Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)
Akasha (Gloria) Hull
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The state of African-American literature when these two stories were
published (1899-1900) was the transition period between post-slavery Reconstruction
and the flowering of black literature in the nineteen-teens (1915 into
the Harlem Renaissance)-- before Booker
T. Washington's Up From Slavery (1901) and W.E.B.
Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903) had articulated the
terms of a racial debate that highlighted the difference between old and
new ways of conceptualizing and presenting (politically and artistically)
black American culture. There was continuing richness in folk literature,
but it still did not represent an extensive scribal tradition. Two black
men-of-letters had achieved national recognition-- Paul
Laurence Dunbar for his dialect poetry (which, despite its original
genius, still used familiar minstrel and plantation motifs) and Charles
Chesnutt, author of The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His
Youth (1899), stories that featured a tale-telling trickster figure
and the "color line," respectively. Clearly, Dunbar-Nelson is
helping to define a nascent modern tradition, and doing so in ways that
avoided limitations and stereotypes but also skirted race.
One must remember, too, the context of nineteenth-century popular fiction
with its penchant for narrative modes and devices we now eschew--romance,
melodrama, moralizing, etc. Of particular relevance is the flourishing
of the local color tradition, in which women writers excelled. The South
and Louisiana had its representatives, and Dunbar-Nelson wrote and was
read in the light of George
Washington Cable and Kate
Chopin. In an early letter to her, Paul Laurence Dunbar said:
Your determination to contest Cable for his laurels is a commendable
one. Why shouldn't you tell those pretty Creole stories as well as he?
You have the force, the fire and the artistic touch that is so delicate
and yet so strong.
Do you know that New Orleans--in fact all of Louisiana--seems to me
to be a kind of romance land. . . . No wonder you have Grace
King and Geo. W. Cable, no wonder you will have Alice R.[uth] M.[oore]
[Dunbar-Nelson's maiden name]
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Race and racism within the U.S. is a contextual given. One of the specific
results/manifestations that is relevant is intra-racial color prejudice,
especially the prejudice against darker-skinned black people and the hierarchy
of color. These contexts relate to Auguste in "Pearl." So does
the phenomenon of "passing" (usually economically motivated).
Dunbar-Nelson herself casually passed on occasion--to see a theatrical
performance, to have a swim at a bathing spa, to travel comfortably.
Auguste does so in a much more serious and sustained way for, in the
eyes of the Irish politicians, his free black grandfather makes him just
as much a "nigger" as Frank and the others.
The ambiguous racial status of the Louisiana Creoles is an even further
refinement on the race/racism theme. Their admixture of French-Spanish-Indian-black-white
blood, their often free status, their closed/distinct society/culture,
etc., set them apart. Readers did not (do not?) tend to see these Creole
characters as black/African-Americans, but as some kind of non-white exotics.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Race and the African-American writer. There has always been feeling
and discussion on the black writer's proper role/stance with regard to
her/his racial roots and the use of this material. This has been complicated
by the pseudo-argument of whether one wants to be a "black writer"
or a "writer" (recall the shibboleth of being "universal").
Answering questions like this was also affected by questions of audience
and readership, since the authors had to write for predominantly white
or mixed audiences. Furthermore, whites controlled the mass markets. Black
newspapers and journals furnished independent outlets, but these were comparatively
few and small. Clearly, Dunbar-Nelson was writing for a larger, mostly
white readership. She had also learned from experience that this audience
did not accept controversial treatments of blacks or black-white relations.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Dunbar-Nelson has usually been taught--if at all--as a very minor female
poet of the Harlem Renaissance, partly because of that period's notoriety
and also because only a few of her poems have been available. Literary
historians knew/know of her "Creole stories," but they have not
been easy to access. It radically alters our view of her to see that poetry
was the least significant genre for her and short fiction the most important.
After Violets and St. Rocque, she wrote two other collections
that were never published (though a few individual stories were): Women
and Men, more nature and original Creole and non-Creole materials,
and The Annals of 'Steenth Street, tales of Irish tenement youth
set in New York City. She also wrote various other types of stories until
Possible further reading: Two other Dunbar-Nelson stories: "The
Goodness of St. Rocque," which typifies, perhaps, her mode in these
works, and "The Stones of the Village," an even more overt and
tragic handling of race, passing, and the black Creole; plus "Brass
Ankles Speaks," an autobiographical essay about growing up in New
Orleans as a "light nigger," which Dunbar-Nelson wrote pseudonymously
toward the end of her life.
Secondary criticism: The biographical-literary chapter devoted to Dunbar-Nelson
in Gloria T. Hull, Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the
Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), and
the Introduction to The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson.