ALICE DUNBAR-NELSON (1875 – 1935) was born and raised in New Orleans, and was part of its vibrant, multiracial Creole community. Her mother was the daughter of an African American seamstress and former slave, her white father was a merchant seaman. As a schoolchild she was referred to as a “half white nigger.” Robert Terrell, the African American judge, referred to her as “that pretty yaller girl,” and as a younger woman, when the need had suited her, she was able to pass herself off as white. In an autobiographical essay, Brass Ankles Speaks (written just six years before her death) she wrote of the “neglected light-skinned colored people, who have not ‘passed’ to rise and speak a word in self defense.” ‘Brass Ankles’ was a term used commonly at this time for those of mixed-descent, a nomenclature that was too subtle for the racial classification at that time. The codification of only binary ‘black’ or ‘white’ was statutory in most American states in the early 1900s. Moreover, the ‘one-drop rule’ of hypodescent – the classification of a child of mixed-race ancestry into the less socially dominant of the parents’ races – told against those of mixed-race parentage. Dunbar Nelson’s essay expands on this theme: it reveals a life “white enough to pass for white,” and never accepted wholeheartedly within the African American community, yet “with a darker family background, a real love for the mother race, and no desire to be numbered among the white race.” She alluded to problems with her employers and co-workers throughout her various careers. If they were white, they considered her too black; if they were black, they considered her too white. “The ‘yaller niggers’, the ‘Brass Ankles’ must bear the hatred of their own,” she wrote, “and the prejudice of the white race.” Feelings of alienation aroused by her mixed-race descent remained with Dunbar-Nelson throughout her life.
For two years Alice attended Straight University (later Dillard University), a historic African American college in New Orleans. From 1892 she worked as a teacher, first in New Orleans, then New York and Washington, and eventually moving Wilmington, Delaware at the Howard High School (where E. C. Williams, author of When Washington Was in Vogue, was the librarian). For over three years from 1928 she was Executive Secretary for AIPC, the American Inter-Racial Peace Committee sponsored by the Quaker movement. A lack of income had always been an issue for her, and only in the last three years of her life, when her third husband received significant advancement, did financial pressure disappear. At all times she forged an alternative career, out of financial need, for sure, but also as a projection of the ambition she had for herself. As well as a teacher, she was a writer of poetry and fiction, a journalist, a public speaker, and a social activist, active especially with the burgeoning African American women’s social clubs.
Today Alice Dunbar-Nelson is referred to most often as a poet. It affords her a retrospective marketing credibility, even a mythology given that poetry became a fundamental of the Harlem Renaissance, and that her intersectionality scorecard – she was coloured, female and bisexual – is high. She is remembered also in tandem with Paul Laurence Dunbar, her first husband, the jewel of the African American poetry world at the turn of the twentieth century. But how important poetry actually was to her is a moot point for it was at best an inconsistent feature of her life, and although she sought to place poetry in magazines until her death, her youthful enthusiasm for the form was replaced by only sporadic indulgence. Her poems were mostly personal; they embraced rarely any of the social concerns that shaped her beliefs. Indeed, her poetry was unadventurous in form and romantic in content, and remained immature and at times remarkably facile. She wrote quickly, and there is little evidence that she redrafted or revised her work. In her own words, she “produced literature.” This inability to work at her craft together with a natural diffidence (she rarely referred to her work other than with disregard) were not the best foils to any ambition she may have harboured as a writer. Moreover as a coloured woman, even though she had married into a literary infrastructure, including an agent, she would have been daunted by many career obstacles, none to be overcome easily. In March 1901 she wrote to her agent, perturbed by the small fees he had negotiated on her behalf; she concluded that “I suppose I must wait for reputation before I can command prices.” Her reputation never did move much beyond being Paul Dunbar’s wife, and after she separated from Dunbar and then became widowed by him, she remained open to exploiting this status.
