‘The Praline Woman’ by Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875–1935) was an American writer, poet, journalist, playwright, educator, and activist. She is remembered as an active figure in both the ‘local colour’ or ‘regionalist’ movements and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as a key organizer in the anti-lynching and suffrage movements.
She was born Alice Ruth Moore in New Orleans. Her mother was a seamstress and former enslaved person of Black and Native American descent, while her father was a white seaman. Dunbar-Nelson’s diaries record her intermittent experiences of passing as white, and of ostracization from both Black and white communities as a light-skinned mixed-race woman. Her literary works are likewise marked by complex, nuanced, or ambivalent interpretations of race and ethnicity, as well as gender and (bi)sexuality.
This story is taken from her second and more famous collection, The Goodness of St Rocque and Other Stories, published in 1899. Written while Dunbar-Nelson was living in Boston, New York, and Washington, DC, the collection was largely received as a ‘charming’ representation of regional Creole life in and around New Orleans. That is, as light and decorative rather than contemplative or truly intellectual. This was in part due to its publication as a companion piece to her husband Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s Poems of Cabin and Field. Dunbar-Nelson was married to the poet from 1898 until his death in 1906 (although she left him to teach at Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware in 1902 after years of abuse). His literary reputation overshadowed hers during her lifetime and through much of the twentieth century.
Almost fifty years after her death, however, critics and readers alike began to revisit Dunbar-Nelson’s writing career and literary works. Early critic Akasha Gloria Hull (then publishing as Gloria T. Hull) did vital work in Dunbar-Nelson’s archive in the 1980s, restoring public and scholarly attention to the impact of her writing and activism and uncovering evidence of her queer relationships with other Black women writers of her time. However, despite Dunbar-Nelson’s active engagement with race and gender politics in her public life and career as a journalist, Hull widely criticised her writing as ‘aracial’, meaning that she saw Dunbar-Nelson as insufficiently concerned with the lived experiences of Black women. This description has haunted Dunbar-Nelson’s legacy until recently. In 2016, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers published a special edition on Dunbar-Nelson that sought to redress this categorisation. The contributors challenged Hull’s ‘aracial’ critique in two significant ways. First, several of the essays questioned the demand for racialized and gendered authors to write always about their ‘authentic’ experiences. At the same time, each piece explored different ways in which Dunbar-Nelson’s representation of race offered a more complex dynamic than the ‘binary idiom of the color line’, instead dissecting its construction and its intersection with concurrent experiences of class and gender. Many of these essays also call attention to the fact that works explicitly exploring racism and oppression were rejected as ‘inaccessible’ by publishers during her lifetime, a dynamic exacerbated by Dunbar-Nelson’s status as a Black woman.
‘The Praline Woman’ stands out among the stories in The Goodness of St Rocque for its language, narrative voice, and style of storytelling. While most of the collection is narrated in a detached third person, interrupted occasionally by the phonetic speaking voices of Creole characters, this story has an unmediated, overheard quality. The praline woman intermittently coaxes and harangues her customers and passers-by in a mixture of English and Creole. The tonal shifts in her commentary importantly expose complicated interrelations of race, class, ethnicity, and gender, as Dunbar-Nelson engages with colorism, racism, religion, and xenophobia in the tight-knit Creole community of New Orleans. Consider the Native American woman and the Irishman who the praline woman denigrates as ‘lazy’ but whose presence in the narrative points towards transregional and even intercontinental migration, the like of which made possible Dunbar-Nelson’s own career on the East Coast. Hardly a merely decorative scene of local life, the story exemplifies Dunbar-Nelson’s multi-layered engagement with the intersecting commitments of Creole lives and has been foundational in her emerging reputation as a nuanced writer of race and gender in the early twentieth century.
This excerpt is a full story from The Goodness of St Rocque and Other Stories.
The Praline Woman
The praline woman sits by the side of the Archbishop’s quaint little old chapel on Royal Street, and slowly waves her latanier fan over the pink and brown wares.
“Pralines, pralines. Ah, ma’amzelle, you buy? S’il vous plait, ma’amzelle, ces pralines, dey be fine, ver’ fresh.
“Mais non, maman, you are not sure?
“Sho’, chile, ma bebe, ma petite, she put dese up hissef. He’s hans’ so small, ma’amzelle, lak you’s, mais brune. She put dese up dis morn’. You tak’ none? No husban’ fo’ you den!
“Ah, ma petite, you tak’? Cinq sous, bebe, may le bon Dieu keep you good!
“Mais oui, madame, I know you etranger. You don’ look lak dese New Orleans peop’. You lak’ dose Yankee dat come down ’fo’ de war.”
Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, chimes the Cathedral bell across Jackson Square, and the praline woman crosses herself.
“Hail, Mary, full of grace—
“Pralines, madame? You buy lak’ dat? Dix sous, madame, an’ one lil’ piece fo’ lagniappe fo’ madame’s lil’ bebe. Ah, c’est bon!
“Pralines, pralines, so fresh, so fine! M’sieu would lak’ some fo’ he’s lil’ gal’ at home? Mais non, what’s dat you say? She’s daid! Ah, m’sieu, ’tis my lil’ gal what died long year ago. Misere, misere!
“Here come dat lazy Indien squaw. What she good fo’, anyhow? She jes’ sit lak dat in de French Market an’ sell her file, an’ sleep, sleep, sleep, lak’ so in he's blanket. Hey, dere, you, Tonita, how goes you’ beezness?
“Pralines, pralines! Holy Father, you give me dat blessin’ sho’? Tak’ one, I know you lak dat w’ite one. It tas’ good, I know, bien.
“Pralines, madame? I lak’ you’ face. What fo’ you wear black? You’ lil’ boy daid? You tak’ one, jes’ see how it tas’. I had one lil’ boy once, he jes’ grow ’twell he’s big lak’ dis, den one day he tak’ sick an’ die. Oh, madame, it mos’ brek my po’ heart. I burn candle in St. Rocque, I say my beads, I sprinkle holy water roun’ he’s bed; he jes’ lay so, he’s eyes turn up, he say ‘Maman, maman,’ den he die! Madame, you tak’ one. Non, non, no l’argent, you tak’ one fo’ my lil’ boy’s sake.
“Pralines, pralines, m’sieu? Who mak’ dese? My lil’ gal, Didele, of co’se. Non, non, I don’t mak’ no mo’. Po’ Tante Marie get too ol’. Didele? She’s one lil’ gal I ’dopt. I see her one day in de strit. He walk so; hit col’ she shiver, an’ I say, ‘Where you gone, lil’ gal?’ and he can’ tell. He jes’ crip close to me, an’ cry so! Den I tak’ her home wid me, and she say he’s name Didele. You see dey wa’nt nobody dere. My lil’ gal, she’s daid of de yellow fever; my lil’ boy, he’s daid, po’ Tante Marie all alone. Didele, she grow fine, she keep house an’ mek’ pralines. Den, when night come, she sit wid he’s guitar an’ sing,
Tu l’aime ces trois jours,
Tu l’aime ces trois jours,
Ma coeur a toi,
Ma coeur a toi,
Tu l’aime ces trois jours!
“Ah, he’s fine gal, is Didele!
“Pralines, pralines! Dat lil’ cloud, h’it look lak’ rain, I hope no.
“Here come dat lazy I’ishman down de strit. I don’t lak’ I’ishman, me, non, dey so funny. One day one I’ishman, he say to me, ‘Auntie, what fo’ you talk so?’ and I jes’ say back, ‘What fo’ you say “Faith an’ be jabers”?' Non, I don’ lak I’ishman, me!
“Here come de rain! Now I got fo’ to go. Didele, she be wait fo’ me. Down h’it come! H’it fall in de Meesseesip, an’ fill up—up—so, clean to de levee, den we have big crivasse, an’ po’ Tante Marie float away. Bon jour, madame, you come again? Pralines! Pralines!”
Some themes and questions to consider
Much has been made of the word ‘brune’ used to describe the hands of the praline woman’s daughter. Contemporary critics interpret it as a subtle marker of her racial identity as a black Creole woman, legible in New Orleans but not to metropolitan readers in the Northeast. Are there other moments in the story that challenge Hull’s ‘aracial’ label for Dunbar-Nelson’s writing?
A manuscript of ‘The Praline Woman’, dated 2 May 1897, begins with a paragraph omitted in the published version: ‘Pralines are dainty toothsome delicacies made of cocoa- nuts or pecans and sugar. They are usually sold by picturesque old Creole women in New Orleans; dark-hued, beautiful but fast dying out in the advancing march of time and civilization.’ How would these details change your reading of the story?
There is evidence in her archive that Dunbar-Nelson originally wrote ‘The Praline Woman’ for a performance at a benefit for the White Rose Mission in New York City in May 1897. In this light, we can think of the story as a dramatic monologue, attached to oral traditions of storytelling and performing. At the event, Dunbar-Nelson would have read it for an East Coast audience far removed from its New Orleans scene in geography, class, race, and language. How does this discovery ask us to reconsider the story’s regionalism or its ‘parochial’ qualities?
The full text of the collection is available through Project Gutenberg, as is Dunbar-Nelson’s other collection of short stories and poetry, Violets and Other Tales, which she published in The Monthly Review in 1895. Violets is often referenced as the first published short story collection by an African American woman.
