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Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois

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Overview

One of the most intriguing activists and artists of the twentieth century, Shirley Graham Du Bois also remains one of the least studied and understood. In Race Woman, Gerald Horne draws a revealing portrait of this controvertial figure who championed the civil rights movement in America, the liberation struggles in Africa and the socialist struggles in Maoist China. Through careful analysis and use of personal correspondence, interviews, and previously unexamined documents, Horne explores her work as a Harlem Renaissance playwright, biographer, composer, teacher, novelist, Left political activist, advisor and inspiration, who was a powerful historical actor.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Horne is the first biographer to grant Shirley Graham Du Bois her due.”

-Boston Globe,

“Gerald Horne has brought a wealth of detail and insight to the life of Shirley Graham Du Bois, a writer and activist as significant in her own right as for her long and vital companionship with W. E. B. Du Bois.”

-David Levering Lewis,Pulitzer Prize winner and author of W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963

“Horne's writing handsomely communicates the artistic, political and social climate of the world that created the multidimensional Graham Du Bois... You will not want to put it down."”

-Black Issues Book Review,

“A fascinating account of the extraordinary life of W. E. B. Du Bois's widow: a complex, creative woman who lived a colorful, meaningful life.”

-Essence,

“Gerald Horne rescues Shirley Graham Du Bois from historical obscurity and from the shadow of her husband.”

-The Women's Review of Books

Boston Sunday Globe
Horne is the first biographer to grant Shirley Graham DuBois her due…Race Woman gives a good sense of Shirley Graham's adventurousness, courage, unconventionality, and talent…Where Horne shines is with the historical background. He has a first-rate grasp of international politics during the Cold War. If his book sheds valuable light on an extraordinary African-American woman, it sheds stronger light on the exciting, perilous times in which she lived.
Women's Review of Books
Gerald Horne rescues Shirley Graham DuBois from historical obscurity and from the shadow of her husband.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Largely remembered as the widow of W.E.B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977) was much more than a faithful caretaker and companion to her legendary husband. As Horne (Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s) reveals in this impressive biography, she was a restless, multifaceted woman. Reared in a strict Calvinist home, the daughter of a minister in Indianapolis, Ind., she understood that a solid education could free her from the limited existence of most women in her time. A youthful excursion into marriage ended in divorce, but not before Graham Du Bois became the mother of two sons. Horne, a Fulbright scholar and professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, does not judge Graham Du Bois's tortured decision to leave her boys with her parents so that she could conquer the world. After moving to Paris during the wild 1920s, she returned to the U.S. to produce her hit opera, Tom-Tom, then submerged herself in the heady academic atmosphere of Oberlin University. Horne also diligently evokes her political commitment to the civil rights movement, women's rights and anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia. Graham Du Bois wanted to control the flow of her life, but all of that changed when she met W.E.B. Du Bois, whom she married in his declining years, while he was under attack from McCarthy's Red hunters. Horne's observations on the couple's final days in Africa in 1963 and Graham Du Bois's subsequent globe trotting, especially her infatuation with Maoist China, are eloquent and rich with telling anecdotes about such figures as Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Nasser, Nkrumah and Zhou Enlai. Drawing on Graham Du Bois's personal papers and extensive interviews with family and friends, Horne's book may not completely unravel the enigma of Shirley Graham Du Bois, but it gets closer to her heart and soul than any previous attempt. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information
Library Journal
The lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois, dame extraordinaire, began with an early commitment to uplift her race. Her life roles included that of struggling single parent, musician, playwright, and novelist; successful biographer, activist, and adviser to Ghanaian nationalist leader Kwarme Nkrumah; wife of W.E.B. Du Bois; and, at various times, citizen of the United States, Ghana, and Tanzania. Throughout her life, she worked tirelessly for racial uplift, desegregation in the United States, and African decolonization. Politically, she espoused the ideologies of Soviet communism, Chinese socialism, and leftist nationalism. Relying on extensive research, Horne (Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s) shows how Graham Du Bois handledDsuccessfully or unsuccessfullyDthe conflicts she confronted as a black woman in male-dominated arenas and her personal struggle to resolve her parenting responsibilities with her artistic and political goals. Readers will anxiously anticipate each chapter and will be grateful that Graham Du Bois's amazing and often controversial life has finally been documented. Recommended for both public and academic libraries.DSherri Barnes, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Horne (Institute of African-American Research, U. of North Carolina- Chapel Hill) presents an astute biography of the life, politics, and work of Shirley Graham Du Bois (1906-1977), a Harlem Renaissance playwright, biographer, composer, teacher, novelist, proto-feminist, Left political activist, government advisor, political exile<-->and wife of W.E.B. Du Bois. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Essence Magazine
…a fascinating account of the extraordinary life of W.E.B. DuBois's widow; a complex, creative woman who lived a colorful, meaningful life…--Essence Magazine
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814736487
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 363
  • Sales rank: 1,046,971
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Gerald Horne is Moores Professor of History and African-American Studies at the University of Houston. His books include Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois and Race War!: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire (both available from NYU Press).

