I’m still hoping to read more nonfiction books in 2022, so I jumped on the chance to get this one through NetGalley – the biography of a queer, Black woman who was a writer and activist from the late 1800s to the 1930s.
Love, Activism, and the Respectable Life of Alice Dunbar-Nelson is about the love one Black woman had for her race, of men and women, and, finally, of herself.
Born in New Orleans in 1875 to a mother who was a former slave and a father of questionable identity, Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a pioneering woman who actively addressed racial and gender inequalities as a writer, suffragette, educator, and activist. While in her 20s, she took the national stage from New Orleans as an early Black feminist, active with the Black Club Women’s Movement. From there, she built important relationships with leaders in New York, Wilmington, DE, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. She used her fiction, drama, poetry, and journalism to give voice to immigrants, poor people, women, Black people, and Creoles of color. Despite chronic illnesses, financial instability, and other struggles, her diaries reveal the ways she put herself first for the good of her mind and body, practices that became necessary after surviving an abusive relationship with Paul Laurence Dunbar—the first of three husbands.
Tara T. Green builds on Black feminist, sexuality, historical and cultural studies to construct a biographical study that examines Dunbar-Nelson’s life as a respectable activist-a woman who navigated complex challenges associated with resisting racism and sexism, and who defined her sexual identity and sexual agency within the confines of respectability politics.
TW: rape, sexual, emotional and physical abuse, sexism, racism.
I know Netgalley insists on giving star ratings, but I find this extremely hard when it comes to a nonfiction book, especially on a subject I’m not familiar with, from sources I’ve not seen. For me, as long as it seems logically and ethically sound, and I’m learning something… Look, it’s a biography, I can’t even say I like Alice, because that isn’t the point.
This book takes us through the complex life of a Black woman born in the years immediately following the end of the US Civil War, from a Black mother and an unknown father. Her life is defined by her racial identity as a Black – but light-skinned – woman, her status as an educator and activist, her financial struggles, and a need to be considered middle class. Some of the respectability politics involved means that she is classist in a lot of ways, when seen through modern eyes: there’s this recurring idea in Alice’s writing and in her circles that poorer Black people need to be “improved” so Black people as a whole may benefit from respect (from Whites), there’s a lot of work that is expected of Black people – especially Black women – when the whites aren’t held to the same standards. It’s maddening. But it’s history, I can’t be mad at the author for describing that (critically).
A central part of Dunbar Nelson’s life was her relationship with her first husband, well-known Black poet and a total abusive dick. Green doesn’t shy from analysing this relationship, and its effects on Alice. Notably, he convinces her to marry him by first raping her and then essentially arguing that marriage is the only respectable thing to do. She then spends her whole life, even after his death, known as Dunbar’s wife. Which had its advantages when it comes to getting public speaking jobs, but also, you know, being defined through the men in your life… through your abuser’s own achievements… This was a big learning for me too, because I knew of Paul Laurence Dunbar, and I’d never heard of his wife – let alone the whole rape, the emotional abuse, and the beatings he gave her. It’s not the kind of thing that should be glossed over about any artist in my opinion.
But the work also focuses on her art and activism, especially to “lift other black people as she climbed”, through racial activism, education, anti-lynching campaigns, editorials for Black newspapers, poems and plays. Her efforts to appear respectable and to encourage respectability from her peers is definitely anchored in the racial politics of the time, but Green manages to show the complexity of this need to be respectable – and how Alice managed to tow the line, including in her extramarital relationships, her affairs with women and exploration of her sexuality, her maintaining a job and not necessarily carrying all “wifely” duties, etc etc.
Green’s work is based on documents kept by Alice’s niece, journals and letters exchanged between Alice, her husbands, and various well-known Black activists and writers of the time such as W.E.B. Du Bois; and Alice’s scrapbooks, newspaper cuttings, and her own published and unpublished writings. Tremendous archival work seems to have gone in the writing of this book, and makes me want to read more of Alice Dunbar Nelson’s work.