Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Struggle as a Multiracial Woman in Biracial America

by Bridget Maguire

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was born into the Creole society of New Orleans on July 19, 1875, and grew up in a house located at 56½ Palmyra Street in Carrollton (Larson 68).

Although she identified herself as African American and is regarded as a prominent African American literary figure, her ancestry was multiracial.  Her mother, Patricia Wright, was both African American and Native American, while her father, Joseph Moore, is said to have been mostly, if not completely, Caucasian (Novak).  Pamela Johnson notes the ramifications of Alice Moore’s skin color in an analysis of her first marriage to writer, Paul Laurence Dunbar:

His wasn’t the only heart she stole with her alabaster skin and auburn hair, and only the tiniest trace of Africa in her features.  Here and there when it got her into tony places such as the opera or art museum, she passed for white, slipping easily through the doors of places where Paul, with his deep brown skin, full nose and lips, would have been turned away with a snarl and a slur. (72)

Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s ability to pass for white was a challenging aspect of her African American identity and became a prominent issue throughout much of her work.

Alice_Dunbar-Nelson

Alice Dunbar-Nelson clearly grapples with the complexity of her multiracial appearance in her essay “Brass Ankles Speaks,” a frank and likely controversial essay she never published during her lifetime.  Not only does she wrestle with her ability to pass as white, but she also confirms her inability to control how some black people viewed her.  Due to the light shade of her skin, other blacks sometimes perceived her as an elitist.  Dunbar-Nelson exposes the complicated colorist system within the black community.  In the beginning of the essay, Dunbar-Nelson proclaims, “I am of the latter class, what E. C. Adams in ‘Nigger to Nigger’ immortalizes in the poem, ‘Brass Ankles.’  White enough to pass for white, but with a darker family background, a real love for the mother race, and no desire to be numbered among the white race” (311).  Her longing to be perceived as a member of the African American race is hindered by her rejection by some blacks who see her ability to pass and lighter skin color as an indication of conscious, pretentious distinction.  Her struggle as a multiracial woman identifying as African American is very apparent in her inability to find complete acceptance.  As a child, she faced this impossible acceptance in school where darker classmates bullied her for her lighter, “whiter” appearance.  This torment was not helped by predominantly lighter-skinned faculty members, whose intervention would signal favorability towards lighter-skinned students.  When Dunbar-Nelson began her teaching career in New Orleans, she experienced these same colorist problems and found, to her dissatisfaction, their replication in the Northern cities that she later moved to.

straight-univ015

In 1892, Alice Moore graduated from Straight University, which today is known as Dillard University, and began teaching in the New Orleans public school system.

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Three years later she published her first short story and poetry collection titled, Violets and Other Tales.  One appreciative reader, Paul Laurence Dunbar, saw a resemblance of talent to that of George Washington Cable (McKoy and Hull).  Dunbar and Moore began an exchange of letters that resulted in their marriage in New York – where Moore was teaching at this time – in 1898.  Afterwards, the newlyweds moved to Washington, D.C.. Alongside her husband, Dunbar-Nelson became an influential figure in the Harlem Renaissance (Novak).

Like George Washington Cable, Dunbar-Nelson became a proficient local colorist of the city New Orleans.  Kristina Brooks suggests, “By encoding locally known traditions and locally renowned figures within her fiction, Dunbar-Nelson attempts to avert identification of her Creole characters as types such as the tragic mulatta and to present them, instead, as distinct individuals” (9).  This attempt can clearly be seen in Dunbar-Nelson’s short story, “The Stones of the Village,” in which she details the locations where her protagonist, Victor Grabert, lives and works and meets his friends and antagonists.  The specificity of New Orleans geography – from the bookstore on Royal Street to the law office on Carondelet – amplifies the reader’s sense of Victor as a unique, distinct, and realistic individual with a traceable journey.

Although Dunbar-Nelson left New Orleans for good when she was twenty-one years old, her rich childhood and adolescent memories there served as a source for many stories and poems.  In 1902 when her marriage to Paul Dunbar ended after a mere four years, she moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where she continued her career as a teacher (McKoy, Hull).  During the next thirty-three years, Dunbar-Nelson remarried twice and expanded her roles of writer and teacher.  She served as the A.M.E. Review’s coeditor, as well as writer, from 1913 to 1914.

alice-dunbar-nelson-2-sized

In the following year, Dunbar-Nelson worked as a field organizer for the Middle Atlantic states’ woman’s suffrage movement; later, in 1918, she served as the field representative for the Woman’s Committee of the Council of Defense.  Moreover, in 1924, Dunbar-Nelson joined the campaign for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill (McKoy, Hull).  She died on September 18, 1935 in Philadelphia from heart problems (Johnson 72).  Although Alice Dunbar-Nelson struggled internally and externally with colorism within the black community, she spent her life, as writer, teacher, public speaker, and activist, fighting for racial and gender justice.

Illustrations

1. Custom Google Map, 2013, Approximate location as Dunbar-Nelson’s childhood home has been torn down.

2. Alice Dunbar Nelson, 1902, Twentieth Century Negro Literature, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a4/Alice_Dunbar-Nelson.png

3. 1423 N. Claiborne Background, Preserving Green, http://blog.preservinggreen.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/straight-univ015.jpg

4. Paul Lawrence [sic] Dunbar, 1905, The Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/93509689/resource/cph.3c08239/?sid=1163a4c558605cd81c1f6f2ca3613c63

5. Alice Dunbar [wearing hat], NNDB, http://www.nndb.com/people/615/000114273/alice-dunbar-nelson-2-sized.jpg

Works Cited

Brooks, Kristina. “Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Local Colors Of Ethnicity, Class, And Place.” Melus 23.2 (1998): 3. Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). Web. 1 Feb. 2013.

Dunbar-Nelson, Alice. “Brass Ankles Speaks.” [Circa 1928-1931] Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Ed. Gloria T. Hull. Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. 311-21. Print.

Johnson, Pamela. “The Lives And Love Of Paul Laurence Dunbar And Alice Dunbar-Nelson.” Black Issues Book Review 4.2 (2002): 71. Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). Web. 1 Feb. 2013.

Larson, Susan. The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

McKoy, Sheila S., and Gloria T. Hull. “About Alice Dunbar-Nelson.” The Modern American Poetry Site. Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2013. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets /a_f/dunbar-nelson/about.htm>.

Novak, Terry D. Voices from the GapsAlice Dunbar Nelson. The University of Minnesota, 1 Jan. 2001. Web. 1 Feb. 2013. <http://voices.cla.umn.edu/artistpages/nelsonAlice.php&gt;.

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