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Family


SHE WAS BORN Lola Shirley Graham on 11 November 1896, but at points in her life she shaved as much as ten years from her true age. The place where she was born, Indianapolis, Indiana, at that time was not the most hospitable place for African Americans. Jim Crow was prevalent. The conditions that would allow Indianapolis to become "the unrivaled bastion of the Invisible Empire [Ku Klux Klan] in Mid-America" in the 1920s were already in force when Graham was born.

    Her family background was as varied as her life. She claimed French, Scotch-Irish, English, and Native American ancestry, in addition to African; her light brown skin was suggestive of this potpourri. Despite her multiracial background, she was explicit in stating, "I am a Negro. I say that first because here in America that fact is the most determining factor of my being. I cannot escape."

    This conclusion and her background were quintessentially those of the United States. She once recalled that "one of my forebears was with Washington at Valley Forge, another died in the Battle of Shiloh; a great-grandfather fought his way out of slavery; a town in Indiana is named for my grandmother." This great-grandfather, Wash Clendon, "after buying his freedom in Virginia, had come to Indiana and settled. He was a blacksmith and could read and write.... After a while he acquired land.... His farm was one of the `underground railway' stations." Graham Du Bois also recollected a story that has been discounted, "that our great-aunt Eliza was the original `Eliza' immortalized by Harriet BeecherStowe." The larger point, however, was accurate: her roots in this nation ran deep.

    Her Native American ancestry came from her mother's side of the family. Etta Bell Graham was born on 30 April 1873 near Kidder, Missouri. Her father, "Big Bell ... a Cheyenne ... stole his bride Mary from a plantation" near the Missouri River. After their marriage he made a living as a saddle maker. The family wound up living in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Etta was the "first colored graduate" of Central High School there.

    More is known about Graham Du Bois's father. David A. Graham was born on 11 January 1861 in Princeton, Indiana. Like his daughter, he was relatively small: she was five feet two inches tall, he was five feet four. Graham Du Bois's mother was his second wife, and while his first spouse "looked exactly like an Indian," Etta Bell Graham "looked more Jewish in some ways, her high nose and so forth, quite fair." By the time he married Etta Bell, he had two children; then he had three more with her. Shirley was his only daughter.

    David Graham was a preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. His son Lorenz recalled him as a "well educated man; he had taught at Wilberforce for a while and then went into the ministry." He was a pastor in a number of churches, "first in the north, the largest AME church in Indianapolis, the largest one in Detroit, the largest one in Chicago." He seemed to be moving steadily higher in the ranks of the black petite bourgeoisie, but then, "because he offended the bishops ... by his exposing of the rascality of some of them, they sent him away to the smallest parishes in the South they could find."

