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Alice Dunbar-Nelson Quotes

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875 - 1935)


Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a Harlem Renaissance figure known for her short stories, was briefly married to Paul Dunbar, a poet. She taught high school and worked against lynching and for woman suffrage. She's known more for her poetry though she wrote more prose than poems.

Selected Alice Dunbar-Nelson Quotations

• [F]or two generations we have given brown and black children a blonde ideal of beauty to worship, a milk-white literature to assimilate, and a pearly Paradise to anticipate, in which their dark faces would be hopelessly out of place.

• In every race, in every nation, and in every clime in every period of history there is always an eager-eyed group of youthful patriots who seriously set themselves to right the wrongs done to their race or nation or sometimes to art or self-expression.

• If a people are to be proud and self-respecting they must believe in themselves. Destroy a man's belief in his own powers, and you destroy his usefulness -- render him a worthless object, helpless and hopeless. Tell a people over and over again that they have done nothing, can do nothing, set a limitation for their achievement; impress uponi them that all they have or can hope to have is the product of the minds of other peoples; force them to believe that they are pensioners on the mental bounty of another race, -- and they will lose what little faith they may have had in themselves, and become stultified non-producers.

• Any parent or child knows how disastrous is the result of telling a child how splendidly some other child has done, and asking why he does not go and do likewise. The one so adjured usually does the exact opposite, in a bitterness of resentment and gloom, it being one of the vagaries of human nature to act contrariwise.

• Men do like to keep women's personalities swallowed!

• You ask my opinion about the Negro dialect in literature? Well, frankly, I believe in everyone following his own bent. If it be so that one has a special aptitude for dialect work why it is only right that dialect work should be a specialty. But if one should be like me -- absolutely devoid of the ability to manage dialect, I don't see the necessity of cramming and forcing oneself into that plane because one is a Negro or a Southerner.

• It's punishment to be compelled to do what one doesn't wish.

• Nothing will do me any good unless I learn to control this body of mine.

• 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.

• On two occasions when I was seeking a position, I was rejected because I was "too white," and not typically racial enough for the particular job.... Once I "passed" and got a job in a department store in a large city. But one of the colored employees "spotted" me, for we always know each other, and reported that I was colored, and I was fired in the middle of the day. The joke was that I had applied for a job in the stock room where all the employees are colored, and the head of the placing bureau told me that was no place for me -- "Only colored girls work there," so he placed me in the book department, and then fired me because I had "deceived" him.

• Far be it for women to gloat over the way the sister-hood is attaching to itself the formerly exclusive masculine prerogatives. Not to mention women governors who are in danger of impeachment, there are bandits, bank robbers, embezzlers, female Ponzis, high flyers in finance, and what not. Is it voters for women, sun spots, post-war hyusteria, the restless age, or the adolescence of the sex? Short skirts and cigarettes, fancy garters and sheik bobs, and all the rest of the feminine adornment or exposement, whiever happens to be the fad; Turkish women doffing the veil, Chinese women demanding the vote, the Orient donning the habiliments of the occident, Japanese women rolling their own, and college girls demanding smoking rooms, fur coats and chiffon hose; German women demanding the right of their own method of self expression, the youth movement, and the barefoot cult, artists and models dressed in a scant bunch of grapes, modiestes threatening Victorian bustles, upheaval, unrest. Whatever is the blatant sex coming to? [from a 1926 essay]


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 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.

From Gone White

The character Anna says to the character Allen:
You are offering me the position of your mistress.... You would keep your white wife, and all that means, for respectability's sake -- but you would have a romance, a liaison with the brown woman whom you love, after dark. No Negro would stoop so low as to take on such degraded ideals of so-called racial purity. And this is the moral deterioration to which you have brought your whole race. White Man! Go on back to your white gods! Lowest and vilest of scum. White Man! Go Back!

I Sit and Sew

A poem reflecting on a woman's place in wartime, written about World War I.

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?

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.

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About These Quotes

Quote collection assembled by Jone Johnson Lewis. Each quotation page in this collection and the entire collection © Jone Johnson Lewis 1997-2012. This is an informal collection assembled over many years. I regret that I am not be able to provide the original source if it is not listed with the quote.

Citation information:
Jone Johnson Lewis. "Alice Dunbar-Nelson Quotes." About Women's History. URL: http://womenshistory.about.com/od/quotes/a/Alice-Dunbar-Nelson-Quotes.htm . Date accessed: (today). (More on how to cite online sources including this page)

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