Evergreen Words to Live by, by Alice Dunbar Nelson. ‹ Literary Center


July 19, 2022, 3:44 p.m.

Alice Dunbar Nelson was a poet, journalist and activist. She has also written plays, short stories and edited a few anthologies. She was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and frankly, we don’t talk about her enough. In the 1920s and 1930s, she had her own columns in various local newspapers, including The Pittsburgh Mail and the washington eagle. Luckily for us, her column “A Woman Says: Crisp, Bright Opinions of Current Happenings from a Woman’s Point of View” was well archivedand because today is his birthday, we’re going to dive deep.

On the inconvenience (or, a reason to quit Twitter):

The quality of being able to ignore what is not pleasant, or what interferes with any preconceived plan in our minds, whether a thesis to be established or a point to be made, is a marvelous accomplishment. And lest the complex implication of the preceding sentence be too Hergesheimer for the lay reader, let’s just say it’s a good thing to know how to ignore unpleasant truths.

On the secret to giving speeches:

If you want to be a wonderful speaker, there are your two speeches. Mix them with a bit of poetry, pluck a few stars from the universe and throw in a moon or a sun, sprinkle plenty of hints of divinity everywhere – be sure to pronounce “God” in two syllables, with an inflection rising, learn a funny story or two, with a wise critique of the local situation, denounce modernity and improvements with one breath, while yelling for progress with the other. Do not forget the old slave grandmother, and the washerwoman of the past generation. Hang some war crosses around it and make sure the old flag never touches the ground. If the occasion and audience are large enough, you can combine the two formulas and you’ll get an unerring howl that will send your audience into cheers. Try it sometimes. Nothing is easier.

On the misuse of words:

“Moron” is doomed. For a while, it was quite a buzzword. When the Sunday Supplement pseudo-psychologists found out about this, they worked overtime. Then the paragraphers and the columnists figured it out, and finally the youngest of the little reporters took care to have all the little crimes he reported committed by morons. A moron can be anything from an idiot to a master of a criminal gang. Few knew the definition, fewer used it correctly, and no one cared. It was a nice and comfortable cover word, and covered all sorts of mental, vocabulary, and psychological gaps from its countless users.

On white institutions distorting facts:

The extent to which black news is more or less a closed book to the mass of white newspapers is highlighted by a recent New York Times op-ed. He congratulated Bishop Gregg on being elevated to the presidency of Howard University and commended the school for its bold stance in placing a black man at the helm. The intention was good, but the editorial appeared two weeks after Bishop Gregg declined the presidency and five days after Dr Johnson accepted. One or two small town Caucasian newspapers took over and again several days later ran stories in the same vein and with the same lack of accurate information. Which again confirms the claim of this column – that we don’t pass it on to the pale-faced brethren.

By organizing a unique wedding:

France and America like to lead strange fashions and rather pride themselves on it. But it remained for England to inaugurate the fashion for the companion dog as an accessory to the bride’s costume. The girl who carried her pet terrier to the altar on her wedding day had the courage of her convictions. Some brides carry prayer books. Some carry bouquets, shower varieties or picturesque clusters. Barbara Hill was carrying her dog. When the serious part of the ceremony came, she handed the animal over to her bridesmaid, then when it was all over, took the pooch back down the aisle with her.

On graduation ceremonies and hope:

It is a daunting task, this, which the cynical old world takes on each spring – that of setting the feet of millions of enthusiastic young hopefuls on the path to what they eagerly call – the owners of the feet. do the calling, not the feet—what they eagerly call LIFE. An arduous task and accompanied by a lot of witticisms, stale puns, jokes, sneers, raised eyebrows, sobbing, reversals, and what not from the same old cynical world …we haven’t yet adopted that air of cynical, jaded worldliness when we talk about graduating our own young and young girls. For us, even after fifty years of experience, the annual hegira of the upper classes of the schools of our own young people is an event loaded with wonder, adventure, wonder and delight by proxy. The spectacle of our own young people in caps and caps, receiving mystical scrolls from the hands of grave dignitaries is an inexhaustible marvel to us. We can’t be cynical, we’re too intimidated. For us, it is the vision of a great future, the hope of a frustrated people, the fact of laying the burden of our misfortunes and our aspirations on the shoulders of those who will continue; the passing of the torch to be carried higher on the mountain peak of our racial ambition. The whole race stands up, so to speak, and hugs every young person who graduates… When a people begins to look cynically at its young people; be wary of one’s ambitions; to the white-flame carp of their aspirations, this breed has already planted within itself the seeds of rot.

On limited opportunities for succession (in response to a classified ad from a young white woman lamenting her lack of career options):

Collegiate education, sterling value, absolute sincerity, best references, ambition, youth and yet not inexperience, and no openness. A whole volume of discouragement and bewildered ambition, of heartache, of thwarted purpose, of temptation to lower the banner of self-respect… And doesn’t that sound like the embodiment of thousands of boys and girls, men and women of our own race? Bridging the seemingly gaping chasm between those who have something and those who want that something is often a Herculanean task. In the case of this girl who couldn’t find the world her oyster, maybe the startling ad in the newspaper will suffice. But who will fill the gap for the 1,300 young college graduates of color who graduated last June?

According to Kaitlyn Greenidge, Alice Dunbar Nelson was also “messy as shit.” Take this as an invitation to check out his journals as well.

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