    Graham Du Bois recalled her father as "the last of the old-fashioned Negro preachers who was really the shepherd of his flock, who was totally devoted, who would give his last coat away." In a phrase she would later use for one of her better-known plays, she noted that his attitude was that "the ravens fed Elijah, so we don't have to worry and he didn't worry." Actually the Reverend Graham proved to be as prophetic as the original Elijah in that his insouciant approach toward taking care of himself and his family did not prove to be disastrous. She too pointed to his "protest over the doings of a certain drunken and immoral Bishop" as a negative turning point in his career. For his part, the feisty Reverend Graham said he was eager to "more effectively pursue an uncompromising warfare upon corruption in every rank of the church."

    His removal from the fast track of the AME church did not plunge the family into penury (Graham recalled, "I don't remember ever having been without food or being cold"), though it was harmful to their economic well-being. Their father was not visibly worried about this decline, according to Graham Du Bois: "In one of her infrequent moments of `high tension' my mother said that father should have been a monk—that he would have been happiest in a perfectly bare monastery!"

    Graham Du Bois had a high opinion of her father's skill as a pastor: "he was a marvelous troubleshooter ... in a community where there was racial trouble because he was ... the kind of person who could both protect his flock and speak up to the white folks." This opinion may have flowed from a particularly tense situation when she was a child and the family was living in New Orleans at a time of racial tension. There had been a well-publicized killing of an African American; Graham, who was no more than seven, "experienced a feeling of resentment" at the "burning" of this man. This feeling became more personal after a letter came to her father instructing him that if he held a protest meeting that he had announced, "he too would be `lynched.'" Then another letter arrived telling him, "We give you twelve hours" to leave town. In those racially charged times, "a white man would have called the police. But at that time a Negro in the South never thought of calling on the police to protect him."

    He arranged to have handbills passed out announcing a mass meeting at his church. In response, those opposed to black self-assertion threatened to burn down this striking edifice. Shirley Graham was not too young to recognize the gravity of the matter.


"Papa," she wailed, "they may burn our house down. What are you going to do?"
"Never mind, dear," he responded. "If they come, we'll be ready for them," he assured her with confidence.


Providing her with the liberating idea that Jim Crow could be confronted, the unruffled family had an early supper that day, then left home and marched a few paces to the nearby church. Graham was surprised to see such a large turnout. As was his wont, her father began on time with a prayer, then read a verse from the Bible: "The Lord your God goes before you to fight against your enemies. The battle is not yours but the Lord's." A self-reliant sort, her father proceeded to place a loaded gun on top of his Bible. Graham also noticed that a number of men had pistols resting in their laps. Her father then demanded that women and children leave the church; twenty-one men with loaded guns remained behind.

    Shirley Graham was too nervous to sleep. She and her mother stood at the top of the stairs peering from the front of the house, which faced the front of the church. They could hear the frightening sound of an approaching mob. In the doorway awaiting them her father stood alone. She could hear bullets from the enraged mob whizzing through the night air. Her "father fired one shot in the air.... They were afraid of one man who had a gun—and who was not afraid!" The mob dispersed.

    This gripping incident left a lasting impression on Shirley Graham. Growing up in a state where Jim Crow had only recently been sanctified in the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson, she was able to witness firsthand that racial bullies could be made to retreat if confronted with countervailing force. Yet the gender lessons were probably not lost on her either: it was left to the men to do this crucial labor, while the women were ordered to retreat to the lair of domesticity.


* * *


Perhaps because she was the only daughter, her father doted on her. "My brothers all said that my father spoiled me and that I bossed all of them. Now there might be a little truth in that.... Well, naturally, I had to look after them, didn't I, and tell them what to do." Though she viewed it lightly in retrospect, this familial burden—being a de facto mother for her brothers—may have propelled Graham Du Bois into a premature marriage in an attempt to escape.

    Her earliest memories of childhood were of her father reading to her. He would read to her from Uncle Tom's Cabin; she would "always get the book" for him, and as he read "from time to time father would stop to explain something to us. And so we learned all about slavery." "Every night" he would read to her, mostly novels, including Les Miserables and Quo Vadis. Throughout her life she remained a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction alike.

    In her late seventies, these memories remained with her.


"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God." St. John I, verse I. This was a favorite text of my Preacher father. He instilled in me, at a very early age, a veneration of the Word, a kind of reverence for that which was recorded. Those "bedtime moments" of him sitting beside my bed at night ... shine as the happiest moments of my childhood days. I quickly learned to read because I wanted to make the Words my own. I handled all books gently. They were precious!


Fondly she remembered her father as a man with


an inquiring and imaginative mind and this kind of mind he instilled in me.... He enjoyed historical novels, travel books, descriptions of faraway places and peoples. And these were the kinds of things he read to me beginning when I was no more than four years old. So it was before I could read I made friends with the characters in Charles Dickens [and Victor Hugo] novels .... I particularly remember [the] vivid description of the three wise men following the star of Bethlehem as told in the novel Quo Vadis.


She had finished all the novels of Dickens by the time she was twelve and eventually read her favorite novel, Les Miserables, in French. The Huguenots "opened up my imagination and my world." Years later in 1958, when she was traveling through the desert of Egypt, the first thing that came to her mind were scenes from Quo Vadis that had been burned into her brain as a child.

    Though her father's economic status may have plummeted from time to time, Graham Du Bois remained a privileged child. Her mother's sister' was married to Bishop Samson Brooks of the AME church, and on his shelves she found all the novels of Dickens, plus the works of Balzac. Her close encounters with the printed word inexorably pushed her in the direction of being a writer: "all of these things influenced me tremendously." Though she "never thought about" herself as "a writer," she "always wrote things." Furthermore, though conscious of the various methods and styles that writers used to convey different points and moods, she "never tried to write like anybody else"; she just tried to say things in the "simplest possible terms so other people could get it."

    While her "mother worried about me a bit because I always had my nose 'stuck in a book,'" her father continued to encourage this passion. On the other hand, her mother encouraged her early interest in music— "Wagner had been my favorite of the composers"—and she learned to play the piano at a relatively early age. This, in turn, influenced her writing "a great deal," for she "learned what a symphony was and to project movement, theme, etc. and how to weave all together in allegro." Her biography of Paul Robeson, for example, was written "consciously" like a "symphony of life."

    While the family lived in Tennessee her skill as a musician flourished. Her father's church had acquired an organ, but her tiny legs were not long enough to pump the pedals, so she stood to conquer—her small fingers darted over the keys as her equally diminutive feet danced across the pedals. As she was to do so often later in life, she adapted creatively and was not flummoxed by a situation that was not tailor-made for her. Then again, she would not have had the opportunity to adapt her creative skill as a musician if her father had not been in a position—not necessarily common for black pastors—to have an organ installed in his church. Her father influenced her in another way that was not immediately apparent. His nomad-like wandering from parish to parish—Indiana, New Orleans, Nashville, Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, and so on—frequently thrust her into unfamiliar settings where she was compelled to adapt by making friends easily; this helped to shape her outgoing personality. Her family experience provided other advantages. When she entered school in New Orleans, admittedly her early experience with books gave her a distinct advantage over many of her classmates. Her school was close to the St. Louis Cathedral near Orleans Street, and her teachers were part of an "order of Negro nuns." Graham and her fellow students, who were also "predominantly 'light,'" were privileged by the complex politics of color in New Orleans. This happened to be one of the better schools for Negroes in the city, which meant that her color and her father's concern for her provided her with a certain advantage early in life. Though she "decided at once" that she liked school, her life there was not without incident: early on she contracted "typhoid fever" from the water and all of her hair "came out." Her father decided to enroll her elsewhere.

    David Graham was decidedly a most significant influence on her early life, and not simply because of his encouragement of her literary skills. He was a humanitarian, who "brought every itinerant, shabby preacher to [the] house for dinner." He organized NAACP chapters; "enterprising boys sold copies of the Crisis after meetings at [his] church." Her father was a "Du Bois man," not a follower of Booker T. Washington. This influenced her directly, for she "first read articles by Clarence Darrow, Dantes Bellegarde, Norman Thomas, Maxim Litvinov and Unamdi Azikiwe" in the Crisis. Early in life she developed a conception of "racial uplift" and "advancing the race."

    David Graham was something of an intellectual, but he was also an unforgiving cleric who demanded a strict upbringing for his offspring. He felt that "family worship should be held at the pastor's house daily under all circumstances and all of the family, old and young should be called in and, if possible, participate." He insisted that "the pastor should be very careful in the religious instruction and training of his children." Some of his viewpoints contrasted with those of his contemporaries: "No girls should marry under eighteen years of age," he proclaimed. Other opinions contrasted with viewpoints of today: "You are not prepared to marry until you have learned to keep house ... be sure to have his meals ready when he returns home in the evening." He believed that "the law of God is that you should remain single as long as your companion lives" and was harshly critical of those who divorce:


They may appear to be respectable in society! But in the law of God, they are written down among those whom He says shall not inherit eternal life ... I warn all therefore to never think of separation from your companion, but if you have done so, remain single as long as the other lives.


Such unforgiving opinions no doubt illuminate why Graham Du Bois not only abruptly left her first husband but then symbolically killed him by claiming that he died. Her father's rather traditional opinions concerning how women should relate to men no doubt left their imprint on her.

    Graham Du Bois acknowledged that she "was brought up in a strict, Calvinistic home where one was expected to have a reasonable explanation of every act." Such an atmosphere may have fueled her creativity with language, for "my brothers often fell short of satisfying our clergyman father, but I, perhaps because I was the only daughter, usually came off very well. My brothers still declare that I was the more skillful liar." The straight and narrow that the Reverend Graham demanded may have been the initial impetus for the fanciful way that she reinvented the details of her subsequent life.

    He was also the inspiration for her writing career, which began when she was eight or nine and they were living in Nashville; the "first money" she "ever earned came from writing" for the local newspaper there. When they were living in Colorado Springs she wrote another article, this time about her experience with Jim Crow when she was barred from a swimming class at the YWCA. She had a good friend then, a white girl named Mabel Osborne. Though they lunched together daily, neither visited the other's home. One day after lunch they made plans to swim at the YWCA on the forthcoming Saturday, late in the afternoon. This was a good time for Graham since it would allow her to finish her chores, which involved extensive cooking and cleaning. That Saturday after completing her domestic drudgery she bathed, then dressed for her outing. She donned her best blue print blouse and excitedly arrived ahead of time. She met Mabel and they proceeded to fill out registration cards being doled out by an otherwise affable woman who greeted the growing crowd of girls with the words, "Welcome to a summer of fun in our new pool!" As the queue moved forward Graham soon found herself face to face with this seemingly pleasant woman. But her visage shifted from a smile to a frown when she glimpsed Graham's light brown face.

    "What do you want?" she growled. Graham was jarred by her words. Groping for a response, she stuttered, "I came to sign up for swimming lessons."

    Noting that this incipient confrontation was causing unease among the other girls, the woman changed her tone but not her meaning.

    "We don't have classes for ... colored girls as yet," she purred. Graham was mortified, though she drew herself up and replied forcefully, "the lady said that all students could join." Mabel comforted her friend, giving her a warm embrace, but this was insufficient to stem Graham's anger. Tears rolled from her eyes as she turned away. As she walked the six blocks to her home she felt simultaneously confusion, anger, and sadness. What about Mabel, she thought, and her other "friends"; "suddenly, I was thinking of them as my white friends! Or, were they really friends?"

