Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)

    Contributing Editor:
    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").

    Original Audience

    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 she died.


    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.