Her interest in producing fiction was a more fruitful pursuit, and far less fitful than her poetry. Other than the stories presented in The Goodness of St. Rocque, Dunbar-Nelson published in magazines (she used three aliases at least); other short stories remained in manuscript, some have been lost. The short story form was undoubtedly where Dunbar-Nelson’s writing can be seen at its best. She persevered with long form writing despite never meeting any success, as though to suggest that her literary hopes rested there. Bliss Perry, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, had warned against “padding” out her short stories, the various attempts made by Dunbar-Nelson in her apprenticeship as a writer to turn them into novellas. Seven manuscript novels are archived in the University of Delaware Library. Some fragmentary, several are inordinately short – The Confessions Of A Lazy Woman, for instance, or A Modern Undine, both from 1902. Her last attempt was her most ambitious: This Lofty Oak is 595 pages of typewritten script, a roman-à-clef detailing a lesbian affair she had early in her time at the Howard High School with its energetic and imposing head teacher, Edwina B. Kruse. The affair was passionate and heartfelt, at least according to their exchange of letters. Dunbar-Nelson’s novel was, she wrote, a “biography, thrown in novel-shape.” She tried hard to place it with a publisher (her niece was trying still 16 years after Dunbar-Nelson’s death), but the rejections she received echo the response her creative writing had met throughout her life: that it had scant plot and lacked development, climax or denouement. Inappropriately, for she lacked all the skills required, she turned her hand also to both stage drama and, a medium that fascinated her, film. A one-act play, Mine Eyes Have Seen, agitprop to galvanize African American support for America’s involvement in the First World War, was published in Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by William Du Bois. Later she embarked upon a film script, for which she audaciously approached Oscar Micheaux, the leading African American filmmaker of the age, for collaboration.
The Goodness of St. Rocque was published in 1899 when she was twenty-four. Its publisher, Dodd, Mead & Co, published it as a companion volume to Paul Dunbar’s Poems of Cabin and Field. She published no other book after this other than twice as an editor: of an anthology of African American speeches, Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence, and of The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a collection of African American prose and poetry. It might be argued that without her first husband’s coat-tail to hang on to she had little commercial leverage.
Her writing career stalled on other levels as well. Little development in her writing skills can be traced after this book, and rarely does its content deviate from what we see in The Goodness of St. Rocque. This volume, then, is her high tide of achievement. Its mundane manageability and restraint is what she admired in writing. In an essay written in 1904 for a summer school she had attended at Cornell University, ‘Why I Like Jane Austen’, she had written: “And so, to those who prefer caviare, let us of the plain dinner table, where the family even perchance uses napkin rings, say humbly that because of Jane Austen’s simple style, quiet humor, keen irony, sprightly narrative, mischievous poking into our homely, everyday souls, and gentle ending of her stories, we like her and them, though they be the Apotheosis of the Commonplace.”
The stories included in The Goodness of St. Rocque are colourful portraits that intone the manner, the rhythm and mode of speech of the Creole experience. Each of these tales are thumbnail tableaux of people and place – each is set in New Orleans – and are short and immediate. They fall very much within the local color or regional literary tradition that blossomed at this time in America. Realism and romanticism were combined; tales of the ordinary were framed by the exotic or the imaginative, and even if they were in some way grounded, or held back, by attention to local detail – its geographic or landscape filigree, or by local social concerns – sentimentality and nostalgia tended to rise to the surface. Often these stories were headlined by characters that were stereotypical; their storylines were flat, often built on the symbolic tensions resulting from the change from old rural ways to modern urbanity, or community and its rituals rather than fast paced, hard action. Their narrators tended to be distant, all-seeing or ironic. Significant local color writers of this decade included Sarah Orne Jewett, whose sequence of related short stories The Country of the Pointed Firs is set in Maine, Bret Harte who wrote of the Californian gold rush, Kate Chopin who wrote more widely of Louisiana, or Grace King, a lawyer’s daughter with aristocratic lineage, who wrote of New Orleans from her privileged white perspective. Hamlin Garland made a case for the novel of local color, but its most frequent form was the sketch or short story.
The Goodness of St. Rocque sparkles with Creole life. Of bananas fried for Mr. Baptiste, who then pays his clients with baskets of fresh fruit; of M’sieu Fortier, the first violinist at the French Opera House, who becomes a cigar-maker when the opera season finishes in February each year; of the fishermen casting their nets at the end of the pier in Pass Christian; of Annette, lolling in a hammock under a big catalpa-tree; of hay-rides and fish-fries on the shores of the Mississippi Sound; of the woman selling praline as she sits by the side of the Archbishop’s quaint little old chapel on Royal Street, “ces pralines, dey be fine, ver’ fresh.” Frequently we read of Creole superstition and black magic, hinting strongly at Alice’s mother’s belief and practice in such superstitious ways. Her characters use the part-English, part-French derivative Creole patois and accented speech. These scenes capture the dizzy world of the mythical Buddy Bolden, whose trumpet in the gutbucket marching bands sounded the loudest, who was not just the wellspring of jazz, but a part-time barber and part-time newspaper man (Dunbar-Nelson’s early work experience was with a local newspaper, writing a weekly column; when nineteen she was praised as “being the only colored female stenographer and type-writer in this city”).
As the nineteenth century came to a close, New Orleans was a city very much in decline. It had been a major port feeding the heartland of America, but its prosperity had been curtailed by the Civil War and the onset of the railways. An embroiled social and racial web had been spun, and from its melee of conflicting class and altered custom came its vibrant communities. From its differing musical traditions came the early strains of jazz. “Jazz and I grew up side by side,” wrote Louis Armstong; “we were poor and everything like that, but music was all around you.” Armstrong was born in 1901, and was raised among the brothels and dance halls of New Orleans. He sold coal in its streets, learnt the rudiments of harmony as he sang in a barbershop street choir, and, as an eleven-year-old delinquent, fired blanks from his stepfather’s pistol into the street. The raucous street sound of Armstrong’s persona is heard in his music. So too the fragrance and tinctures of this street life are streaked in both vivid and delicate flashes across the stories of Dunbar-Nelson, even if her childhood was middle class and more aspirational than Armstrong’s.
Violets and Other Tales, Dunbar-Nelson’s first collection of stories, had been published in 1895 when she was barely twenty years old. It is a literary collage with little coherence, serendipitous juvenilia even if occasionally skilled or gently challenging. Poems are intertwined with these stories. There is scant originality and her writing is prolix, although three of these stories were considered good enough to be included in her second volume. She was “honestly ashamed” of the book in later life (and “not so ashamed” of The Goodness of St. Rocque, “though it is bad”). That it was published signifies a teenage enthusiasm and ambition to become a lady of letters. This ambition was met, by proxy at least, when she married the poet Paul Dunbar in 1898.
The three-year courtship between Alice and Paul Dunbar began after Dunbar who had seen a photograph of her with one of her poems alongside in a newspaper, made contact. After much correspondence, they became engaged in February 1895 when they met in person for the first time, the night before he embarked on a literary tour of England.Their marriage was to take place in secret (a habit of Alice’s, her second marriage was conducted in secret also). Alice’s family had disapproved of him: his mother was a washerwoman and he could offer no stable income. Their prenuptial correspondence shows Alice as anxious to control his affairs and is perhaps overly condescending and at times hectoring. She urged him to stay in a “first-class white hostelry,” for instance, where he would “be away from the – well Niggers;” this was her Creole pedigree coming to the fore, Creoles assumed superiority over the pure Negroes, especially those who had been slaves.