    When she arrived home, it was her father she went to and it was he who comforted her. "You are now thirteen," he told her, "young but not too young to speak out in protest against this kind of evil by a so-called Christian organization."

    Already she had developed an appreciation for the power of words, so she responded by writing an editorial that her influential father was able to place in a local newspaper. Though attempting to soothe the situation, the YWCA executive director roiled the waters further by explaining to the Grahams, "can't you understand the problem we have? Can't you see that we have to consider the feelings of all our citizens? We can't insult people before we educate them to accept ... your people!" After Graham's father finished rebuking her, the woman left his office in tears.

    This was another piercing experience with racism that helped to shape Graham's consciousness. It was also another lesson in gender relations, in that her "sisters" across the color line disdained her while her father rose to her defense. Such incidents may also have had an ideological impact as she witnessed that the "Christianity" of the YWCA was something less than all-encompassing. As a junior in the Colorado Springs high school, already she was expressing the exasperation with religion that would eventually lead her to Marxism:


The white saloon keeper's daughter is invited and welcomed. Oh! she needs help and encouragement. Of course she does. But the colored minister's daughter is turned away. And why? ... Christian association! Far better would it be to change their name and call themselves any kind of society or club except a Christian one.


* * *


The constant moves of her peripatetic father meant that Graham was forced to interact and become friendly with new people regularly; she had to learn the skill of dealing effectively with relative strangers. This constant movement also meant, in her words, that she was either "way ahead of class" or "way behind." She attended racially "mixed schools" and "separate schools." Her schooling was "checkered," but she learned a great deal about the nation and "our people." This constant movement and frequent interaction with strangers also gave her insight into human personality, which was to prove useful in both her art and her politics.

    In 1912 she was enrolled at the Tenth Street High School in Clarksville, Tennessee. That year she graduated from the equivalent of junior high school; "Lola Graham," the valedictorian, provided an oration at commencement on "The Ends of the Earth," and her remarks were "frequently interrupted with applause." Her proud father also spoke. She left with the "highest honors of her class."

    Shirley Graham had become a talented young woman. In 1915 her family was living in Spokane, Washington, and she was distinguishing herself by winning the "gold medal offered by the Remington Typewriter Co. for proficiency." Regularly she was giving piano recitals; one at the First AME Church in Seattle featured her playing the works of Chopin. She graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane with high honors. She had been recognized as the class poet and won an essay contest by writing about the subject of one of her later biographies, Booker T. Washington.

    The Pacific Northwest was not graced with a heavy concentration of African Americans, though it did have a substantial number of Native Americans and Asian Americans. This could lead to a contradictory effect: bigotry that in other regions would otherwise be absorbed by blacks was dispersed and diffused; yet the absence of bipolar racism could also foment a "compounded" racism that could appear worse than what other areas of the nation had to offer?

    Thus, despite Graham's manifest talents, opportunities were not widespread for African American women during the World War I era, even in the Pacific Northwest where they were few and far between. After leaving high school she entered a trade school, where she polished her typing skills and qualified as an office clerk. She moved further west to Seattle, where she worked at a naval yard and part-time at a movie house playing the organ and singing between the changing of the reels. There she met Shadrach T. McCants, whom she married in 1921. It was a large wedding with her father presiding.

    Not much is known about her first husband, with whom she gave birth to two sons, Robert in 1923 and David in 1925. He was from South Carolina but wound up in the Pacific Northwest, where he worked for a newspaper and as a tailor, not to mention owning a clothing store. The marriage was short-lived. Subsequently Graham claimed—falsely—that he died in the 1920s; still, the reasons for her divorce remain murky.

    In her memoir, for example, she claims—inaccurately—that "within three years" of her marriage, "I was a widow with two small sons, the younger still a baby." However, she was definitively accurate when she stated, "for the years immediately following, everything I did, everything I planned, everything I tried to do was motivated by my passionate desire to make a good life for my sons—to be able to bring them up in security and dignity." Her desire to provide for her sons—along with her concern for racial uplift and a not insubstantial ambition—fueled her enormous productivity.

    Her divorce decree was rendered in Portland, Oregon, in 1927; her husband defaulted and, apparently, did not contest the divorce. Why did she leave her first husband? The answer is unclear. Her surviving son, David, feels that she felt burdened with the responsibility of being a caretaker for her family, her younger brothers particularly; her mother, he says, was "physically weak" and perceived as "delicate," which resulted in Shirley Graham's being given "much greater responsibility" for household duties. Thus, her marriage was an escape. Moreover, Shirley Graham apparently was disgruntled with other aspects of her family life. Her mother's family were "very, very light skinned Black Americans" and resented her mother's marriage to David Graham, who was rather dark. And the fact that Shirley Graham was baptized a Baptist—not a member of the AME church of her father—suggests some alienation from family tradition, just as changing her name from McCants to McCanns after her divorce and referring to herself as Shirley, not Lola, were other examples of her desire to forge her own path and identity. Hence, her son does not feel that "she married out of love or desire to raise a family" but as a means of escape and defiance. Late in life, Graham Du Bois felt guilty about her behavior toward her first husband, suggesting that he was more "sinned against than [sinning]." Still, when her sons were growing up, she would become violently angry when his name was mentioned. When David was twelve and she discovered he was trying to contact his father, "she nearly had a fit." "She ranted and raved," though she later manifested a "terrible, terrible sense of injustice" about how she had treated her spouse and feared that "the real nature of their separation" would be discovered. She raised them under the misimpression that their father was a "gambler," that he "sold his house and abandoned us," that "he threatened to kill us." Her son David says, "I doubt now that any of this was true."

    Thus, David and his brother were raised by their maternal grandparents, a time filled with "happy memories"; however, being "sons" of a minister, they were "expected to behave in that way," and as a result their "very stern" grandfather "whipped [them] regularly." Unfortunately, growing up without their father impacted her son David particularly in a negative way. He conceded,


How I wish I had known him! ... I know that the fact that I never knew my father, that I was raised in a variety of homes other than that of my mother and father, that I grew to manhood hardly knowing my mother ... all these things have deeply affected my life and the person that I am today.


With a final note of bitterness he referred forlornly to his mother: "she does not know me, she has never known me—and possibly now it's too late."

    Ironically, though she was able to nurture and "mother" other men during her long life, she was accused of abdicating this responsibility as it pertained to her own sons. Perhaps there was a connection between the two: her "mothering" of others may have been a substitute and compensation for her perceived failings in providing it to her offspring.

    Her son's aching rancor stems in part from the fact that after divorcing, Graham Du Bois left her sons with her parents and others and embarked on her career. Her children felt abandoned. Her responsibility as a caretaker had helped drive her into an unwise marriage, and fleeing the responsibility of caretaker to her sons helped drive her into her engagement with African art and politics. But like the daughter of Nelson Mandela, who flinched in his embrace because she felt he was more interested in being father to a nation than father to her, Graham Du Bois's son felt similar ambivalence about his mother.

    Graham Du Bois did learn from this wrenching experience. Subsequently, she became a pillar of strength for those women friends of hers who were experiencing the emotional turmoil of divorce, which was viewed much less benignly in the past than it is today. Still, the scars left from starting her own family never completely healed.


* * *


As noted, David Graham, Shirley's father, was hostile to the idea of divorce; perhaps not coincidentally, she abandoned Shadrach McCants as her father was leaving to work in Africa, thus minimizing direct negative reaction from him. Liberia College was his destination. Graham Du Bois's sister-in law Ruth Morris Graham (who met her future spouse—Graham Du Bois's brother Lorenz there) recalled the city of Monrovia as "very shabby, not a restaurant, not a movie theater." The college itself was "really [a] shambles when we arrived ... it was very poor." There were sociopolitical tensions too as an Americo-Liberian elite of ten thousand, descendants of African Americans, confronted "a million indigenous people and there was always a conflict there."

