The heart of the journal is its revelations about the meaning of being an African American woman early in the twentieth century. One insight can be gleaned from a look at the impact of Alice’s marriage to the eminent poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. During her career, Dunbar-Nelson received attention for being Dunbar’s wife and widow and not primarily for her own achievement. After Paul died and Alice remarried, she continued carrying his name to ensure the linkage with her famous husband. Perhaps Dunbar-Nelson did so partly because she was aware that, in a racist, sexist society, such a linkage could be useful. She knew that, as an African American woman, she needed as much help as she could get.
Dunbar-Nelson’s living situation also provides insight into the meaning of being an African American woman in the United States during the first three decades of the twentieth century. At the beginning, it is apparent that Dunbar-Nelson’s basic living situation is that of a woman-centered household with strong female-to-female family relationships. The core consisted of Alice, her sister Leila, their mother Patricia, and Leila’s four children, three of whom were daughters. Even though they acquired husbands and other children, these women always remained together. Dunbar-Nelson never bore any children herself, but she became the mother of two when she married widower Robert Nelson. Alice helped to rear Robert’s two children as well as Leila’s four.
Dunbar-Nelson’s helping relationships with the women of her family were also part of a larger system of black female support. She knew nearly all the active and prominent African American women of her time including Nannie Burroughs, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Jessie Fauset, Laura Wheeler, and Bessy Bearden.
Many of her eminent contemporaries were a part of the flourishing black women’s club movement. African American women of all classes united to combat negative stereotypes about themselves and to materially and spiritually aid in the overall amelioration of the race. Dunbar-Nelson’s work included attending meetings; cooperating with other clubwomen and the public to execute official duties, tasks, and projects; and planning and participating in conventions.
The next aspect of Dunbar-Nelson’s life illuminated by the journal is the question of class. Educated, middle-class professional black women such as Dunbar-Nelson almost always came from and/or had firsthand knowledge of working-class or poorer situations. In addition, they enjoyed no entrenched security or comfort even in this achieved class status, their position rendered doubly marginal and complicated by their being both black and female. On March 28, 1927, Dunbar-Nelson wrote grimly about having to pawn her rings and earrings...
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Dunbar-Nelson’s diary may be the most significant and enduring piece of writing that she produced. Its revelations about African American culture and about women’s existence are priceless. Her diary provides private glimpses of public figures and inside reports of major events. For example, a 1927 entry gives readers a view of Dunbar-Nelson and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois cooking breakfast. The diary also affords a view of numerous national African American conventions, such as the research conference held in Durham, North Carolina, in December, 1927 and the annual assembly of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The diary also shows that at one point, Dunbar-Nelson and Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, were collaborating on researching and writing a book.
Dunbar-Nelson’s journal is invaluable for its revelations about black culture. As Gloria Hull states, it should force a radical assessment of generalizations about black women writers during the early twentieth century.