Friday, July 17, 2015


Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935) was a recognized Black American poet in 1918, when she wrote Mine Eyes Have Seen, a one-act play.  This is an effective drama that probably never had a professional theatre production, since it was directed to a specific racial group. I find that I appreciated the significance of Dunbar-Nelson’s intent when I learned of the circumstances surrounding the issues Black Americans had about serving in the military. 

The Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917 required that American men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one register for military duty, including Black American men. This Act immediately created a reaction lead by Black American Leaders.  W.E.D. Du Bois, Editor of the Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), addressed the American Negros right to serve as soldiers and officers on the battlefields of Europe. He recognized the significance of  active military duty. Du Bois believed this type of service would confirm in the mind of the general public, the Black American male’s citizenship as well as manhood. He strongly contended that if Black soldiers served only as support staff taking care of kitchen duties, attending to the horses and other similar services they would not have the opportunity to prove their abilities and love of country.  The Crisis had a circulation of 74,000 and it was extremely influential in Black American communities.

Many Black Americans were reluctant to enter the military services for numerous reasons.  They either ignored their draft calls or attempted to use exemption as a means of evading the service. Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s play, published in the April 1918 edition of the Crisis, outlines many of the arguments Black Americans had against entering military service.  It also made convincing arguments for joining the armed services when one is called to duty.  Mine Eyes Have Seen was intended as a didactic piece to appeal on an emotional as well as rational level.  Due to the large Black American exposure to the Crisis, this play was widely circulated throughout the United States. 

As a result, Mine Eyes Have Seen was presented by the graduating high school class as Class Night Programs. This activity was a major community event that included plays, music, and speeches.  Other established Black community traditions included plays presented by church and community groups. I have read newspaper announcements that report these types of productions for Dunbar-Nelson’s play.  The Kansas City Sun on June 1, 1918 announced that on the evening of June 5th the Alumni Entertainment and Play group at Lincoln High School will present “Mine Eyes Have Seen”. 

 The other was a review in the Appeal (Saint Paul, Minnesota) that appeared on July 20, 1918.  “‘MINE EYES HAVE SEEN’ Presented at the Church Club Was a Pleasing Feature of the Week”.  This production was presented by members of the Invincible Sunday School Class of Pilgrim Baptist Church.  It was previously presented two times by the same cast:  May 9th for the benefit of the class and June 14th for the benefit of 16th Battalion Drum Corp.  The review states: “It is a very intense little playlet.”

This play is set in the kitchen of a tenement where two brothers and a sister live.  They have moved from the south to a manufacturing city in the northern part of the United States. Lucy, the twenty year old sister who is lame, is preparing the noon time meal. Dan, the crippled older brother is watching her.  Chris, the younger brother, arrives home and announces that today he has been drafted.  It is at this point that the action of the play commences and the conflict relates to the fact that Chris is determined to request an exemption based on the fact that he supports his family. All of the five visitors who come to the apartment are on one side or the other concerning Chris’s draft issue. Two of them are of different race and ethnicity.  At the conclusion of the play, all the characters are united in their position.

It is impossible to know the impact of this play on the military recruiting of Black Americans, but Dunbar-Nelson’s play was widely known in the Black American communities across the United States.  It is reported that 370,000 Black Americans fought in all-black regiments. We will never know how many may have agreed to serve as a result of reading or seeing Mine Eyes Have Seen.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson knew she wanted to be an author.  She also wanted to be a teacher.  She went to college in New Orleans, the city of her birth.  After receiving her degree, she moved to New York City and taught in the public schools. She published her first volume in 1895, when she was twenty years old.  It contained poetry, stories, essays and other writings. She was a prolific author who did not restrict her work to a single genre.  Alice Dunbar-Nelson continued to teach school as well as write.  In 1902 she moved to Wilmington, Delaware to teach at Howard High School, where she worked for eighteen years.  

Alice Dunbar-Nelson had participated in theatrical entertainments as a young girl.  She enjoyed theatre in several capacities: as an audience member, a playwright and a director.  This work was done for community groups and the schools where she taught.  While she loved theatre, drama was never her major contribution to the world of letters. 

There are three other plays that she had written. They are published in The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Volume 3 edited by Gloria T. Hull.  The titles of these plays are: The Author’s Evening At Home, Gone White and Love’s Disguise.

Following World War One, she became an active participant in organizations promoting women’s issues and racial equality. Her writing became more politically oriented as well and her articles appeared in magazines and newspapers until 1932.

No comments:

Post a Comment