A Woman to Know: Alice Dunbar Nelson

I sit and sew / a useless task it seems / My hands grown tired / My head weighed down with dreams. — Alice Dunbar Nelson

(image via Encyclopedia of Louisiana)

In the diaries she kept for all her life, Alice Dunbar Nelson recorded 60-plus years of experiences — about her life as a mixed-race woman, as wife to the famous poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (and a poet in her own right), as a woman who had affairs with other women, and as a documentarian of black experience in the late 19th century. Today, her essays, poems and short stories are taught in school. But it's her diaries — the near-obsessive recording of her thoughts and dreams about contemporary politics — that stand out as special.

Alice herself would have been astonished to hear that. Sometimes, she hated her diary. She wrote in it not from love but from some other force that compelled her. "[I] sit up until two o'clock writing up this damn diary — when I have so much else to do," she wrote.

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