Defiant Southern women have found a new infatuation with an old name: Alice Dunbar-Nelson. The Louisiana native preceded celebrated essayists like Langston Hughes and ought to be taught in the same vein as Frederick Douglass. Yet, only keyword-specific searches bring up her name in an endless ocean of Google sources. If you’re going to find Alice, you have to know who you’re looking for; otherwise, her name remains suspiciously elusive. A combination of factors likely play into Dunbar-Nelson’s enigmatic lack of presence in Southern literature. She was a woman of color among the first generation of freed African Americans. Her marriages to three notable writers may also have overshadowed her identity as a writer. But once you get to the red meat of her words, Alice Dunbar-Nelson is an impossible figure to ignore.
In 1875, Alice was born of Creole heritage—a combination of white, African American, and Native American roots. This background influenced her upbringing and experiences. As a middle-class woman with the privilege of initially passing as white, Southern prejudice still worked against her. In Modern American Poetry, Gloria T. Hull writes that “the high culture of the Jim Crow United States society…was just as committed to her exclusion,” leaving her indelible ink out of literary circles. But Alice’s stubborn resolve prevailed, despite “a busy existence unsupported (except for one brief period) by any of the money or leisure traditionally associated with people of letters.” The lack of compensation and recognition didn’t dampen Dunbar-Nelson’s passion for expressing her opinion with pen and paper.
While Alice tried her hand in multiple genres, including poetry and short stories, she curated her most potent talent in writing essays. The political and social rights of people of color became the focal points of her articles. Her personal experiences mingle with statistics and exclamatory remarks on the American condition of racial and gendered relations at the time. However, much of her work continues ringing clear truths about modern racial and gender relations. She unapologetically bucks at societal norms, challenging readers to consider facts laid before them in bold-faced newsprint. While her closing statements are often open-ended, their purpose meant an awareness of an issue alongside openness to a solution.
“Woman’s Most Serious Problem” examines an issue that continues making headlines today. Alice outlines how women of color were more dedicated to finding financial success and stability than producing offspring. “One startling fact is apparent. Negro women are exercising birth control in order to preserve their new economic independence. Or, because of poverty of the family, they are compelled to limit their offspring.” Her words have aged well, and are painfully familiar for modern society, with Millennials desperately hunting for some semblance of stability. Starting families comes much later, with fewer children. The Atlantic perfectly mirrors her sentiments in “The Childless Millennial,” noting that “The decline in births was largest among Hispanic women, at 26 percent, followed by black women, at 14 percent, and an 11 percent drop for white women.” She offers a snippet of sage wisdom to close the piece: “No race can rise higher than its women is an aphorism that is so trite that it has ceased to be tiresome from its very monotony.”
“Facing Life Squarely” offers up another harsh truth from Dunbar-Nelson’s time that rings painfully true today. She asserts that while people of color are published and their works studied avidly in colleges, white people are more than happy to forget the plight of people of color immobilized by the forces of nature. Though this essay is specific to the Mississippi Flood of 1927, her defiant words perfectly sum up how Southerners of the present day too readily forget people of color caught in natural disasters. She asserts that “If the progress in race relations had kept pace with its advertisements, we should not hear the pitiful tales which filter through from the Southland.” These words were proven true in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina. They’ve proven true again with Hurricane Maria’s potential death toll expected to exceed 4,000 people.
When applied to modern society, Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s essays paint an ugly portrait of the ugly truths we only wish we could cover up like blemishes. As long as Southerners willingly allow women to statistically earn less than men—with women in Louisiana earning only 66.7 cents to each dollar men earn, according to Status of Women in the States—we can expect the Southern tradition of building good ol’ families to stay on the back burner. Earning a livable wage is more important. Just because we can speak publicly on Roseanne Barr’s distasteful, racially charged comments on Valerie Jarett doesn’t mean we’ve taken the moral high ground as a culture while thousands of people die just below us. Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s essays are way past their due in recognition. No time like the present to dust them off, give them a read, and hold a mirror to ourselves as a culture.
Photo 1: African American refugees in front of their tent homes during the 1927 Mississippi River flood. In the background is the monument of the Vicksburg National Military Park, a Civil War memorial.
Photo 2: Wikipedia.