The Story Behind “I Am an American!”: The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson

The Rosenbach’s upcoming online exhibition, programs, and educational opportunities use history and literature to spark civic engagement.

 

 

“My fathers and mothers toiled to make an economic foundation for me!
Every drop of my blood holds an heritage of patriotism.
I am proud of my past;
I hold faith in my future!
I am a Negro!
I am an American!”

 —Alice Dunbar-Nelson, “I Am an American!”, ca. 1919

 

 

The Rosenbach’s fall 2020 exhibition “I Am an American!”: The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson and its related slate of programs and educational opportunities reflect the coming together of a large team to unearth the story of an understudied local author and political figure, whose life speaks to modern times in extraordinary ways.  Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935), a poet, author, educator, women’s suffrage leader, and Civil Rights activist, was a pioneering African American literary influencer in the late 1800s and early 1900s, though her fame has traditionally been overshadowed by that of her husband, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.  “I Am an American!” is among the first major public efforts to tell Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s story on her own terms and examine the significance of her literary, civic, scholarly, and educational work.

The origins of “I Am an American!” rest in Rosenbach programs dating back to Black History Month 2019.  Two events offered at The Rosenbach in February of that year—a Paul Laurence Dunbar poetry reading and a rent party hosted by poet and Rosenbach trustee Yolanda Wisher—highlighted The Rosenbach’s first edition of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s book Oak and Ivy (1893).  Preparatory research undertaken for these events, however, revealed the story of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who survived years of intimate partner violence at the hands of Paul Laurence Dunbar in the midst of her own rise as a political, literary, and educational figure.  Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s story felt remarkably relevant to 21st-century conversations shaping politics, art, and culture.

 

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Given that a collection of Dunbar-Nelson’s personal papers is held at the University of Delaware Library, an inter-organizational partnership was soon formed to bring Dunbar-Nelson to the attention of audiences in Philadelphia, a city where she once lived.

“I Am an American!” is curated by two subject experts from the University of Delaware: Jesse Erickson and Monet Timmons.  Timmons, who holds a B.A. in English and African American Studies from Emory University and is pursuing a Ph.D. in English through the African American Public Humanities Initiative at the University of Delaware, specializes in Black literary studies and recovering the stories of Black women writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Jesse Erickson holds a B.A. in History, an M.L.I.S., and a Ph.D. in information studies from the University of California – Los Angeles.  He specializes in bibliography, print culture, and book history, and has published widely in ethnobibliography, history, literature, and library science.  The two have worked closely with staff at both The Rosenbach and the Free Library to assemble an artifact checklist and write the exhibition script for “I Am an American!” 

It became evident early in the project’s exploratory phase that the story of Alice Dunbar-Nelson holds tremendous resonances for the political, social, literary, and artistic forces at work shaping American life in 2020, so The Rosenbach and Free Library assembled a Committee of Community Advisers to lend guidance and insight on how to interpret Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s story for modern audiences.  The committee includes 27 community leaders ranging from poets, historians, and authors to fellow museum professionals and civic activists, all of whom share a commitment to bringing Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s life work to the public’s attention.  The committee has lent guidance on topics and themes for discussion in the exhibition, revised exhibition text, brainstormed ideas for reaching new audiences, and assisted in graphic design for the online project.

While “I Am an American!” was originally designed as a full, onsite gallery exhibition with a series of programs for families and adults, public health concerns and social distancing guidelines resulting from the 2020 novel coronavirus pandemic have necessitated a shift to the online realm.  A focus on digital outreach in fall 2020 will allow the project to reach new audiences with an interactive online exhibition showcasing Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s life and work, as well as a robust portfolio of virtual programs and activities for all ages.  This approach will encourage wide geographic participation in events and programs.

At the first meeting of the Committee of Community Advisers assembled to guide the development of “I Am an American!” in January, 2020, Rosenbach trustee, performing artist, rent party host, and former Philadelphia Poet Laureate Yolanda Wisher shared her sentiments about interpreting Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s life and work in a museum context today:

I grew up a young Black girl poet always aware of the firsts like Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. So when I was planning one of my rent party events here [at The Rosenbach], I was drawn to Paul’s book Oak and Ivy, in the collection. I didn’t know anything about Alice Dunbar Nelson then. When I started doing research on Paul and the book, the facts of her life kept pressing through, and I realized that I couldn’t tell Paul’s story with telling Alice’s. She wasn’t just Paul’s wife, a footnote in his story. She was so much more before and well after him.

Alice Dunbar Nelson’s story is a story we need to know more about, the kind of story that’s often hidden behind a man’s story or a straight person’s story or a respectable person’s story. The kind of story that simply falls out of favor and memory. Her multi-genre work—poetry, short story, fiction, essays, articles, reviews—her complicated relationship to race, gender, and class all contribute to a portrait of a dynamic, brilliant, underestimated woman of the early 20th century. She wrote and she spoke, using her voice to teach young people, to gain equal rights for Black people and women, to address oppression and racism, and to keep Dunbar’s poetic legacy alive. But Alice’s story needs keeping alive because it stands to teach us so much about what it means to be both an artist and activist – secretly, privately, and publicly.

A generation removed from slavery but haunted by its influence on every part of social relations, she wrote not just for her own generations but for generations to come. Alice must have known that this country’s problems would not be solved in her own age. I think that what she left behind is a gift, a blueprint for all of us. Her life brings up so many questions, but for those of us who write and teach and organize or who simply want to live a more reflective life, she is a model to study. This exhibition has the opportunity to ignite a citywide and national conversation about Alice’s multi-dimensional legacy and that of many other women who wrote and worked on the margins charting a way of hope through this American experiment.

Wisher’s words serve as a fitting statement of purpose for “I Am an American!”, underscoring the goal of the exhibition and related programs to use history and literature to spark conversations about artistic expression, civic engagement, and social change in our own time.  Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s multidimensional legacy will come to life in The Rosenbach’s online exhibitions, programs, and events illuminating this important historical figure.  Watch The Rosenbach’s website in coming weeks and months for further details, and stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes peeks into the exhibition development process.

Want to learn more about the curators’ process in creating “I Am an American!”?  Register for the free virtual program “Seeing Alice Dunbar-Nelson with 2020 Vision,” to be held on July 3.  A recording of the program will be posted on The Rosenbach’s website.  Learn more and register here

Are you interested in learning more about the Alice Dunbar-Nelson Papers at the University of Delaware?  Visit the collection’s finding aid here

Do you want to take a stand against intimate partner violence, which Alice Dunbar-Nelson faced in her marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar? Sign the iPledge® against violence, organized by The Rosenbach’s partner organization Women Against Abuse.

 

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