Legacy Volume 33, No. 2, 2016

Special Issue: Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First Century

Guest editors: Katherine Adams, Caroline Gebhard, and Sandra A. Zagarell


Alice Dunbar-Nelson, date unknown. MSS 113, Alice Dunbar-Nelson Papers, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library. Used courtesy of Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, Delaware

Introduction: Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First Century” 

Katherine Adams, Tulane University

Sandra A. Zagarell, Oberlin College

Caroline Gebhard, Tuskegee University

This essay introduces the special issue, “Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First Century,” by exploring a question: What happens when we place Dunbar-Nelson’s life and writing at the center of analysis, using these to investigate the critical paradigms that once marginalized and distorted her legacy? We argue that Dunbar-Nelson’s work offers fertile ground for scholarly meta-reflection of the sort currently animating our discipline, inviting us rethink approaches to authorship, biography, period, genre, and cultural identity as frames for recovery and interpretation. Dunbar-Nelson wrote in a dizzying array of genres, from short fiction, novels, and poetry, to plays and film scripts, essays, reviews, and nationally-syndicated columns. She worked throughout her life to promote the civil, political, economic, and educational rights of all African Americans and all women. She was a cultural critic and political commentator of razor-sharp intelligence, skeptical of pieties and party lines. She celebrated myriad pleasures – erotic, sensual, and aesthetic – through her writing and relationships. Our essay emphasizes the complexity and vibrancy of Dunbar-Nelson’s life and work, surveying the rich variety of her output as a writer (some of it still awaiting publication) and her professional and activist pursuits (including her little-known collaborations with W.E.B. Du Bois). In the process, we confront the critical assumptions and habits that have too often pigeonholed her as a quaint local colorist, a minor Harlem Renaissance poet, or the sometime wife of Paul Laurence Dunbar. We propose that rediscovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson will also reveal much about our own practices as scholars of US literature and culture.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Published Works: A Bibliography in Progress

Katherine Adams, Caroline Gebhard, and Sandra A. Zagarell

Alice Dunbar-Nelson: A Gallery of Images

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“Upon the young people of our race, by our own literature”: Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils”

Shawn Christian, Wheaton College

In this essay, Shawn Anthony Christian situates Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s understudied article as an important extension of the ways that she intertwines teaching, political activism, and club work. In his close reading of this 1922, Southern Workman article, Christian draws on histories of African American education, racial uplift, and Dunbar-Nelson’s biography and related writings to demonstrate how she argues for schooling as a site of racial and cultural affirmation. Specifically, Christian analyzes how Dunbar-Nelson aligns the benefits of a bourgeoning, African American literary tradition with the learning outcomes shaping African American education. As he illustrates, Dunbar-Nelson posits a range of works comprising this tradition—from slave narratives to poetry—as an opportunity to counter the limited and often negative realities of literary instruction in particular and curricula generally. Such reasoning, Christian argues, renders the article an important call for pedagogical innovation and places it among the signal writings cohering the early years of the Harlem Renaissance. Ultimately, “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils” further highlights Dunbar-Nelson’s multi-dimensional contributions to the New Negro era, especially her efforts to celebrate African American literature as intimately linked to African American youth and their potential.

Writing to Belong: Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Newspaper Columns in the African American Press

Jacqueline Emery, SUNY Old Westbury

Despite Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s reputation as an acclaimed journalist and columnist during her lifetime and her inclusion in more recent historical scholarship on African American women journalists, literary scholars have been slow to study her journalism. Focusing on the weekly column she wrote for the woman’s page of the Pittsburgh Courier in 1926, this essay examines how Dunbar-Nelson’s strategic use of miscellany and collage transformed the pages of the Courier and contributed to the community-building agenda of the African American press. In her column “From A Woman’s Point of View” (later “Une Femme Dit”), Dunbar-Nelson paired affirmative commentary on African American achievements with criticism of African American individuals and institutions for their failure to serve the interests of the race. By juxtaposing affirmative commentary with criticism, Dunbar-Nelson’s column highlights an opposition that seems designed to prompt readers to contemplate the disparate elements, draw connections between them, and develop their own political consciousness. In this way, she sought to provoke conversation and debate and encourage the African American women and men who read her column to take action to challenge inequality and improve their lives.

