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Alice Moore-Dunbar Nelson: Fiction & Poetry


Poet, essayist, diarist, and activist Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to mixed-race parents. Her African American, Anglo, Native American, and Creole heritage contributed to her complex understandings of gender, race, and ethnicity, subjects she often addressed in her work. She graduated from Straight University (now Dillard University) and taught in the New Orleans public schools. Her first book, 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, a situation which, according to Sheila Smith McKoy, “made it difficult for both readers and critics to access Dunbar-Nelson’s work.”

A writer of short stories, essays, and poems, Dunbar-Nelson was comfortable in many genres but was best known for her prose. One of the few female African American diarists of the early 20th century, she portrays the complicated reality of African American women and intellectuals, addressing topics such as racism, oppression, family, work, and sexuality. According to Gloria T. Hull, “Dunbar-Nelson perforce wrote in the interstices of a busy existence unsupported (except for one brief period) by any of the money or leisure traditionally associated with people of letters. Doggedly determined to be an author, she plied her trade… carried forward on the flow of words that came quite easily for her. Interestingly enough, she called all of her writing ‘producing literature,’ in a humorously ironic leveling of forms and types. But just as ironically, her status is lowered since the more belletristic genres of poetry and fiction are more valued than the noncanonical forms—notably the diary and journalistic essay—that claimed so much of her attention.” Hull edited the volume Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1984).

In 1898 she married the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar; they separated in 1902, and Dunbar-Nelson moved to Wilmington, Delaware. She taught at Howard High School, the State College for Colored Students (now Delaware State College), and Howard University, and she continued to publish essays, poetry, and newspaper articles. She married Arthur Callis in 1910, though the couple also divorced. Coeditor of A.M.E Reivew in these years, Dunbar-Nelson also published Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence (1914).

Dunbar-Nelson was politically active, organizing for the women’s suffrage movement in the mid-Atlantic states and acting as field representative for the Woman’s Committee of the Council of Defense in 1918; she also campaigned for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1924. In 1916 she married Robert J. Nelson. In her later years she published poetry in Black newspapers such as the Crisis, Ebony and Topaz, and Opportunity. She also edited The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (1920) and, with Nelson, coedited the Wilmington Advocate. She died in Philadelphia.

Violet and Other Tales


There was a terrible noise in the school-yard at intermission; peeping

out the windows the boys could be seen huddled in an immense bunch, in

the middle of the yard. It looked like a fight, a mob, a

knock-down,--anything, so we rushed out to the door hastily, fearfully,

ready to scold, punish, console, frown, bind up broken heads or drag

wounded forms from the melee as the case might be. Nearly every boy in

the school was in that seething, swarming mass, and those who weren't

were standing around on the edges, screaming and throwing up their hats

in hilarious excitement. It was a mob, a fearful mob, but a mob

apparently with a vigorous and well-defined purpose. It was a mob that

screamed and howled, and kicked, and yelled, and shouted, and perspired,

and squirmed, and wriggled, and pushed, and threatened, and poured

itself all seemingly upon some central object. It was a mob that had an

aim, that was determined to accomplish that aim, even though the whole

azure expanse of sky fell upon them. It was a mob with set muscles,

straining like whip-cords, eyes on that central object and with heads

inward and sturdy legs outward, like prairie horses reversed in a

battle. The cheerers and hat throwers on the outside were mirthful, but

the mob was not; it howled, but howled without any cachinnation; it

struggled for mastery. Some fell and were trampled over, some weaker

ones were even tossed in the air, but the mob never deigned to trouble

itself about such trivialities. It was an interesting, nervous whole,

with divers parts of separate vitality.

In alarm I looked about for the principal. He was standing at a safe

distance with his hands in his pockets watching the seething mass with a

broad smile. At sight of my perplexed expression some one was about to

venture an explanation, when there was a wild yell, a sudden vehement

disintegration of the mass, a mighty rush and clutch at a dark object

bobbing in the air--and the mist cleared from my intellect--as I

realized it all--football.

Did you ever stop to see the analogy between a game of football and the

interesting little game called life which we play every day? There is

one, far-fetched as it may seem, though, for that matter, life's game,

being one of desperate chances and strategic moves, is analogous to


But, if we could get out of ourselves and soar above the world, far

enough to view the mass beneath in its daily struggles, and near enough

the hearts of the people to feel the throbs beneath their boldly

carried exteriors, the whole would seem naught but such a maddening rush

and senseless-looking crushing. "We are but children of a larger growth"

after all, and our ceaseless pursuing after the baubles of this earth

are but the struggles for precedence in the business play-ground.

The football is money. See how the mass rushes after it! Everyone so

intent upon his pursuit until all else dwindles into a ridiculous

nonentity. The weaker ones go down in the mad pursuit, and are

unmercifully trampled upon, but no matter, what is the difference if the

foremost win the coveted prize and carry it off. See the big boy in

front, he with iron grip, and determined, compressed lips? That boy is a

type of the big, merciless man, the Gradgrind of the latter century. His

face is set towards the ball, and even though he may crush a dozen small

boys, he'll make his way through the mob and come out triumphant. And

he'll be the victor longer than anyone else, in spite of the envy and

fighting and pushing about him.

To an observer, alike unintelligent about the rules of a football game,

and the conditions which govern the barter and exchange and fluctuations

of the world's money market, there is as much difference between the

sight of a mass of boys on a play-ground losing their equilibrium over a

spheroid of rubber and a mass of men losing their coolness and temper

and mental and nervous balance on change as there is between a pine

sapling and a mighty forest king--merely a difference of age. The

mighty, seething, intensely concentrated mass in its emphatic tendency

to one point is the same, in the utter disregard of mental and physical

welfare. The momentary triumphs of transitory possessions impress a

casual looker-on with the same fearful idea--that the human race, after

all, is savage to the core, and cultivates its savagery in an inflated

happiness at own nearness to perfection.

But the bell clangs sharply, the overheated, nervous, tingling boys

fall into line, and the sudden transition from massing disorder to

military precision cuts short the ten minutes' musing.


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