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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

The most striking feature of Alice Dunbar-Nelson's work is the way that it contrives to treat serious, even radical, social concerns while adhering on the surface to conventional forms and modes of expression. For her as for many other African American writers of her generation, race was a particularly vexed (and vexing) issue—one which she skillfully elided in her life and writings.

Dunbar-Nelson was personally acquainted with cultural ambiguity, being born of mixed African, Native American, and white ancestry into the Creole society of postbellum New Orleans. There she shone as a beautiful and promising young woman from whom much was expected. After her graduation from Straight College (now Dilliard University) in 1892 and four years teaching elementary school, she went north, where she continued her education and taught public and mission school in New York City. On March 8, 1898, after a storybook courtship, she married the famous black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Plagued from the beginning by temperamental clashes, her family's disapproval, and his medically related alcohol and drug addiction, the union did not last long. They separated in 1902, four years before Dunbar died. However brief, her relationship with him exposed her to the world of professional authorship.

From 1902 to 1920, she taught English and was an administrator at Howard High School, in Wilmington, Delaware. Later, she was instructor and parole officer at the Industrial School for Colored Girls (1924-1928) and executive secretary of the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee (1928-1931). Despite the fact that she was light-skinned enough to pass for white and privately harbored some negativity about darker-skinned, less educated or refined blacks, Dunbar-Nelson worked assiduously for racial causes. She headed the 1922 Delaware Anti-Lynching Crusaders and, with her husband Robert J. Nelson (whom she married in 1916), co-edited and published the Wilmington Advocate, a newspaper that challenged vested racist and capitalist interests. Because she was also a feminist, many of her activities centered on women. She was particularly prominent in the social and cultural projects of the Federation of Colored Women's Clubs and in political party organizing among black women.

A strong individual with a sense of her own worth, Dunbar-Nelson sought recognition through her writing. She published her first book, Violets, when she was barely twenty years old and until her death at age sixty produced poems, volumes of short stories, a few plays and pageants, and three unpublished novels. However, some of her most significant writing was done in non-canonical forms. The newspaper columns which she wrote between 1926 and 1930 are informational and linguistic treasures. Her diary (1921, 1926-1931) likewise possesses artistic merit while revealing her complex life and times. Speeches and essays in black journals and anthologies round out the body of her work.

Dunbar-Nelson devoted most of her literary attention to her short stories. They were regularly published in such popular magazines as Leslie's Weekly and The Mirror. Her turn-of-the-century short stories confounded the reading public's expectations that black fictional characters conform to plantation and minstrel stereotypes. That helps explain why the most of her work "has no characteristics peculiar to her race," as one reviewer in 1900 put it. Thus, Dunbar-Nelson achieved her renown as a "local colorist" who penned charming sketches of the Louisiana Creole.

The subtext of her work tells a different story. "Sister Josepha" (which appeared in The Goodness of St. Rocque), seems to be just another romantically sad convent tale slightly distinguished by its Old World New Orleans ambience and French patois. In reality, it is a remarkable exploration of the "heavy door" of illegitimacy, racism, sexism, female vulnerability, traditional religion, and forced confinement. Dunbar-Nelson wrote a few fictional pieces that deal more explicitly with the cultural confusion of the black Creole and with racism in general. However, because these serious works were not nearly as marketable as her airier tales (finding outlets only in publications such as Southern Workman and Crisis), she tended to reserve her overtly race-conscious statements for her non-belletristic writings. In a story like "Sister Josepha," the reader must tread surreptitiously with Dunbar-Nelson beyond the safe and acceptable into more personally and socially sensitive areas.

Gloria T. Hull
University of California at Santa Cruz

In the Heath Anthology
Sister Josepha (1899)
I Sit and Sew (1920)
You! Inez! (1921)
The Proletariat Speaks (1929)

Other Works
Violets and Other Tales (1895)
The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (1899)

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Alice Dunbar-Nelson Papers
Biography and Archive list, with some annotations, from the University of Delaware.

American Authors (Gonzaga University)
Links to several stories and secondary materials.

Louisiana Leaders: Notable Women in History
Brief biography from Louisiana State University library.

Secondary Sources

Elizabeth Ammons, Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century, 1991

Margaret D. Bauer, "When a Convent Seems the Only Viable Choice: Questionable Callings in Stories by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Alice Walker, and Louise Erdrich" in Critical Essays on Alice Walker, ed. Deike Ikenna, 1999

Violet-Harrington Bryan, "Race and Gender in the Early Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson," in Louisiana Women Writers: New Essays and a Comprehensive Bibliography, eds. Dorothy H. Brown and Barbara C. Ewell, 1992

Gloria T. Hull, Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance, 1987

Jean-Marie Lutes, "Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson" in Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, eds. Denise-D. Knights and Emmanuel S. Nelson, 1997