Word Cloud: MULTI-RACIAL (Redux)


She was born as Alice Ruth Moore on July 19, 1875, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her heritage was a complex mix: Creole, which in her city meant descendants of early French and Spanish inhabitants; African American, Native American, and Anglo.

The lightness of her skin and hair influenced both black and white society. Her longing to be accepted as a member of the African American community was hindered by sometimes being seen as white, allowing her to “pass.”

Alice Dunbar Nelson (1875–1935) was a light-skinned multi-race woman, viewed with envy or suspicion by some African Americans, while still facing racial prejudice from white people.

She published her first book, Violets and Other Tales, in 1895 when she was just 20 years old. Like her heritage, it was a mix, of both short stories and poetry.



I had not thought of violets late,
The wild, shy kind that spring beneath your feet
In wistful April days, when lovers mate
And wander through the fields in raptures sweet.
The thought of violets meant florists’ shops,
And bows and pins, and perfumed papers fine;
And garish lights, and mincing little fops
And cabarets and soaps, and deadening wines.
So far from sweet real things my thoughts had strayed,
I had forgot wide fields; and clear brown streams;
The perfect loveliness that God has made,—
Wild violets shy and Heaven-mounting dreams.
. . . . And now—unwittingly, you’ve made me dream
. . . . Of violets, and my soul’s forgotten gleam.



Dunbar Nelson wrote prose and poetry, kept a journal, wrote articles and columns for organizational publications and newspapers, and all the while she taught, mostly at the high school level.

She married three times. Her first husband was the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, who had written to her about her first book, which began a correspondence that turned into a romance and then marriage in 1898. But there were problems almost from the beginning. Dunbar suffered from tuberculosis. Although his poetry had been praised, criticism of his novels was very harsh, in both the white and black press, and he began drinking heavily. She left him in 1902, after he savagely beat her, but didn’t file for divorce. Dunbar died in 1906. She married her second husband, physician and college professor Henry Arthur Callis, in 1910, but this marriage did end in divorce after less than a year. In 1916, she married journalist and civil rights activist Robert J. Nelson, and they were together until her death.

If I Had Known

If I had known
Two years ago how drear this life should be,
And crowd upon itself all strangely sad,
Mayhap another song would burst from out my lips,
Overflowing with the happiness of future hopes;
Mayhap another throb than that of joy.
Have stirred my soul into its inmost depths,
. . . . . . . If I had known.

If I had known,
Two years ago the impotence of love,
The vainness of a kiss, how barren a caress,
Mayhap my soul to higher things have soarn,
Nor clung to earthly loves and tender dreams,
But ever up aloft into the blue empyrean,
And there to master all the world of mind,
. . . . . . . If I had known.


Dunbar Nelson had been active in social and cultural organizations since she was a teenager, but after her marriage to Nelson, she became more active in politics, and the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements. She worked as a field organizer for the Middle Atlantic states’ woman’s suffrage movement; in 1918, she served as the field representative for the WWI Woman’s Committee of the Council of Defense.

I Sit and Sew

I sit and sew—a useless task it seems,
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams—
The panoply of war, the martial tred of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath—
But—I must sit and sew.

I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But—I must sit and sew.

The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?


In 1924, Dunbar Nelson joined the campaign for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill (it was defeated by the white Southern bloc). But in her writing, she made her points by inference, through anecdotes and short stories, many based on the New Orleans of her childhood. In 1926 she wrote, “We are forced by cruel challenges to explain, show our wares, tell our story, excuse our shortcomings, defend our positions. And we insist that every Negro be a propagandist…. We forget that didacticism is the death of art.”

Between 1928 and 1932, she toured as a public speaker as executive secretary of the American Friends Inter-Racial Peace Committee.

New Year’s Day

The poor old year died hard; for all the earth lay cold
And bare beneath the wintry sky;
While grey clouds scurried madly to the west,
And hid the chill young moon from mortal sight.
Deep, dying groans the aged year breathed forth,
In soughing winds that wailed a requiem sad
In dull crescendo through the mournful air.

The new year now is welcomed noisily
With din and song and shout and clanging bell,
And all the glare and blare of fiery fun.
Sing high the welcome to the New Year’s morn!
Le roi est mort. Vive, vive le roi! cry out,
And hail the new-born king of coming days.

