Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Was a Story Set in Wilmington Among the Earliest Influences on the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance?

Among the earliest literary figures who lived in Delaware in the early 20th century was Alice Dunbar-Nelson. She was born Alice Moore in New Orleans on July 19, 1875. Her first husband was the American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar who died in 1906, about three years after she moved to Wilmington where she had family. Probably the best and most recent example of her influence on Paul Laurence Dunbar and about their the stormy relationship can be found in Eleanor Alexander’s 2002 book Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (New York University Press). Her own literary career did not end there. Her literary work showed up, both before and after her marriage to Dunbar, in places like George Jean Nathan’s and H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set as well as in Crisis when it was edited by W. E. B. DuBois. While in Wilmington she married Robert Nelson and is better known today as Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Later she worked as an educator and social activist as well as publisher of the local African American newspaper, The Wilmington Advocate, during the early 1920s, making her a pioneer of local Black journalism. Her literary and journalistic works inspired many who participated in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. 

One of Dunbar-Nelson’s early short stories, “Hope Deferred,” is among her most anthologized. Two anthologies where the story can be found are: Ebony Rising: Short Fiction of the Greater Harlem Renaissance Era, edited by Craig Gable and published in 2004 by the Indiana University Press, and “Girl, Colored” and Other Stories: A Complete Short Fiction Anthology of African-American Women in The Crisis Magazine, 1910-2010, edited by Judith Musser and published in 2011 by McFarland & Company, Incorporated.

“Hope Deferred” was first published in 1914 in Crisis 8, the main publication for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The story was most certainly written in Wilmington and gives clues regarding its locale. Early on in the story, Dunbar-Nelson states that the city in the story is,  “if not distinctly southern, at least one on the borderland between the North and the South.” Later on in the same story she divulges that the protagonist, Edwards, is serving time at the “county workhouse.” The “Workhouse,” during a little more than the first half of the 20th century in New Castle County, was the name given to the county penal institution then located at the intersection of Greenbank Road and the Newport-Gap Pike (Route 41) near Price’s Corner. The “Workhouse” was also the place from which an uncharged inmate, George White, was kidnapped by local white citizens and lynched nearby in 1903, the year that Alice Dunbar arrived in Wilmington. The “Workhouse” was also the location, where about two weeks before the lynching of George White, several men were publicly whipped and made to stand in the pillory. Delaware finally outlawed the pillory in 1905, but the state did not abolish corporal punishment until the late 1960s. One of the guard towers of the ‘Workhouse” still remains in the Park at Price’s Corner.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote “Hope Deferred,” which is most probably set in Wilmington, at a time when the Dupont Company was about to make an obscene fortune from profits from World War I, when the United States occupied the impoverished country of Haiti, when the Ku Klux Klan in Delaware was at the height of its power and influence and when both major political parties heard racist views. Even though the Progressive Era was in full bloom in places like New York City, and the Modernist Movement was making significant cultural advances, hope seemed to be waning for Wilmington’s African-American community. It was a bleak time in Delaware to be writing for social and cultural progress. In spite of this, Dunbar-Nelson wrote a story that was echoed in a refrain attributed to Langston Hughes when “hope deferred” became transferred into a “dream deferred.”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson only has a small citation in Alain Locke’s monumental tome, The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, published in 1925. Perhaps she might have had a greater part in Locke’s anthology and commentary had she gone to Harlem and played a greater role in that flowering of modern African-American culture. She chose instead to remain in Wilmington, and in her later years in Philadelphia, writing and struggling for social progress. Alice Dunbar-Nelson died on September 18, 1935. She is interred at the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

After All those Happy Endings

One writing idea I've had, but won't be using because I'm no longer writing literary art, is to continue the story after those happy endings from popular American cinema. A variant might be to recount incidents behind the scenes, which we don't see, that occur in those films. I played around a little with this idea in my novel UNTIME, but since I won't be taking the idea into any new writing projects it's an idea that maybe others might find useful.

Here's an example of one specific idea I've had of the continuance of the storyline from a fairly well known American movie. See if you can guess which one:

The story begins in Wilmington in October 1948. Frank and Nora McCloud have just gotten off the train at the Wilmington train station. They are on a honeymoon trip to New York City. Along the way from Nora's home in Florida where they had got married, they departed the train at several locations to see the sights. Among those have been Savannah, Washington D.C., and Wilmington, Delaware. Nora's father-in-law, James Temple, came from a long line of hotel owners, so they decided to visit hotels her father-in-law had told her about to wile away the time during the war when her husband had been overseas. One of those hotels had been the Terminal Hotel in Wilmington, which was conveniently across the street from the Wilmington train station.

Frank McCloud was a World War II veteran. Before the war he had been a newspaper reporter. He had served as a major in the army during the Italian campaign. One of the men in his unit, George Temple, had been killed during the battle of Cassino. Frank had promised George that if he didn't survive his wounds he would pay a visit to his wife and father-in-law at their home in Florida.

Frank McCloud's trip to Florida after the war proved eventful. While there, just as the tourist season had ended, a group of mob figures headed by Gianni Rocco showed up and commandeered the hotel. They had arrived by boat from Cuba with a stash of counterfeit money they planned to sell to some underworld figures from Miami. Next a major hurricane rolled in.

After waiting for an opportunity to get the drop on Rocco, Frank could make his move. Gianni appreciated a good hot bath while smoking his best Cuban panatela, the ashes falling in the sudsy water. He was surrounded by his goons. It wasn't 'til it was time to go after the hurricane subsided, that Frank could make his move. With the help of gangster moll, former singer and ex-chorus girl Gaye Dawn, who slipped Frank a pistol, he could get the drop on each of the gangsters where Nora and Mr. Temple were out of danger. It would be a story Nora would tell 'til her dying day because the incident would lead to their getting married.

After their honeymoon they returned to run the hotel because George Temple had bequeathed it to Nora unconditionally. James was infirm and getting older. They had many happy times through the remainder of the 1940s and the early years of the 50s. They had had a son, but new crises had hit all at once in the mid 50s.

Nora's husband and father-in-law died within a year of one another. Frank had terminal cancer. After James Temple died of a heart attack, Nora became sole owner of the hotel. Nora, still a young woman with a son to raise, hung onto the hotel with an enterprising local Seminole named Jay until 1968 when he died. That same year, her son was old enough to leave home to roam among the guests and the gangsters in Miami, and even though he made a lot of money, Nora was still dismayed and worried over her son's choices. 

With her son gone and her business partner dead, Nora decided to sell the hotel. The hotel was still turning a dollar, so it was a good sale. Afterwards, Nora retired to Key West, bought a nice but modest house, and became a parrot head. Every now and then her son would visit. He'd become a "businessman." He'd bring his buddies from Miami, mostly rough trade. Thugs, Nora would think. They reminded her of Gianni Rocco.

Nora was not surprised to learn about her son's sudden demise in a room in the Terminal Hotel in the late 1970s. It had become a dive where dirty deals went down. One of those deals had cost her son's life.

These are the stories Nora's still repeats, sipping her Piña Colada under a broad fringed umbrella, in the cafés of Key West. An aura of Hemingway hangs in the air. She is famous but keeps her distance. She only loosens up when Jimmy Buffett holds a concert. She still knows how to sway those hips.

You've guessed the movie by now. Next is to write.