Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Written between 1921 and 1931, the diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson is one of the first journals by an African American woman to be published in the United States. The core of Dunbar-Nelson’s diary discloses what it meant to be an educated black woman in the middle class in early twentieth century America. The journal recounts the experiences of one privileged African American woman, whose caste and Caucasian features allowed her to enjoy rights and advantages denied to most black people.

Dunbar-Nelson maintained her diary during a period of personal turbulence. When she initiated her writing on July 29, 1921, Dunbar-Nelson was attempting to adjust to the previous year’s tragedies. These included the termination of her teaching position and chairmanship of the English department of Howard High school, chronic money problems, and the death of her favorite niece. The diary ends on December 31, 1931. After that time, Dunbar-Nelson enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle made possible by her husband’s appointment to the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission. Dunbar-Nelson’s journalizing throughout this traumatic period of her life seems to support the maxim that diaries are frequently maintained during times of calamity.

Many of the entries are mechanical or journalistic, while others reflect introspective thinking. There are only two recorded instances of her rereading what she had written earlier, the anniversary of her 1930 trip to California and her birthday in 1931. Dunbar-Nelson wrote in her diary when the spirit moved her. During the first years of the journal, she vowed to write daily, but she was never able to keep her resolves. Some lapses were five to ten days long; others lasted three or four weeks. Once she failed to write for two months. She stopped writing in 1922 and did not begin again until 1926.

The kinds of entries varied from year to year, ranging from the leisurely sentenced ones of 1921, to the choppy ones of 1926-1927, to the intense and briefly reflective entries of 1930. She wrote in every one of her many moods, only confessing once, in 1931, that she deliberately refrained “when the misery and wretchedness and disappointment and worry were so close to me that to write it out was impossible, and not to write it out, foolish.”

When Dunbar-Nelson begins her chronicling, at the end of July, 1921, she writes about the battle to continue the Wilmington Advocate, a liberal African American newspaper that she and her husband, Robert Nelson, had been publishing for two years. This publication, financed by the Republican Party and subject to its whims as well as to the negative effects of prejudice and powerlessness, consumed much of Dunbar-Nelson’s attention for the year 1921. She wrote editorials and compiled news items for it, she conducted fund-raisers to support it, and she participated in the all-night sessions required to get the ill-fated newspaper on the street to sell by Friday afternoon. When the newspaper officially collapsed in 1922, Dunbar-Nelson suffered a loss of standing and political clout.

Another concern of Dunbar-Nelson in 1921 was her involvement with the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. An officer in the Delaware chapter, she also participated in other states’s chapter activities. Dunbar-Nelson also was interested in her lecture circuit. Her journal is filled with details of travel and information about the towns, churches, and schools in which she lectured. Perhaps Dunbar-Nelson’s greatest speaking engagement of the year was as a member of a delegation of prominent black citizens who presented...

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Give Us Each Day

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Gloria T. Hull’s discovery and publication of the diary that was kept by Alice Dunbar-Nelson is an event of great significance. Hull describes the combination of scholarship and serendipity that led her to Dunbar-Nelson’s personal papers in an essay for the Feminist Press collection All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave (1982). The diary itself is historically important and rich in detail about the politics and culture of the 1920’s. In addition, it is the work of an accomplished writer, whose observation, feeling, style, and command of narrative make the work constantly interesting.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson belonged to the educated and genteel “colored” society that had emerged by the last decade of the nineteenth century. Born and educated in New Orleans, she was graduated from Straight College in 1892, taught school, and was active in musical and literary circles. She later studied at Cornell University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania. In 1898, she married Paul Laurence Dunbar—the first black poet to achieve a national reputation—and, although they separated four years later, his death in 1906 gave her a public identity as his widow which opened doors to lecture circuits and political organizations.