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s Suffrage Work: The View from Her Scrapbook

Ellen Gruber Garvey, New Jersey City University

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s 1915 scrapbook is a record of her experiences as a paid organizer in the women’s suffrage movement of the 1910s, when she worked for the Pennsylvania suffrage campaign, mainly in the Pittsburgh area, during a period for which there are no extant diaries. Made of news clippings pasted into a reused household account book, the scrapbook shares commonalities with scrapbooks by women suffragists and by black men concerned with African American history. She was already an accomplished speaker and organizer before her work on the suffrage campaign began, working with the NAACP against lynching, and participating in their campaign against Birth of a Nation during it. The scrapbook shows her public speaking, addressing black and mixed audiences, via newspapers’ coverage and fragmentary transcriptions of her speeches–a topic connected to her work teaching public speaking at Howard High School, and her anthologies of African American speeches. It is a carefully composed text itself, which shows her shaping her image. She strategically used her status as Paul Laurence Dunbar’s widow to gain more attention to the cause, even while she drew on a concealed well of experience as a battered wife in framing her arguments. Her speeches articulated her view of women’s suffrage and the distinctive ways black women should use the vote for their communities–not settling for the historic black support for the Republican Party, but demanding a return for their votes.

Masculinity, Criminality, and Race: Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Creole Boy Stories

Caroline Gebhard, Tuskegee University

This essay responds to critics who have argued that writing about Creoles was a way for Alice Dunbar-Nelson to mask her race and please white audiences. Her racially charged literary debut before a white audience and the publication of her much of her work in black venues instead suggest that she uses the Creole boy not to evade but to probe constructions of race; however, by bringing together turn-of-the-century discourses on masculinity and “Negro criminality,” she also implicates gender, class, and history in her representations of Creoles. This essay looks at “Titee,” published in her first book and later revised; it also considers two little known stories: “Edouard” and “Esteve, the Soldier Boy.” Like the trope of the mulatta, Creole as a trope, I argue, is a carrier of history, embodying the mixing of peoples. In contrast to the term “mulatta,” however, “Creole,” in New Orleans was defined by whites to exclude persons of African descent. In representing Creoles of African descent, Dunbar-Nelson exposes the contingency of white perspectives while subtly foregrounding black Creoles. However, Dunbar-Nelson does not limit her Creole characters to dilemmas posed by racial affiliation; her Creole boys in particular represent her artistic intervention in discourses that, on the one hand, valorized savagery as part of normative white boyhood but, on the other, cast black boys and men as inherently savage and prone to criminality. Dunbar-Nelson’s Creole boys thus stand at the intersection of multiple discourses—blackness and whiteness, savagery and education, masculinity and criminality, past and future—and emerge at last as figures of hope.

Quinine Pills and Race Progress: Alice Dunbar-Nelson and the Black Women’s Literary Tradition

Anna Storm, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

This article argues that Alice Dunbar-Nelson builds on and revises the work of writers such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Pauline Hopkins by resisting the constraints of Victorian social conventions and uplift narratives, while maintaining those writers’ focus on communal support as opposed to individual achievement. Dunbar-Nelson uses the genres of regional fiction and the white-life novel to illuminate the limitations of progress narratives as well as traditional gender and sexual conventions. In her unfinished novelette, A Modern Undine, she sheds light on the failures and hypocrisy of dominant white bourgeois society, especially the heteronormative, patriarchal family structure and the Victorian womanhood ideal. Her regional fiction strategically manipulates a genre associated with nostalgia and quaintness to interrogate middle class values and their association with civility, modernity, and success. Dunbar-Nelson’s departure from the sentimental domestic genre and uplift narrative allow her to shift her writing away from a focus on “race progress,” an ideology that often required distancing African Americans from the lower-class black majority in the South and from black folk culture; rather, her New Orleans setting connects herself and her readers more strongly with her racial and cultural inheritance in her regional fiction. The article maintains that Dunbar-Nelson’s writing needs to be considered in context with writers already considered members of the black women’s literary tradition, both as a part of her recovery and in an effort to interrogate the boundaries of that tradition.

