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Books Unbound – The Many Voices of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Part Two


Born in New Orleans and an early figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875–1935) considered fiction her most representative form of writing, but enjoyed more recognition as a poet. Much of her fiction was considered unsuited for the literary market, especially when it dealt with racial issues. As a multiracial woman, she identified strongly with “the race,” but was sometimes taken as white—and then penalized for “passing”. The ambivalence of racial identity is a theme throughout her work.

From the age of 19 Dunbar-Nelson was a regular columnist for black newspapers and journals. She worked tirelessly on behalf of education, women’s and labor rights, and what were then called Negro causes, especially anti-lynching legislation. She was a popular speaker on the lecture circuit for her eloquence, acerbic wit and passion as a public speaker, but for most of her life had to struggle to earn a decent living.

The extended podcast features two short stories read by Renee Reed, “The Pearl in the Oyster,” which deals with Dunbar-Nelson’s favorite themes of racial passing, education, politics and labor, and class boundaries; and “His Great Career,” an entertaining tale about old friends with a twist at the end. Berklea Going read “M’sieu Fortier’s Violin,” a story about an aging musician who loses his job with an orchestra; a poem of same-sex desire, “You! Inez!”; and the powerful “April Is on the Way”. The poems “The Proletariat Speaks,” “Violets, a Sonnet,” and “I Sit and Sew” are read by Cynthia Wolfe. Special music for the episode comes from the albums Barktok/Korcia and Dances/Doubles Jeux/Bartok by Laurent Korcia. Music for the opera scene in “M’sieu Fortier’s Violin” comes from the opera itself, Roland à Roncevaux by Auguste Mermet, from the album Tragédiennes (Erato). Sarah Torbeck hosts, with Doug Storm as announcer.

Cynthia Wolfe produced, wrote and edited the episode with assistance from Doug Storm, Robert Shull and Sarah Torbeck. Special thanks to Community Access Television Services for production support.

Executive producer: Joe Crawford
Theme music: The Impossible Shapes

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