A glorious, wonderful climax

Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a poet, journalist, and occasional diarist who spent much of her life advocating for the rights of African Americans and women during the tumultuous early decades of the twentieth century. Born in 1875 in New Orleans, Louisiana, her mixed-race heritage afforded her a unique perspective on race relations in the United States, and her work often reflected the complexities and contradictions of her time. Shortly before writing the following diary entry, Dunbar-Nelson had turned fifty-four but was “feel[ing] twenty-five.” It was now the final day of a restorative month-long holiday with friends at Highland Beach in Maryland, a place she had visited before and thought of often. More than anything else, it was the water that brought her back.

The Diary Entry

27 July 1929

Life, which had flowed smoothly and evenly, now sparkles and ripples…. Dancing at Ware’s—and then the glorious climax of my glorious four weeks—a midnight plunge in the stormy bay. Great, black, menacing clouds scurrying over a scared moon, blotting it out. Heavy, tormented waves, tossing in the rising tide and smashing on the beach in white surf and masses of phosphorous. The twilight of a dark night at sea. Vivid jags of lightening showing us to each other. Only five dared the midnight plunge. Mac, Ruth, Albert Taylor, Weaver and I. Out—not so far—until up to our shoulders, the waves dashed over our heads. And we swam—matches of under water swimming, where the phosphorous made gleaming lights on the head—like miners’ lamps. Swimming, swimming out to infinity—racing in under the pulsing water to the solitary light on shore. An experience worth having—a glorious, wonderful climax. Only equalled by the velvety luxuriousness of the times when swimming far out—we slipped off our bathing suits—Emily, Tea and I and let the water caress our naked forms.

—But the heavy waves swept us in—then we raced up and hurried into clothes—panting, flowing, breathless. Hungry. Four of us piled in Mac’s car, Ralph Weaver and I in the rumble seat, my wet hair flying out. So to Annapolis and hot dogs—Texas wieners with plenty of onions and coca cola and back. And so to bed at two thirty….

The glorious month draws to a close. The voluptuous caresses of my lover—the Chesapeake Bay—will soon be mine no more. It has been a perfect time….

Further Reading

Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s personal papers, including her surviving diaries, are held at the University of Delaware Library in Newark, Delaware. In 1985, those diaries were edited by Gloria T. Hull and published by W. W. Norton with the title, Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. The above entry is reprinted with the kind permission of Akasha Hull.


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