Alice Dunbar Nelson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on July 19th, 1875, and born to parents whose culture was largely that of African American, Anglo, Native American, and Creole heritage. She attended and graduated Dillard University (formerly Straight Univ.) and took up teaching in the public schools in her area. Her unique understanding of gender race and culture comes from her unique heritage and racial background as a multiracial person, and this was often reflected through her writing pieces.
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Nelson was a poet, an essayist, a diarist, and an activist and led a very full life. “Violets and Other Tales (1895), was published when she was just 20. Her second collection, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (1899) explored the lives of creole and anglicized characters. Works exploring racism and racial oppression were largely rejected by publishers during her lifetime[…]” She was one of the first generations of free people after the civil war and contributed to the thriving of the Harlem renaissance.
She continued to develop her writing and literary skills and became a prolific writer. “Through her career, Alice Moore wrote four novels, two volumes of oratory, dramas, newspaper columns, two collections of essays, poems, short stories, and reviews, many of which drew on her extensive knowledge of Creole culture. In all of these collections, Alice Moore proved to be a perceptive critic of American society.” Even in her younger years, she had directly been involved in social and cultural organizations in her hometown- but after an abusive relationship, and a few unstable marriages- later on, in her teaching profession holding a plethora of positions, she became intimately involved with both women and men. However, she decided to marry a fellow teacher Robert J. Nelson who was also a journalist and political activist.
“[Nelson] authorial accomplishments only continued to grow in popularity, reaching a wide variety of audiences. She was acclaimed for many of her poems and short stories, with two of the most popular stories being Stones of the Village and Little Miss Sophie. Both of these works were renowned for their poignancy and realism for their depiction of the confusion and strife that people of mixed-race faced within their communities, and the deeply internalized shame and loneliness felt at not finding acceptance amongst any society of people. In particular, Stones of the Village was recognized for its exploration of what was referred to as the “Creole condition”. The “Creole condition” was defined as the experience that mixed-race people faced as being able to “pass” as white, and therefore [feel] the need to repress their status as half-African American. Often times, Moore-Dunbar’s protagonists were not only marginalized due to gender or race but also for their status as a lower-working class citizen. Her reflections on the state of minorities and the poverty they often faced in the South inspired her to take up activism in hopes of making a true difference with the power she now held as an established author”.
Dunbar-Nelson’s eager inclusion within the 1910s with the Women’s Suffrage Movement set off energetic activism for Black women who were marginalized inside a society that advertised little to no agency for women or individuals of color. She talked to audiences all over the nation about the issues such as healthcare and education that she believed needed to change for a more equal society to exist, including subjects that ranged from women within the workforce and the unjust lynchings that debilitated the African American populace due to racial pressure post-Civil War. Dunbar-Nelson’s work moved from poetry and short stories to papers and journalistic endeavors that investigated the social issues that she campaigned for. Notable papers such as “N*gro Women in War Work” and “Politics in Delaware” centered intensely on much of what Dunbar-Nelson talked about during her lectures on the rights of both women and African Americans. In spite of Dunbar-Nelson’s numerous accomplishments, she later found herself without much money. In her diary titled Give us each day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, she details her lack of income, “I am so flat broke that it is funny. An epidemic of poverty seems to have struck us all” (328). Dunbar-Nelson depicts how financially troublesome times had become for herself and other activists who devoted their lives to fighting against the Jim Crow laws that had surfaced during Dunbar-Nelson’s life.
Alice Dunbar-Nelson is viewed as a kind of ‘unsung legacy’ for women and women of color during the suffrage movement and the civil rights movement, and this can be seen through much of her works. One of her poetic prose that directly dealt with her place in the world and society as not only a woman but a woman of color. was a piece entitled; I Sit and Sew.
I sit and sew—a useless task it seems,
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams—
The panoply of war, the martial tred of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath—
But—I must sit and sew.
I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But—I must sit and sew.
The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?
She is directly wondering- pleading if sewing (primarily considered a woman’s job at the time, as women weren’t accepted fully into the workforce or much of society for that matter, it works itself into the piece as a metaphor for the ‘usefulness’ of women in society) is all that her life will be worth? It is even stated how she wants to ‘leave her world behind’ to help the ‘men of war’. This type of inequality towards gender is still prominent today- as many people believe a woman would not make a fit president, CEO, or belong in any real position of power.
Women still don’t even make as much as men, and the gender pay gap is more prominent than ever, more so in underprivileged communities and communities with a lot of diversity. And the stakes only get higher if an individual happens to be a woman of color. Racial inequality is still as much of a problem as ever. Systemic racism is at its worst with the state of the world and the state of politics currently, and it feels like all that hard work that was done to protect certain marginalized people and give them rights that they otherwise would not have has been undone and stripped away little by little. As a community, people need to do better. They need to be better, so a safe and equitable future will be created for the coming generations. A world of true equal opportunity, a world with equal justice, a world without racial and gender-based persecution.
“Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 2007, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/alice-moore-dunbar-nelson.
Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson and Akasha Gloria. Hull, W.W. Norton, 1984, pp. 328–328.
Johnson, Wilma J. “Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935).” Welcome to Blackpast •, 4 Feb. 2020, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/dunbar-nelson-alice-ruth-moore-1875-1935/.
Miller, Grace. “An Unsung Legacy: The Work and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson.” Smithsonian Libraries / Unbound, 12 Mar. 2020, blog.library.si.edu/blog/2020/03/12/an-unsung-legacy-the-work-and-activism-of-alice-dunbar-nelson/.
“‘I Sit and Sew.’” The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, by Alice Moore Nelson, vol. 2, The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers Oxford University Press, 1988.