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Reflections on the Archive: Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson

Caroline Gebhard, with Katherine Adams and Sandra A. Zagarell

This essay reflects upon the archival resources for African American woman writer, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935). Her archive provides a striking exception to the general rule that the personal papers of black women born in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are scarce. From her early twenties until her death, Dunbar-Nelson saved personal correspondence, manuscripts, diaries, notebooks, and scrapbooks. In 1984, the University of Delaware’s Library in Newark, Delaware, acquired this extraordinary personal collection that comprises more than twenty-five hundred items. Because of the unusual range and depth of the Delaware archive, much remains to be discovered and interpreted. Citing one archival discovery we made, we point out that the manuscript of “The Praline Woman,” sheds light upon the representation of race in her Creole fiction. The first page of the manuscript offers evidence that she revised the story’s opening to make racial designation subtle rather than overt. A page from her notebook as well as the program featuring her performance of the story at Cooper Union illustrate the essay. While by far the largest and most indispensable collection of materials on Dunbar-Nelson’s work and life is at Delaware, other libraries also hold materials by or about her. Traces of the many different lives Dunbar-Nelson led, as fiction writer, poet, columnist, teacher, lecturer, suffrage worker, anti-lynching crusader, Republican, then Democratic party activist, pacifist, spouse, and lover of both women and men, are preserved in a uniquely rich and varied archive that has yet to be fully explored.

Writing Black Modernism: Two Poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Caroline Gebhard, with Katherine Adams and Sandra A. Zagarell

We republish here two remarkable poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson: “I Am an American” (1928) and “Harlem John Henry Views the Airmada” (1932). The first, published in her newspaper column on 22 March 1928, “Little Excursions Week by Week” (reprinted in full), represents Dunbar-Nelson’s response to Elias Lieberman’s poem of the same title. Hers corrects his exclusion of Native and African Americans from the American “melting pot.” The second published in the January 1932 issue of Crisis also sounds a post-World War I note of race pride. Characteristic of modernist poems, “Harlem John Henry Views the Airmada” is a densely allusive montage of historical references and quotations from Negro spirituals that underline African Americans’ sacrifices in America’s wars. The poem’s speaker, a Harlem-based version of the black folk hero, begins his meditation on black bloodshed for the nation when he sees a huge “airmada” of United States warplanes. The original manuscripts for both poems are in the Alice Dunbar-Nelson Papers at the University of Delaware Library.

“I Am an American”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

“Harlem John Henry Views the Airmada”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Recovered from the Archive: Two Stories by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Caroline Gebhard, with Katherine Adams and Sandra A. Zagarell

We publish here two virtually unknown works of fiction by Alice Dunbar-Nelson recovered from the Alice Dunbar-Nelson Papers at the University of Delaware Library. “His Heart’s Desire,” apparently published in the Chicago Daily News in 1900, reflects her experiences as a teacher in a settlement house in New York City. The story tells what happens when a small boy desires a doll. She transmutes potentially sentimental subject matter into a masterful exploration of heteronormative masculinity and children’s use of transitional objects. The second story, “St. John’s Eve,” written in 1900 but likely never published, offers readers a glimpse into black occult practices in turn of the century New Orleans known as “Voudoo.” The story exposes the blinkered mindset of an arrogant young Yankee whose midnight misadventures reveal Voudoo as genuinely terrifying, while slyly commenting upon condescension toward the African/Creole culture of New Orleans by outsiders. These two newly discovered tales ought to command general and scholarly interest.

“His Heart’s Desire”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

“St. John’s Eve”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

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Review Essay

Women Writers and Journalists in the Nineteenth-Century South by Jonathan Daniel Wells, Writing Reconstruction: Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the Postwar South by Sharon D. Kennedy-Nolle, and Love, Liberation, and Escaping Slavery: William and Ellen Craft in Cultural Memory by Barbara McCaskill

Benjamin Fagan, Auburn University

Book Reviews

The Western Captive and Other Indian Stories by Elizabeth Oakes Smith edited by Caroline M. Woidat

Timothy H. Scherman, Northeastern Illinois University

Married or Single? by Catharine Maria Sedgwick edited by Deborah Gussman

Joe Shapiro, Southern Illinois University – Carbondale

African American Travel Narratives from Abroad: Mobility and Cultural Work in the Age of Jim Crow by Gary Totten

Kelly L. Bezio, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi

Elder Northfield’s Home; or, Sacrificed on the Mormon Altar by A. Jennie Bartlett edited by Nicole Tonkovich

Kyla Schuller, Rutgers University – New Brunswick

Emotional Reinventions: Realist-Era Representations Beyond Sympathy by Melanie V. Dawson

Jane F. Thrailkill, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill