Black Women and Pleasure: Ancestral Lessons We Should Learn

Our foremother Alice Dunbar-Nelson has much to teach us about pursuing pleasure as a feminist quest to care for ourselves.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson-black-women-history-pleasure-self-care

Pleasure is an act of self-empowerment. This is an invaluable lesson that I have learned from pouring over the letters, diaries, songs and interviews of Black women contained in archives that hold answers to timeless questions. Among those, Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s page-turning diaries reign supreme. She seemed to see pursuing pleasure as a feminist quest to care for herself, despite the challenges she endured during her life.

Our foremother provides a model for us in the age of COVID, and the ongoing fight for voting rights and against anti-abortion legislation. How did Black women tap into their spirits to find moments of pleasure? To practice self-care? Activist and writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson helped me to understand the answer.

She was an active member of the suffrage movement and continued strongly in politics, demanding passage of an anti-lynching bill. Although she was highly respected by her peers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, for her work as a fiction writer, columnist, speaker, and, of course activist, scholars often overlook Dunbar-Nelson in favor of her more famous first husband, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Born in New Orleans in 1875, she graduated with educational training from Straight College, now known as Dillard University, and went on to join the Phillis Wheatley Club. She became recording secretary under the presidency of Mary Church Terrell when they formed the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. By then she had published a collection of fiction, essays and poetry about South Louisiana. She also began her relationship with the famous revered poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. The relationship ended formerly in 1906 with his death, but after enduring physical abuse she left him four years before and began life anew in Wilmington, Del., where she would go on to marry two other times. By the time of her death in 1935, she had been a long-time teacher and co-founder of a hospital, several schools, an NAACP chapter and was head of several other organizations. 

Her diaries, some handwritten and some typed, are her confessions of her hopes for a better future, her sadness and depressions, her joys, her mediations, her observations, her queer life.

I first learned of Dunbar-Nelson in an American literature classroom at Dillard University in the early 1990s. As an alumna, she was literally an ancestor. Twenty years later, I went to the University of Delaware to read through her collection of papers. Her diaries, some handwritten and some typed, are her confessions of her hopes for a better future, her sadness and depressions, her joys, her mediations, her observations, her queer life. 

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The hardworking wife, sister and daughter suffered from chronic illnesses, yet, she found pleasure in a variety ways—through building relationships, taking walks in nature, writing in her diary, and engaging in daily spiritual mediations. And, like many of us, she sought her escape by immersing herself in films and plays. From Alice Dunbar-Nelson, we can certainly learn how to embrace a pleasure practice that gives us time for ourselves to luxuriate in the favorite parts of ourselves, in any place, and make that time our absolute own.

Although she was a professional writer, she finds ways to make the practice of writing hers. The diaries were a part of a regimented daily practice and she begins in 1921 lamenting that she should have done it earlier: “Now I begin this day to keep the record that should have been kept long since.” As she acknowledges the importance of her voice, from her we learn that women’s lives are worth knowing and remembering.

In one of those entries, she delves deeply into the joy of traveling with other women to a conference organized by Black women. She wrote on a lovely Saturday, July 30, 1921:

“Miss Violet, Nannie Burroughs, Geneva and I drove over to Newark in the morning—maybe it was noon, left N.B. at the station, thence, through all this beautiful Jersey scenery to Montclair. It seems incredible—all this loveliness. My tired and tortured spirit is soothed by the coolness and green beauty of the hills and trees.” 

Dunbar-Nelson describes multiple pleasure practices in a brevity of words. First, she tells how she leaned into the beauty of nature. If the other women activists saw what she saw, or felt what she felt is unclear. However, what we do know is that she found a beautiful mental place for herself and claimed it. In fact, her diaries reveal that she often sought pleasure in nature when she traveled. In another entry she wrote, “had a lovely time exploring today—a rabbit in the sunken garden, squirrels in the big grove, thrush…—a lovely time alone.” 

Additionally, she had taken to daily meditations and felt it to be a way to shield her family from misfortunes. Despite her personal harrowing failures and disappointments and the pressures associated with her activist career, she sought means to escape the sadness. One such way was through her daily “noon meditations.” In her archives, there are workbooks that show guided exercises designed to bring forth positive thinking and planning.

Lastly, she lost herself in the arts. Although at times this was research for her columns, she indicates in her diary that she went to see films or to the theater after enduring a particularly stressful day—of which she had many. On a day that she learns she is ineligible for a teaching position in Washington, D.C., she writes of going to the Dunbar School to see the ‘Krigwa’ players in 1927. The plays were “good,” she recalls, but surely they brought her the pleasure of an imagined escape.                     

Tapping into life’s pleasures to alleviate stress is an essential part of living. Black women lead in deaths caused by heart disease, stroke, and breast cancer, reminding not just Black women, but all women that every moment of life is precious. Yes, there is power in pleasure. I end by wishing you long drives where your soul is soothed by the greenery. I wish you to embrace the beauty of your self, a beauty that glows deep within and that you hold tight and dear. 

 *Quotes taken from Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson edited by Akasha (Gloria) Hull.

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Tara T. Green is professor of African American and African Diaspora studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she teaches gender studies and literature courses. She is author of the forthcoming Love, Activism and the Respectable Life of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (Bloomsbury) and See Me Naked: Black Women Defining Pleasure during the Interwar Era (Rutgers). For more information, see