Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Diary as “Political Warfare”

Many early examples of American women’s writings found within the archive demonstrate how societal organization placed women’s voices into the sphere of domesticity. What women wrote about and the types of writing that they produced demonstrate this: personal letters, recipe books, instruction for household chores, diaries, and other very distinctly “domestic” types of writing. However, women did not stay in this prescribed box for long. As we have seen in class, the topics they wrote about began to expand and include other and more “worldly” topics that would not traditionally be consigned to the domestic sphere. Not only this, but the distribution of women’s writing expanded and began to reach more broader audiences.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was one of these women’s writers who pushed her writing out of the domestic sphere. While, she published her first book, Violets and Other Tales, in 1895 when she was just 20 years old, this publication was followed by a period in which she published very little writing besides her 1899 title The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories. Because of her identity as not only a woman but a Black woman in the late 19th and early 20th century, Dunbar-Nelson faced many barriers when seeking to write and publish her work. She often had to compete for space in the few African American publications at the time, and the tumultuous and abusive marriage she had with the poet Paul Dunbar early in her career set her back as well.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson
via Wikipedia
Violets and Other Tales
via Project Gutenberg

While early examples of nuanced topics like social activism and studies of gendered appeared in her earlier works, it wasn’t until later in her life that Dunbar-Nelson truly began to write the politically active pieces concerning racial justice and women’s suffrage that she is better known for.

At the time, Dunbar-Nelson was involved with political organizations and work: in 1918, she acted as a field representative for the Woman’s Committee of the Council of Defense; in 1920 she helped to found the Industrial School for Colored Girls; and she was heavily involved with the campaign for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1924. She even continued to write and publish many types of writing like poems for Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life and pieces like “Text Books in Public Schools: A Job for the Negro Woman” and “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils” which were published in 1927 and 1922 respectively. Both offered a perspective on racial justice in education and the importance of Black literature and writing (most likely was informed from her experiences as a teacher at a high school and university level.)

Cover of Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, June 1925.
via Encyclopedia Brittanica

Yet, despite her many obligations and the amount of writing which she produced during this time, Dunbar-Nelson still found the time and necessity to continue to update her diary between the years of 1921 and 1931. On December 29, 1926, she even wrote, “If I make any resolutions for New Year’s, it will be that I will write in my diary every day and let not battle, murder, nor sudden death keep me from it.”

It is obvious that she sees the importance of writing in her diary, but why? Before, domestic writing was popular because it was the few formats available to women as there were no avenues for them to be published or write in the public sphere. Thus, it would make sense that a women writer who did not have the access to the public sphere that Dunbar-Nelson does would be more inclined to write in a diary. So why would Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a woman writer not constrained to the domestic sphere, continue to diligently use a diary?

Gloria T. Hull explains the possible motivations in her introduction to the 1984 publication of Dunbar-Nelson’s diary: “During these years of upheaval and personal change, Dunbar-Nelson used the diary as a place to vent her thoughts and emotions. There was not a person in her life with whom she could openly be all of the things that she was and with whom could be totally unguarded… As with all frank diaries, one feels that the impulse for a full, true revelation of self (perhaps for posterity) was a strong operational motivation.”

We see this frank exploration of her emotions and her day-to-day experiences in many passages in her diary. Here are a few examples from her 1926-1927 diary.

She addresses feelings of dejection and sadness over her career and financial situation:

She talks about her romantic relationships, mentioning her ex-husband Henry A. Callis as well as her husband Robert J. Nelson – whom she refers to as Bobbo in her diary. Her entries are short, not delving too much into the details of things, but just giving enough to reveal her emotions. There

She also hints to other intimate relationships she had in her life particularly with women, given that she experienced sexual attraction to women and men. In the following passage, she talks about Edwina B. Kruse.

While Dunbar-Nelson’s diary does not publicly engage with the political the way many of her other writings do, the process of keeping her diary, I argue, was in itself a political action. Hull mentions in her introduction that the act of a Black woman writing about herself was rare. She quotes Alice Walker who blames the history of “slavery, racism, sexism, sexual abuse, overwork, child-bearing and –rearing, prohibitions against reading and writing, and exclusion from very other recognized outlet for creative expression” as reasons for why many black women did not record their own self stories. This history makes Dunbar-Nelson’s diary unique and also politicized because it rejects the barriers faced by black women writers.

Furthermore, Dunbar-Nelson’s various intersecting identities – a woman, black, lower income, bisexual, etc… – made it difficult for her to find any one confidant who would be able to understand all of her experiences. Thus, her diary provided an outlet for her to freely explore her thoughts and feelings, something crucial for her mental wellbeing in a world and society actively structured against her and her success.

I think the words of Audre Lorde, a prominent writer who lived shortly after Dunbar-Nelson and was also a not-heterosexual Black woman, emphasize the importance of Dunbar-Nelson’s diary: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” By writing her diary, Dunbar-Nelson was caring for herself and seeing the importance in the narrative of Black women, thus making her diary a distinctive “act of political warfare.”

References:

“Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson” Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/alice-moore-dunbar-nelson

“Alice Dunbar-Nelson” Literary Ladies Guide https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/author-biography/alice-dunbar-nelson/

“Alice Dunbar-Nelson” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Dunbar_Nelson

Violets and Other Tales Project Gutenberg http://gutenberg.org/files/18713/18713-h/18713-h.htm

“This Harlem Renaissance writer seemed to live an ordinary life — but her diaries revealed years of passionate lesbian affairs” Timeline https://timeline.com/alice-dunbar-nelsons-diaries-revealed-years-of-lesbian-affairs-f1469a6d591a

“Negro Literature for Negro Pupils” Southern Workman, Vol. 51, no. 2, February 1922, pp. 59-63, https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C2754241?account_id=11752&usage_group_id=102776

“Textbooks in Public Schools: A Job for the Negro Woman” The Messenger: World’s Greatest Negro Monthly, Vol IX, No. 5. May 1927 http://www.africanamericancommunities.amdigital.co.uk.proxy1.library.jhu.edu/Documents/Details/Pullman_060104_BX17_FL477

Dunbar-Nelson, Alice Moore, and Gloria T Hull. Give Us Each Day : the Diary of Alice Dunbar-nelson. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984.

Audre Lord Quote Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/437563-caring-for-myself-is-not-self-indulgence-it-is-self-preservation-and

“Audre Lord” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audre_Lorde

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