening wines.
So far from sweet real things my thoughts had strayed,
I had forgot wide fields; and clear brown streams;
The perfect loveliness that God has made, --
Wild violets shy and Heaven-mounting dreams.
And now—unwittingly, you've made me dream
Of violets, and my soul's forgotten gleam.

From Gone White

The character Anna says to the character Allen:
You are offering me the position of your mistress.... You would keep your white wife, and all that means, for respectability's sake -- but you would have a romance, a liaison with the brown woman whom you love, after dark. No Negro would stoop so low as to take on such degraded ideals of so-called racial purity. And this is the moral deterioration to which you have brought your whole race. White Man! Go on back to your white gods! Lowest and vilest of scum. White Man! Go Back!

I Sit and Sew

A poem reflecting on a woman's place in wartime, written about World War I.

I sit and sew -- a useless task it seems,
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams --
The panoply of war, the martial tred of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath --
But -- I must sit and sew.

I sit and sew -- my heart aches with desire --
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe --
But -- I must sit and sew.

The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me -- this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me -- God, must I sit and sew?

If I Had Known

1895

If I had known
Two years ago how drear this life should be,
And crowd upon itself all strangely sad,
Mayhap another song would burst from out my lips,
Overflowing with the happiness of future hopes;
Mayhap another throb than that of joy.
Have stirred my soul into its inmost depths,
           If I had known.

If I had known,
Two years ago the impotence of love,
The vainness of a kiss, how barren a caress,
Mayhap my soul to higher things have soarn,
Nor clung to earthly loves and tender dreams,
But ever up aloft into the blue empyrean,
And there to master all the world of mind,
           If I had known.

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