Paul Dunbar had been discovered by William Dean Howells in 1896 and was to be published widely thereafter. Dean Howells was an arbiter if not crucible of American literary taste at the time. Today Paul Dunbar appears mostly in anthologies as the prince elect of his era. Dunbar’s literary intent and expression have proved to be more long-lasting than his actual work. But at this point of his life, the crest of his wave was such that he and Alice referred to themselves privately as the Barrett Brownings of the age. As their romance became public, it is easy to see why the couple became a talking point of literary America for they had a fairy tale quality that was ripe for media consumption. Alice was intellectual and was held to be beautiful (“the sweetest, smartest little girl I ever saw,” wrote Dunbar), known to be a writer even by those who didn’t read. To help feed the sway their relationship held for the public, Dunbar conveniently had become well connected. Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington had befriended him; he had forged an unlikely and enduring friendship with the Wright brothers; he was the only African American present at William McKinley’s inauguration in 1901, and he was on friendly terms with his successor, Theodore Roosevelt. Symbolically, too, his stock was high for he was the first African American poet who had sought to earn his livelihood through writing, though his income hitherto had been meagre even by the standards of the time, and he had also employment at the Library of Congress in Washington. It is doubtful perhaps that he could have sustained his high profile literary career had he not died so young.
Dunbar’s life journey had been backstreet and rags to centre stage and social riches. Born to former slaves, he adapted comfortably to touring America’s cultured elite. He read with panache and personal flair wherever he went. His name was all but franchised to businesses and institutions. There is every indication that he took to heart his own press cuttings; indeed the accolades his poetry had induced allowed him to write that “my …verse has afforded me the right to go down in history as one of America’s greatest writers.” He coined the term ‘Dunbareans’ to describe his followers who recited his works in public. He was known especially for his poems in dialect, although in time he came to tire of this writing style, if not despise it. Folk culture was ascendant at this point, and Dunbar became the champion of southern plantation literature that reminisced and retold stories of good and safe times. He offered an authenticity that outshone, say, the hapless short stories of Thomas Nelson Page, whose postbellum strains of Lost Cause ideology hit a fortissimo with D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of the Nation, which, if inflation related, was the most commercially successful film ever produced. Dunbar was read widely in America by all ethnicities and his reputation had become international. In 1897 he had toured England where he met the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Coleridge-Taylor set some of Dunbar’s poems to music, and was inspired to use African and African American songs and tunes in his work thereafter.
The Dunbars life together lasted only four years. Alice wrote early in the marriage that they offered each other mutual support and that “we worked together, read together.” There was no significant jarring of literary ego on either side, but it was a bumpy ride. She proved unable to cope with his depression, reckless spending, accidental alcoholism (a doctor had recommended him alcohol to counter tuberculosis) and dependence on heroin tablets. Eventually he acted aggressively towards her. The editor of the New York Age, T. Thomas Fortune, wrote to Booker T. Washington of how “Dunbar went home and tried to kill his wife. He is a high class brute…” She claimed that his act of violence was forgivable, though the slanderous story he had told of her in public was not. There is no disclosure in their correspondence as to what exactly this damaging gossip was. Speculation might be that he was unable to cope with Alice’s possible lesbian indulgence; such supposition may have been the marriage’s final, catastrophic breakdown. Alice fled to Delaware (where she was to live for the next thirty years), determined never to speak to Dunbar again, and, despite entreaties, she never did, as if to prove the depth of their calamity. He died in early 1906; Alice learnt of this from a newspaper report.
The corollary of her separation from her husband and move away from New Orleans was a personal literary readjustment for Dunbar-Nelson. She had been frustrated always by her lack of critical reception, and at this point she seems to have consciously widened her literary orbit. Her journalism became more important to her (though not necessarily more profitable) than her creative writing. Such a change would, of course, involve far more public engagement than hitherto and take up more of her time. Literary success was still out of reach. A proposed book of twelve stories had been refused by Walter Page in December 1900. By 1902 she had started to write what she called “tenement stories,” reflections of her short time teaching in New York City’s East Side, set midst the firescapes and alleyways of East 86th Street, near Third Avenue, with a stereotypical cast of characters including aspirational but unaware charity workers. Whilst living in Brooklyn, Alice had worked with the White Rose Mission, and these stories incorporated the “substratum for which the mission was designed.” Her attempts to publish these under the title of Women and Men failed.
