The bright and bold world of blues and jazz music in the 1920s was unlike anything America had ever seen. It was an awareness of struggles, dreams, sorrows, hopes, and valor of ordinary people—black, white, or anyone in between. In this blossoming of back culture came Alice Dunbar-Nelson, an novelist, poet, essayist, social activist, and critic of the Harlem Renaissance whose work is often overlooked due to her existence as a multiracial woman in a biracial America. Her writing possessed a distinct desire to pull together the multiple parts of her complex identity and personality. In addition, her reflections on being a ethnically-ambiguous, bisexual woman during the turn of the century are an amazing piece of history. Dunbar-Nelson’s personal life, her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance, and her legacy today have cemented her as one of the most important women of the 20th century.
Alice Dunbar-Nelson was born on July 19, 1875 in New Orleans. Her mother was African and Native American and her father was a white Creole. When she was 17, she finished a two year teaching program at Straight College; she then went on to study at the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art, Cornell University, and the University of Pennsylvania. After completing her education, she taught for six years, editing a page in a New Orleans paper in her free time. In 1895, she published Violets and Other Tales, a collection of poems, short stories, and essays and, later that year, The Goodness of St. Rocque, and Other Short Stories. Not long after, Dunbar-Nelson and her family moved to Massachusetts. In 1897, she then moved to New York and established the White Rose Mission, one of the United States’ first settlement house for young black women. A year later, Dunbar-Nelson moved to Washington D.C. and married fellow poet and journalist, Paul Laurence Dunbar. The two separated in 1902, most likely due to Paul’s physically abusive treatment of Alice. After leaving the relationship, she began a relationship with Edwina B. Kruse, a principal at the school she worked at. This relationship continued until she secretly married fellow teacher Henry A. Callis in 1910. However, she divorced him shortly after. Her third and final marriage to Robert J. Nelson in 1916 lasted until her death in 1935. For the rest of her life, she continued to write stories, poems, plays and novels. When she was sixty, Dunbar-Nelson was admitted to a Philadelphia hospital for a heart issue; she died there on September 18th. A fun fact about Alice Dunbar-Nelson is she had relationships with fellow Harlem Renaissance writers Fay Jackson Robinson and Helene Ricks London which she documented in her diaries. Interestingly enough, her third husband discovered that she was having affairs with these women which he “tolerated,” despite “occasional fits of rage.”
Alice Dunbar-Nelson contributed to both the Harlem Renaissance and advocated for disenfranchised groups of people. Her work as a social activist was a major contribution to American society as a whole. During World War I, she was on the Women’s Commission on the Council of National Defense and the Circle of Negro War Relief until 1915 when she diverted her attention to work as a field organizer for women’s suffrage. Working with the Delaware Republican state committee, Dunbar-Nelson founded the Industrial School for Colored Girls in Delaware in 1920 where she organized for anti-lynching reforms. In addition, she served 1928-1931 as executive secretary of the American Friends Interracial Peace Committee. Dunbar-Nelson’s work as an author was unique to the Harlem scene because her stories dealt exclusively with creole and anglicized characters. Also, unlike many of her counterparts, her poetry explored the notion of the African-American experience being individual to each person. This differed from the popular belief of many Harlem writers: the idea of a singular African-American identity. This poplar identity, of course, focused primarily on masculine achievements. Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s pieces equalized different forms of communication and ways of American life as she explored the themes of racism and oppression where difference lied in ethnicity, not race. Her early writings in particular centered Louisiana Creole history and culture, focusing on class and gender divisions; this was a tribute to her childhood. In her short stories and sketches, she drew pictures of everyday New Orleanian life. Dunbar-Nelson’s descriptions clearly and vividly show the small triumphs, trival grievances, and real hardships the citizens of New Orleans experienced. She humanized an entire group of people who were often regarded as simple stereotypes. While her unique work influenced the work of other black writers, she also made a mark by reviewing other prominent Harlem authors such as Langston Hughes. In addition, she was sharply critical of the famed Elias Lieberman’s exclusion of Native and African Americans in his version of the American “melting pot.” Dunbar-Nelson’s commentary on this subject voiced the annoyance of the African American community being forced to segregate themselves by a simple racial label; this, in turn, inspired many to express their distinct ethnic identity however they chose.
On a whole, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance opened doors for the next generation of African American artists, authors, performers, and poets. Meanwhile, Alice Dunbar-Nelson had a very unique impact on not only the Harlem Renaissance, but on American life for years to come. For instance, she held the distinct view that one’s black identity and one’s American identity could coexist. In her Philadelphia Tribune column, “Little Excursions Week by Week,” she writes the following: “I am proud of my past. I hold faith in my future…I am a Negro. I am an American.” Through this claim of an American identity, she manages to challenge the brand of “American-ness” that excluded African Americans. She also initiates conversations about labeling and a sense of self among black Americans. While making these profound points, she eludes to other African American literary achievements, a successful attempt to support the construction of identity. This was all during an era of American history that did not encourage the hyphen. There were no Irish-Americans or German-Americans; there were only “Americans.” The term “African American” didn’t even come into prominence officially until the 1980s. Before then, the term was black; before that, during Dunbar-Nelson’s time, the term was “negro.” To call Alice Dunbar-Nelson the one driving force behind the term “African American” would be a gross simplification. However, the movement—and by extension modern American language— would not be the same without her contributions.
There is no doubt that Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s personal life, her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance, and her legacy today show that she is an influential, brilliant writer whose impact on American life will never cease. She pushed the boundaries of the time and advocated on behalf of her communities. Both her life and literary achievements provide an incredible analysis of race, gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuailty in the 1920s, many of which contain surprising relevance to today’s issues. Although Alice Dunbar-Nelson struggled with sexism and racism across all fronts, she spent her life as writer, critic, teacher, and activist, fighting for racial and gender equality—a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten.