The Making of “I Am an American!”
Origins of a Collaborative Digital Project
“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 ONLINE 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. 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 necessitated a shift to the online realm. A focus on digital outreach allows 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.
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 come to life in The Rosenbach’s online exhibitions, programs, and events illuminating this important historical figure.
The Rosenbach thanks the members of the “I Am an American!” Committee of Community Advisors for guiding interpretation of Alice Dunbar-Nelson.
John Anderies, John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives, William Way LGBT Community Center
Melissa Benbow, Department of English, University of Delaware
Jamie Bowers, Free Library of Philadelphia
Anne Boylan, Department of History, University of Delaware
Jamie Brunson, First Person Arts
James Claiborne, African American Museum in Philadelphia
Cathleen Chandler, Collections Department, The Rosenbach
Kelli Coles, Department of History, University of Delaware
Vashti DuBois, The Colored Girls Museum
Jesse Erickson, Department of English, University of Delaware; University of Delaware Library
Alex Galarza, University of Delaware Library
Yolanda M. Jennings, Purple House Project PA
Amber Rose Johnson, Department of English, University of Pennsylvania
Sara Lomax-Reese, WURD Radio
André Natta, Urban Conversations
M. Nzadi Keita, Department of English, Ursinus College
Meg Onli, Institute of Contemporary Art
Monet Timmons, Department of English, University of Delaware
Diane Turner, Blockson Collection, Temple University Libraries
Denise Valentine, Storyteller and cultural arts consultant*
Rachel Wenrick, Drexel Community Writing Program, Drexel University
Kalela Williams, Free Library of Philadelphia
Mariam I. Williams, Black Womanhood (Re-)Affirmation Project
Yolanda Wisher, Board of Trustees, The Rosenbach
Syl Woolford, Delaware Heritage Commission
“I Am an American!” is a partnership of The Rosenbach, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press. The exhibition was curated by Jesse Erickson and Monet Timmons of the University of Delaware.
The Rosenbach thanks Women Against Abuse and Women In Transition for advising on the exhibition project and providing social services support guidance.
Support for “I am an American!” is provided by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society Endowment Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, the Pine Tree Foundation of New York, and an anonymous donor.
The Rosenbach and Free Library of Philadelphia honor the memory of Committee of Community Advisors member Denise Valentine, who passed away during the project planning process. Ms. Valentine made important contributions to this exhibition in its formative stages that shaped the interpretations presented in “I Am an American!” Her insights are appreciated, and she is sorely missed.
A Note on the Color Palette of the “I Am an American!” Exhibition
The colors used on the “I Am an American” exhibition website reflect Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s interest in the Victorian language of flowers as expressed in her story “Violets,” which was published in the volume Violets and Other Tales in 1895. This volume is featured in the exhibition.
Floriography, or the language of flowers, is a system of cultural symbolism that attaches meaning and significance to flower varieties and colors. Read the excerpt from “Violets” below to learn more about how Alice Dunbar-Nelson described various flowers and colors in her well-known story.
“Dear, I send you this little bunch of flowers as my Easter token. Perhaps you may not be able to read their meaning, so I’ll tell you. Violets, you know, are my favorite flowers. Dear, little, human-faced things! They seem always as if about to whisper a love-word; and then they signify that thought which passes always between you and me. The orange blossoms — you know their meaning; the little pinks are the flowers you love; the evergreen leaf is the symbol of the endurance of our affection; the tube-roses I put in, because once when you kissed and pressed me close in your arms, I had a bunch of tube-roses on my bosom, and the heavy fragrance of their crushed loveliness has always lived in my memory. The violets and pinks are from a bunch I wore to-day, and when kneeling at the altar, during communion, did I sin, dear, when I thought of you? The tube-roses and orange-blossoms I wore Friday night; you always wished for a lock of my hair, so I’ll tie these flowers with them — but there, it is not stable enough; let me wrap them with a bit of ribbon, pale blue, from that little dress I wore last winter to the dance, when we had such a long, sweet talk in that forgotten nook. You always loved that dress, it fell in such soft ruffles away from the throat and bosom, — you called me your little forget-me-not, that night. I laid the flowers away for awhile in our favorite book, — Byron — just at the poem we loved best, and now I send them to you. Keep them always in remembrance of me, and if aught should occur to separate us, press these flowers to your lips, and I will be with you in spirit, permeating your heart with unutterable love and happiness.”