Dunbar-Nelson’s autobiographic accounts can be regarded as either one-dimensional or have no context after such a passage of time. But at every twist and turn in her life, Nelson’s psychology is interesting. In particular her apparent need for secrecy regarding her marriages, also her sudden, irretrievable disavowal of her husband; then the cloistered world that she came to inhabit. In Delaware she had settled into a closed, familial world. She moved in with her sister, Leila, who had separated from her partner, and her four children, three of whom were girls; the household was completed by Alice and Leila’s mother, Patricia. Husbands and further children may have been bolted on periodically, but for over a decade this household functioned as a matrifocal unit, emotionally and economically.
During her tryst with Edwina B. Kruse, Alice had a sublimated relationship with a retired Army sergeant. As with her first marriage, courtship was by extensive correspondence, although this love affair was never consummated. The self-titled ‘Major’ Fleetwood was much older, lived in Washington, and offered Alice advice, loans, emotional support, and, of course, gave gifts. A second, peculiar marriage failed. Arthur Callis was twelve years younger than Alice, and he had begun to teach at the Howard High School a year before they married in June 1910. They had met originally at Cornell University where Alice had studied literature during a year’s leave of absence in 1907 and 1908. The ceremony was private and the marriage unannounced; the only public notice ever of the marriage was in Callis’ fraternity-sponsored obituary (he went on to be in private medical practice), where it states simply that he and Alice “became friends and the friendship continued until they were married.” Dunbar-Nelson’s affair with the school principal may have shaped this narrative, of course, and it appears to have ended with little grace as this marriage begins, but there is enough similar behavior in her timeline to suggest that Dunbar-Nelson’s psychology was interesting.
In April 1916 she married the civil rights activist and casual poet Robert J. Nelson. This was never a secretive union, though it seems to have been founded upon mutual interest and good sense. The cement of the relationship seems to have been journalism. Dunbar-Nelson’s life hereafter takes on a more stable aspect, although her now focused social activism bestowed upon her a lifestyle more peripatetic than before. Her sexual needs were often met elsewhere, often with lesbian encounters. Her lovers included the journalist Fay Jackson Robinson, who worked for the Associated Negro Press, and an artist, Helene Ricks London. Dunbar-Nelson’s diary entries of the time are throwaway and casual, if cryptic, often playful and suggesting flirtation rather than full blow hedonism, but she inhabited her cultured and clandestine world of African American lesbianism with comfort. It was, however, a cached world and certainly not for public view; reports that she destroyed her lesbian poems before she died might underline her caution. (The of these poems that remain are the remnant annotated in her diary.)
Nelson was a widower with two children, both of whom died tragically young. The partners worked together on Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence, she as its editor, he as its publisher. The marriage also gave her freedom to participate in many social campaigns. The campaign for women’s suffrage in 1915; the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense in the First World War; she was a member of the Republican Committee of Delaware, directing political activities among African American women after the war, work which caused her to lose her post at Howard High School; in 1924 she campaigned for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. She was very active as a public speaker, and marketed herself enthusiastically. She was familiar with many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance — W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Walter White, Booker T. Washington; she tended to associate only with its more elderly members but commented on their inclination to selfishness. She was conscious always of her mixed-descent status, and often felt an outsider.
Between 1920 and 1922 Nelson and his wife published the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive African American newspaper. Sadly and incredibly no copies of this newspaper exist today. Her writing here would have furthered her understanding of racial conflict and would have added nuance to her understanding of 1920s America. Her chief concerns involved either civil rights or feminism, particularly on issues related to education and employment rights. The newspaper was not afraid to take controversial viewpoints. Indeed its tone may have caused her to distance herself from more her creative writing. Even in 1900s she had been chided by the editor of the Atlantic Monthly that the public had a “dislike” for fictional tales of the “color-line.”