Settling in Wilmington, in 1902, she taught English at Howard High School (the only secondary school for blacks in Delaware), was a Middle Atlantic states organizer for women’s suffrage (1915), toured the South for the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense (1918), became the first black woman on the Delaware State Republican Committee (1920), and was one of the delegates led by James Weldon Johnson who visited President Warren G. Harding to seek his support for civil rights. (Harding told them, according to the diary, that he did not “believe the Ku Klux Klan is aimed at your people.”) Shifting her political allegiance, Dunbar-Nelson directed the 1924 Democratic party campaign to win black women’s votes. She organized the 1929 National Negro Music Festival at the Philadelphia Academy of Music and, as executive secretary of the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee (1928-1931), put to good use her extensive contacts among the women who formed the backbone of black churches, clubs, sororities, charities, and professional organizations. Furthermore, Dunbar-Nelson was, in her own right, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance and a journalist whose columns were syndicated for the Associated Negro Press.

The extant diaries cover half of 1921—when Dunbar-Nelson was forty-six years old—and most of the period from late 1926 to the end of 1931. Hull has compressed the original while attempting to preserve its essential character, so that the published volume includes the texture of daily life as well as the high spots. Hull’s introductions, commentaries, and bracketed notes create a very readable text.

The volume is interesting on one level simply as the record of an active life. In 1920, Dunbar-Nelson had lost her job at Howard High School for “political activity”—ostensibly for missing school to go to a conference, but ultimately, one suspects, because a rather conservative male principal was intimidated by her presence. In the space of a few August days in 1921, Dunbar-Nelson records that she wrote up country news for the Wilmington Advocate (a weekly newspaper edited by Robert Nelson), typed out its mailing list and pasted on the labels, dolled up in yellow percale and a big hat to sell shares in the paper to white businessmen, finished a sonnet on Marie Curie for another newspaper’s “Women in History” contest, made jelly and elderberry wine, washed the dog, did two weeks’ ironing, attended a district Sunday school convention, and appeared at another event where she was billed as one of “the JEWELS of our RACE.” She was also, not surprisingly, exploring something called Unity, which attempted to provide a system for achieving spiritual calm.

The diary is readable also as a piece of literature. Some sections have a strong narrative line, with the daily entries creating suspense. In addition, there are constant surprises—unexpected happenings, ironic sidelights, little gems of observation—and sudden glimpses (sometimes from unusual angles) of familiar names: Clarence Darrow, W. E. B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, James Weldon Johnson, Marian Anderson, Fanny Brice, Mary McLeod Bethune, boxer Jack Johnson.

The style is varied and interesting, in part because Dunbar-Nelson sometimes skipped a few days or even weeks and then caught up at...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Berry, Linda S. “Georgia Douglas Johnson and Alice Dunbar-Nelson.” In American Women Writers, edited by Barbara White. New York: Garland, 1977. A brief biographical essay on Alice Dunbar-Nelson.

Dunbar-Nelson, Alice Moore. Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Edited by Gloria T. Hull. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. Hull, Dunbar-Nelson’s biographer, studied and researched the author’s diary with the assistance of Dunbar-Nelson’s niece, Pauline A. Young. Although a few researchers had cursorily glanced at it, it had never before Hull’s study been thoroughly read or studied. Remarks by Hull are very useful in providing an overview of the diary.

Hatch, James Vernon. Black Theater USA: Forty-five Plays by Black Americans, 1847-1974 New York: Free Press, 1974. Refers to an interview given by Dunbar-Nelson’s niece Pauline A. Young. Young states that her aunt “taught us English in the high school. She produced her play and we all took parts. The audience loved it. but nobody would publish it.”

Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Provides an analysis of the life and works of Dunbar-Nelson.

Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. Old Westbury, NY.: Feminist Press, 1982. This anthology contains Hull’s illuminating essay, “Researching Alice Dunbar-Nelson: A Personal and Literary Perspective,” which tells how the critic discovered and edited Dunbar-Nelson’s journal.