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...

(The entire section is 1473 words.)