Dunbar-Nelson was part of a rich network of African American women journalists making their mark in various parts of America in the 1920s. All roads led to Ida B. Wells, pioneer and muckraker extraordinaire, born in 1862, whose investigative journalism knew no fear and made her possibly the most famous black woman in America at the turn of the century. Fay Jackson Robinson founded the first African American newspaper in Los Angeles; Georgia Douglas Johnson ran a syndicated, weekly column from 1926 to 1932, ‘Homely Philosophy’, with folksy homily and poetic hue; Marvel Jackson Cooke, first an assistant to Du Bois at Crisis, became later the first African American female reporter for a mainstream white-owned newspaper; the crusading Gertrude E. H. Bustill Mossell, eager to encourage fellow women journalists, had started her journalism in Philadelphia in the 1870s, active still.
Dunbar-Nelson’s skills as a writer are undoubtedly to be found in her journalism. The distilled essence of her print voice is sonorous and Ciceronian; it cascades to the all-embracing rhythms and gaiety of Creole street life. Her topics were wide-ranging – politics and social commentary, race discussion, women’s issues, literary criticism, film and theatre review – their manner discursive and culturally widely referenced. Her style was elegant and sophisticated; her stance could be world-wise yet strongly opiniated, energized occasionally by fulmination and passion, flavoured often with humour. Dunbar-Nelson wrote for, edited and even started several newspapers over several decades, nearly all of them were very short-lived. Her attempt to establish her own syndicated news column in May 1931 failed, and only rarely did she secure a regular column and never for very long. But this is a reflection not on her skill as a writer, rather of her tenor, which could be definitive but, in the context of the racial maelstrom surrounding her, injudicious. This is a contrast to, say, Bessye J. Bearden, who had a regular column as New York correspondent of the Chicago Defender; Bearden was diplomatic and skilled at networking, her house a social hub of diverse intellectual and cultural personality. These qualities of accommodation and liaison eluded Dunbar-Nelson. Habitually she was too blatant in her expression, debating openly and unguardedly matters concerning the color line. Brass Ankles Speaks was published only posthumously; she had been unwilling to be named as its author, and publishers were averse to her using a pseudonym or publishing anonymously. So much else remained in draft form. Even when submitting proposals for textbooks, for instance to Doubleday, Page & Co. in 1918, advocating a “supplementary reader for the seventh and eighth grades of colored schools,” she overplayed her hand rather than played safe. Her rejection comment was as a corrective: “the book should contain a great deal more material of the character of that selection you have given from Booker T. Washington to the exclusion of quite a number of selections you have made.” Again this could be part of her distinct psychological make-up, but it was certainly derived from her mixed-race background that made her at once committed to the cause of social justice and yet ostracized in its articulation.
Dunbar-Nelson’s writing is studded with examples of this sense of alienation, and complex feelings of a lack of a recognized identity. Her most anthologized story, Sister Josepha (which appears in The Goodness of St. Rocque also), has no obvious reference to mixed race (it is hinted), yet the story’s obvious theme is a struggle for identity. The hero of The Pearl in the Oyster, a story published in The Southern Workman magazine in 1900, is classified as a white man, Auguste Picou, although he had an African American grandfather. He tries to exploit both sides of his racial ancestry but falls catastrophically between the two. “My son wid what day call Negrel,” his mother cries, “non, non!” And in The Stones of the Village, a ‘white nigger’ becomes a respected lawyer, yet his grandmother leads him away from children playing in the street, shouting “What you mean playin’ in de strit wid dose niggers?”
Her diary – only segments written between 1921 and 1931 have survived – is one of only two known journals by African-American women born in the nineteenth-century. It is a chronicle of the casual – her love affair with hats, preparing breakfast for Du Bois, health concerns, travel – but also of the issues that mattered to her the most, in particular her failure to ascend as a writer as successfully as she felt she deserved. She mused in 1921: “It is a pretty sure guess if you haven’t gotten anywhere by the time you’re forty-six you’re not going to get very far.”