“Great men”*

Dear President Trump,

Yesterday there was a WP op-ed about the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibit celebrating the upcoming centennial of women winning the right to vote and how it brings African American women’s suffrage to the fore. The essay particularly highlights Alice Dunbar Nelson, who I figured was probably related to Paul Dunbar in some way. You might recall (but probably not) that I noted Paul Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” when I told you about Maya Angelou’s poem “The Mask,” which was read in church last month. Well, it turns out that Paul Dunbar was Alice’s first husband and she strategically used his name all her life because he was well known and revered and it gave her visibility and access that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.

In Alice’s Wikipedia page it’s reported that the marriage was troubled and that in 1902 Paul beat her nearly to death. She left him for good then, but they remained married until he died in 1906 from tuberculosis. Her page says Paul’s depression and alcoholism, ostensibly related to his doctor having encouraged him to use whiskey to treat his tuberculosis, contributed to the discord and presumably to his violence.

I didn’t remember any of this from Paul’s Wikipedia page, but figured I should double-check. It did reference his depression (other sources say he probably had bipolar disorder) and his alcoholism, but there was nothing about the domestic violence. The marriage is briefly described and he is quoted as having said Alice was “the sweetest, smartest little girl I ever saw.” The “little girl” part makes me cringe, but really, it feels very heavy and sad 1) that this man who was such a gifted writer nearly killed his wife, and 2) that this incredibly important thing about him was not included in a central information source.

I Googled his name + “domestic violence” and there are several entries about his marriage to Alice and the violence he visited on her, including reference to at least one rape. So, it’s out there and can be found, but you have to know to look for it and you wouldn’t know to look for it from the biographical sources focused on him. Knowing this about Paul puts a different, awful spin on his “We Wear the Mask” poem.

It’s horrifying that we keep learning of “great men” who need to have asterisks by their names to connote the violence they perpetrated against women and children.

I’m happy to report, though, that Alice remained an impactful activist and journalist after she left Paul and that she did live long enough to see women get the vote.

May we be safe in our relationships.
May we be willing to call out people who are abusive.
May we leave unhealthy relationships.
May we interact peacefully with one another.

Tracy Simpson

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