Alas! the day is spent and eve draws nigh;
The king’s first subject dies—for naught,
And wasted moments by the hundred score
Of past years rise like spectres grim
To warn, that these days may not idly glide away.
Oh, New Year, youth of promise fair!
What dost thou hold for me? An aching heart?

Or eyes burnt blind by unshed tears? Or stabs,
More keen because unseen?
Nay, nay, dear youth, I’ve had surfeit
Of sorrow’s feast. The monarch dead
Did rule me with an iron hand. Be thou a friend,
A tender, loving king—and let me know
The ripe, full sweetness of a happy year.


Dunbar Nelson and her husband moved to Philadelphia in 1932 when he joined the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission. She started having health problems, and died from a heart ailment on September 18, 1935, at the age of sixty.

In Memoriam

The light streams through the windows arched high,
And o’er the stern, stone carvings breaks
In warm rich gold and crimson waves,
Then steals away in corners dark to die.

And all the grand cathedral silence falls
Into the hearts of those that worship low,
Like tender waves of hushed nothingness,
Confined nor kept by human earthly walls.

Deep music in its thundering organ sounds,
Grows diffuse through the echoing space,
Till hearts grow still in sadness’ mighty joy,
Or leap aloft in swift ecstatic bounds.

Mayhap ’twas but a dream that came to me,
Or but a vision of the soul’s desire,
To see the nation in one mighty whole,
Do homage on its bended, worshiping knee.

Through time’s heroic actions, the soul of man,
Alone proves what that soul without earth’s dross
Could be, and this, through time’s far-searching fire,
Hath proved thine white beneath the deepest scan.

A woman’s tribute, ’tis a tiny dot,
A merest flower from a frail, small hand,
To lay among the many petaled wreaths
About thy form,—a tribute soon forgot.

But if in all the incense to arise
In fragrance to the blue empyrean
The blended sweetness of the womens’ love
Goes pouring too, in all their heartfelt sighs.

And if one woman’s sorrow be among them too,
One woman’s joy for labor past
Be reckoned in the mighty teeming whole,
It is enough, there is not more to do.

Within the hearts of heroes small and great
There ‘bides a tenderness for weakling things
Within thy heart, the sorrowing country knows
These passions, bravest and the tenderest mate.

When man is dust, before the gazing eyes
Of all the gaping throng, his life lies wide
For all to see and whisper low about
Or let their thoughts in discord’s clatter rise.

But thine was pure and undefiled,
A record of long brilliant, teeming days,
Each thought did tend to further things,
But pure as the proverbial child.

Oh, people, that thy grief might find express
To gather in some vast cathedral’s hall,
That then in unity we might kneel and hear
Sublimity in sounds, voice our distress.

Peace, peace, the men of God cry, ye be bold,
The world hath known, ’tis Heaven who claims him now,
And in our railings we but cast aside
The noble traits he bid us hold.

So though divided through the land, in dreams
We see a people kneeling low,
Bowed down in heart and soul to see
This fearful sorrow, crushing as it seems.

And all the grand cathedral silence falls
Into the hearts of these that worship low,
Like tender waves of hushed nothingness,
Confined, nor kept by human earthly walls.

Funeral Procession, by Ellis Wilson


Her diary was published in 1984, with the title Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, one of only two journals of an African-American woman born in the late 19th century to be published. She wrote about marriage, friendship, sexuality, health, professional problems, travels, about the isolation she felt as a child not accepted by either race, and about her frequent financial difficulties.

Her insight into the complex issues of race and gender is broader than many of her contemporaries because of her multiracial background, touching on so much of American society’s transition from the 19th century into the 20th century, and all the unresolved race and gender divisions which plague the nation still.


Books in Print

  • The Works of Alice Dunbar Nelson, Volumes 1 and 2, Oxford University Press, 1988
  • Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, edited by Gloria T. Hull, W.W. Norton & Company, 1985


  • AA Registry:  http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/alice-dunbar-nelson-writer-and-critic-helped-harlem-renaisannce
  • All Poetry: https://allpoetry.com/Alice-Dunbar-Nelson
  • Black Past: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/dunbar-nelson-alice-ruth-moore-1875-1935
  • English.Illinois: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dunbar-nelson/about.htm
  • Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/alice-moore-dunbar-nelson
  • UR Literary New Orleans:  https://urliteraryneworleans.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/alice-dunbar-nelsons-struggle-as-a-multiracial-woman-in-biracial-america/

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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