‘Respectable Life’ of Wilmington’s Dunbar Nelson examined in new book

By Rachel Sawicki
Posted 2/13/22

WILMINGTON — Dr. Tara T. Green was raised in the suburbs of New Orleans.

But in the 1990s, when attending Dillard University, she discovered a New Orleans she didn’t recognize through Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s literature.

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‘Respectable Life’ of Wilmington’s Dunbar Nelson examined in new book


WILMINGTON — Dr. Tara T. Green was raised in the suburbs of New Orleans.

But in the 1990s, when attending Dillard University, she discovered a New Orleans she didn’t recognize through Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s literature.

“As some references were explained to me, I began to realize that I was familiar with the remnants,” Dr. Green said. “There were certain things about her literature that, as I would read more of it, it’s New Orleans, and it’s familiar to me, but it also gave me a history to kind of understand how the city had changed but, in some ways, how it was still the same.”

Carrying that inspiration, Dr. Green — who received a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis in African American literary studies from Louisiana State University and has taught at the University of North Carolina Greensboro about 13 years — spent the last decade writing Ms. Dunbar-Nelson’s biography.

“Love, Activism, and the Respectable Life of Alice Dunbar-Nelson” is the first book-length look at the major figure in Black women’s history, covering the post-Reconstruction era through the Harlem Renaissance, including much of her life writing and lecturing in Wilmington.

Dr. Green, who has been teaching more than 20 years, explained her approach to writing the book in its introduction: Not all of Ms. Dunbar-Nelson’s literature is analyzed or even referenced. Instead, Dr. Green focuses on showing a progression from her early publications through her later work, which is often neglected.

“These select representative pieces not only reflect specific times in her life and career but also give voice to her sustained activist interests,” the introduction reads.

Dr. Green said that Ms. Dunbar-Nelson, who lived from 1875-1935, had a “very complicated love life,” but her lovers’ influences and her experience in each relationship can be seen in her fiction and poetry. While a lot of her writings are archived at the University of Delaware, some pieces have yet to surface.

“One of the biggest challenges is that there are some gaps in the research, but I decided I wasn’t going to try and make up anything,” Dr. Green said. “Either I knew the answer because I had some information in front of me, like a newspaper article or a diary entry, or I just simply didn’t know. So I do try to let readers know early on in the book that there are just simply gaps in the timeline that I cannot account for because I was really determined to be able to write the story through her perspective.”

Ms. Dunbar-Nelson never had any children of her own, but Dr. Green said a lot of the information she collected came from a niece, who works as a librarian. Ms. Dunbar-Nelson, a “pack rat,” had a collection of her life that her niece was able to preserve.

Even more challenging was writing a biography about someone who has passed, with only a paper trail to determine the activist’s thoughts, hopes, dreams and plans.

“There’s a time where there are letters in the archive that come from Edwina Kruse, which is how we know that they had a romantic relationship, but the letters that Alice wrote to Edwina Kruse are not in the archive, so then, I had to sort of try to fill in the blanks and shift perspectives,” Dr. Green said. “I can guess how she must have felt or at least how she projected certain kinds of feelings based on what Edwina Kruse responded to, but I certainly can’t say for sure.”

Dr. Green said Ms. Dunbar-Nelson was a critic of marriage before she herself was married, but she continued to write about her own experience as a Black woman in love and relationships.

“As she begins to understand herself more and grows older as a woman, she’s able to critique how women are treated in society and what those expectations are and how women are, in some cases, exploited,” Dr. Green said. “So she does write about marriage pretty much for her entire life from very early on, between 1895 and 1935. When she died, she was married three times. She had affairs with men in between marriages, as well as with women.”

It was also important for Dr. Green to ask what is believable in the letters because her motivation for responding is also unknown. But after so many years of trying to get to know Ms. Dunbar-Nelson through her writings, the author felt she was able to determine those motives and connect the dots.

“There are times when I know that I believe her because there’s a certain kind of emotion that’s been expressed, like in letters with (her first husband) Paul Laurence-Dunbar,” she said. “But also after reading so many of those letters, you realize that there’s a certain kind of performance that’s going on at certain times because she’s trying to get him to act a certain way.”

Ms. Dunbar-Nelson’s relationship with Mr. Laurence-Dunbar was particularly influential in setting the stage for how she deals with later marriages and affairs. Dr. Green said Ms. Dunbar-Nelson was constantly resistant to how she was being treated and that she insisted on respect, which refers to the book’s title.

“Especially with Paul Laurence. He writes to her, saying ‘You shouldn’t be hollering, and I wish you wouldn’t do that,’ and that’s one of those moments where I’m challenged because I don’t know if I’m looking at his perspective, and he’s saying that she’s hollering and being overly dramatic,” Dr. Green said. “Well, how does the person respond if they’re being beaten? If she is responding to him in such a way that neighbors can hear what’s going on, … that’s also an act of resistance. So she doesn’t consent to making him feel as though, whatever is happening in that house, that she’s gonna hide it at all.”

Ms. Dunbar-Nelson’s move out of New Orleans was to follow her family, who she always remained close to, Dr. Green said. She settled in Brooklyn, New York, for a few years to pursue her teaching career and complete her mission of providing a space for Black women coming up from the South.

She also lived in Washington, D.C., with her first husband for a time, before she finally moved to Wilmington in 1902 and began teaching at Howard School.

Between 1918-31, Dr. Green writes that Ms. Dunbar-Nelson embraced her identity as a “New Negro Woman,” a respectable activist of the 20th century. During that time, when Black arts and political resistance emerged, she situated herself in a variety of activities that involved both.

Additionally, in Ms. Dunbar-Nelson’s time, it was often not publicized when women were in relationships with other women, at least not by those of “the educated class.” However, she had many secrets, according to Dr. Green, including mysteries about her paternity: Ms. Dunbar-Nelson never spoke of her father, which Dr. Green theorizes is because he was a White man.

“The major influence on her life, culturally and in terms of a racial identity, is through her mother who was a formerly enslaved woman,” Dr. Green said. “So that also drives her, I think, and she’s always feeling as though she has to prove that she is a colored woman. So then, fighting for the rights of the race is something that helps her to have placement within that race. She seems very diligent. She’s very committed to doing that work, doing the work to uplift the race.”

In the introduction, Dr. Green describes Ms. Dunbar-Nelson as a “Black woman activist and writer who in her public and private lives navigated complex questions of racism, women’s rights, and sexual agency and found ways to resist restrictions to who she was as a creative Black woman.”

Dr. Green also said that, in Ms. Dunbar-Nelson’s papers, she found a woman who lived and wrote within respectability by testing, teasing, expanding and disregarding social and political boundaries, as she matured from one marriage to another and one historical era to another.

“I want everybody to know about Alice Dunbar-Nelson,” she said. “She was a lifelong learner. I want people who are writers in all of these different genres to have a sense of who she was and what she did to contribute. She’s also somebody who is noticed by LGBTQ writers and activists. She’s a former mother to many people, so I hope that people learn more about her but, certainly, that she’s introduced to thousands more who did not know who she was.”

Dr. Green’s book can be found at any major bookstore and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It can also be bought from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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