About the Author
Biographies from the Oxford African American Studies Center
For more detailed biographies of Nelson, covering amongst other aspects her extensive career as a school teacher and university educator and her journalistic and editorial achievements, visit the Oxford African American Studies Center. Particularly detailed are entries from Gloria T. Hull and Alice Knox Eaton.
Dunbar-Nelson in ‘Feminize Your Canon’
For a long-form biography of Dunbar-Nelson and the resonance of her work, see her 2020 entry in The Paris Review’s ‘Feminize Your Canon’ column, which aims to ‘explore the lives of underrated and underread female authors’.
Delaware Digital Archive
The Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers are held by the University of Delaware (importantly not to be confused with Delaware State University, the successor of the State College for Colored Students, where Dunbar-Nelson taught on summer sessions in the early twentieth century). The papers include literary manuscripts, professional letters, personal correspondence, and several diaries, journals, and scrapbooks. The University has made selected materials from the archive available online via the University of Delaware Digital Institutional Repository.
Especially interesting is Collection III.2 Short Fiction, which contains 70 manuscripts, often unpublished and occasionally incomplete. In recent years, scholars have been responding to Dunbar-Nelson’s unpublished work and considering their more radical representations of race and gender, and some new stories have been made publicly available, including ‘His Heart’s Desire’, published in 2016 by Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers.
Although Dunbar-Nelson was married three times to men (Paul Lawrence Dunbar 1989–1906; Henry A. Callis 1910–1911; Robert J. Nelson 1916–1935/death), her diaries record erotic relationships with several other women writers, artists, and activists, including Howard High School principal Edwina B. Kruse, activist Fay Jackson Robinson, and artist Helene Ricks London. Due to Dunbar-Nelson’s meticulous practice of self-archiving, fragments of these diaries are available through the University of Delaware’s Digital Archive, and a critical edition was published by Akasha Gloria Hull (also known as Gloria T. Hull) in 1984 as Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. The diary that Dunbar-Nelson kept in 1921 and between 1925 and 1931 is, according to Hull, ‘Dunbar-Nelson’s most singular contribution to the field of black women’s literature’: ‘Discovered in her papers and published in 1984, it is one of only two existing full-length diaries written by a nineteenth-century African American woman (the other being Charlotte Forten’s journal).’ Hull’s 1987 Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance has also been credited with uncovering the homoerotic relationships between Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimké and Georgia Douglas Johnson.
The Queer Ancestors Project
The Queer Ancestors Project has distilled some of this research into Nelson’s lovers and the queer symbolism in her writing.
Dunbar-Nelson the Poet
Today, Dunbar-Nelson is more readily known for her poetry than her prose (although it was her stories and her journalism career that gained her recognition as a writer in her lifetime). Many of her poems can be found via The Poetry Foundation or on Poets.org.
‘I Sit and Sew’ (1918) is a particularly notable war poem and has been read as evidence of Dunbar-Nelson’s support for the war, alongside W. E. B. Du Bois, as an avenue to achieving racial equality through African American men’s sacrifice for the nation.
‘Poetry Off the Shelf’
This podcast from the Poetry Foundation features Dunbar-Nelson’s ‘I Sit and Sew’ on the first episode of its series ‘A Change of World’. The episode locates Dunbar-Nelson and other early twentieth-century American poets in conversation with feminist writers of the 1960s and 70s.
The Harlem Renaissance
Dunbar-Nelson is remembered as a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Although she lived in New York for only a short time from 1895 to 1898, Dunbar-Nelson’s short stories, poetry, activism, journalism career, and work as a teacher and editor made her a key figure in representing the role of Black women in the workforce, education and the antilynching and suffrage movements.
The Oxford African American Studies Center features multiple entries on the Harlem Renaissance, as well as on Dunbar-Nelson’s biography; those selected below pay particular attention to Dunbar-Nelson’s involvement and to the queer experiences of the 1920s and 1980s.
‘Harlem Renaissance’ by Joseph Mclaren
‘The Queer Harlem Renaissance’ by James F. Wilson
A proposed lesson plan on ‘Race, Literature and Politics in the Harlem Renaissance’ from Cary Wintz and Kelly A. Woestman
About the Contributor
Martha Swift is a Commonwealth Scholar and doctoral candidate in the Faculty of English at the University of Oxford, where she is also a postgraduate member of the Rothermere American Institute. Her doctoral research investigates ways of thinking about the ‘world’, in relation to and distinct from ideas like ‘globe’ and ‘planet’, and considers the interaction of autofiction and cosmopolitics in contemporary transnational novels.