Alice Dunbar-Nelson's Local Colors of Ethnicity, Class, and Place

By Brooks, Kristina | MELUS, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Alice Dunbar-Nelson's Local Colors of Ethnicity, Class, and Place


Brooks, Kristina, MELUS


Pass Christian, the Bayou St. John, the Bayou Teche, Mandeville, and New Orleans's Third District are just a few of the particular locales in which Alice Dunbar-Nelson anchors her fictional characters' ethnic identities. Through direct addresses to the reader and notations of specific streets, neighborhoods, and local landmarks, Dunbar-Nelson continually puts the reader in his or her place, a place which may or may not be within the ethnic and geographical boundaries of Dunbar-Nelson's fiction. In the dynamic interactions among reader, author, and characters, such methods of reader and character placement simultaneously draw the reader's attention to his or her position inside or outside of the fictional milieu and delineate the social and economic position of the characters. "[N]ot being a Mandevillian," Dunbar-Nelson addresses the reader in "La Juanita," "you would not understand" (Works 1, 199). In this example, the author calls the ethnic and cultural differences between her Mandevillian characters and the reader unbridgeable, throwing into higher relief the story's plot about a Creole community's resistance to accepting an American member through intermarriage. Weaving together narrative style and thematic content as mutual reinforcers, Dunbar-Nelson critiques oppressive social categories--such as "Mandevillian," "Creole," and "American"--based on ethnically, racially, or geographically unified group identities. The individual reader of and the individual character in Dunbar-Nelson's fiction are "put in (a) place" which may or may not allow the expression of his or her unique identity. Pitting the individual against the mob, the ethnic orphan against the social requirement for a family name, or the non-local reader against complex and ambiguous local codes, Dunbar-Nelson dramatizes the conflict that flares along fault lines between individual and group identities. By forcing the reader to recognize his or her complicity with maintaining or respecting boundaries based on ethnic, racial, class, and regional identity, Dunbar-Nelson points the way toward demythologizing the natural status of any such identity category.

Outside readers, those whom Dunbar-Nelson directly addresses in her short fiction, are those who do not make their homes in New Orleans, the setting for Dunbar-Nelson's stories in two published volumes, or the Upper East side New York neighborhood that serves as a setting for an unpublished volume of her short fiction.(1) In these locales, characters' street addresses are a strong indicator of their class position and ethnicity, but their racial identity remains ambiguous; however, her Southern characters' racial indeterminacy is not a sign of Dunbar-Nelson's own racial ambivalence, as critics Violet Harrington Bryan and Gloria Hull have asserted, but is a function of her fiction's well-defined local boundaries. Outside readers' tendency to view Dunbar-Nelson's characters as racially indeterminate is partially a function of their own unfamiliarity with Dunbar-Nelson's native city and its singular history of tripartite social stratification.

Like most New World slave societies, but unique in the United States, New Orleans (and Louisiana more generally) had a third social class distinct from the black and white social classes which made up other American communities in the nineteenth century.(2) Beginning in the eighteenth century, under both French and Spanish rule, Louisiana had a class of gens de couleur libres, or free people of color, whose legal and social status was wholly different from blacks in the colony. Virginia Dominguez notes that the 1808 project of the Louisiana Civil Code acknowledged the existence of three social sectors--whites, free people of color, and black slaves--and legislated against marriages between free citizens and slaves and between whites and free people of color (25). As Dunbar-Nelson writes in her two-part historical essay, "People of Color in Louisiana,"

   Following the War of 1812 [when Britain tried to recapture Louisiana from
   the United States] the free people of color occupied a peculiar position in
   Louisiana, especially in New Orleans. … 

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