    Liberia College, also known as Monrovia College, was founded by Graham Du Bois's uncle, Bishop Samson Brooks. There were a few hundred students registered of all ages, from adults to children. They were taught gardening, carpentry, housekeeping, "self-care," and "sanitation." This model of education was definitely of the Washington—not the Du Bois—variety, which may help to account for the disgruntlement of the Reverend Graham. The government was an autocracy and slavery was tolerated; anticipating his daughter's political evolution, he was of the opinion that a "revolution" might be necessary there.

    Liberia College was "the first secular English-speaking institution of higher learning in tropical Africa." Despite this manifest accomplishment, it was easy to see why the Reverend Graham's mind turned to "revolution" upon arriving there. Hollis Lynch has observed that "social stratification based on color" with a mulatto elite at the top was an integral aspect of Liberia at that time. "The faculty" of the college "were all biased in favor of European points of view"; they "assumed the inferiority of African languages, cultures and societies."

    Meanwhile, free of direct familial responsibilities, Graham Du Bois left to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, worked at Howard University and Morgan State University, then subsequently enrolled in Oberlin College. However, she was plagued by a solemn concern, expressed repeatedly, about leaving her two young sons in the hands of others.

    Consequently, she sought to compensate for her absence by showering them with gifts, which was not easy since she frequently skirted the edges of poverty. Her son Robert, concerned about her frazzled appearance, once told her,


grandma ... told me something that I am worried [about]. She said that you were thin and looked tired from work ... mother your life is not worth any Ph.d. Momma make plans this summer for at least two months worth of rest and joy ... you have been working for the last four years very hard.... Rest mother so you can live a long time ... even if it is us you [are] working for. Make it for us you are resting.


However, earlier—and more typically—he had written, "Mama I hate to bring this up but Mrs. Barnes [his caretaker] wants me to [say] she told me that Graham and I need some shirts, pants, and socks, underwear."

    As an absent mother, she was no doubt concerned when Robert wrote from his boarding school in Virginia, recounting his experiences with racial segregation—"They have one show and Negroes sit in the balcony." How did she feel when he said that instead of traveling to see her, he preferred to use the money for clothes? "I think right now clothes are more important to me than travelling." He wanted "`dark' glasses ... a pair of pants, some socks and underwear ... maybe a few `polo shirts,'" while a bicycle would be a "fine tonic" for his brother. Of course, he was concerned that his mother might not be "eating enough" and reminded her of a "McCanns famous saying, `If you save money from life's necessities, what have you gained.'" Nonetheless, satisfying his material wants became her surrogate for satisfying his emotional needs, and Shirley Graham McCanns was forced to work even more and engender even more concern from her firstborn.

    Her young son David was equally supportive:


you said something to me about Robert and I standing on your shoulders. Well I am sure if we didn't have your shoulders to stand on we would be in a pretty bad fix. Sometimes I think about the boys and girls who have no mother's shoulders to stand on and how they need them so much. I am proud of [you]. So now don't work too hard for you have two sons standing on your shoulders and if you work too hard the burden will be too much for you.


Still, these affecting words aside, she must have been moved when he mentioned experiences with his grandmother that he could have been sharing with his mother: "Mama you would be surprised if you could see Grandma some time after I had fixed her hair nice and put on a little touch of makeup, she is bee-oo-tee-full." Graham was so distant that at times the only time he heard her voice was when she was on the radio: "Gee!! Just think, listening to my own darling sweet mother broadcasting."

    Graham's journey from domesticity to a career was an untidy one, filled with difficulty; however, the pains and aches of that journey paled into insignificance compared with the concern she felt as a result of being an absent mother. Yet, as with so many other setbacks in her life, she converted this one too into an advance, for this hurt was converted into an almost heedless energy that led her to obtain two college degrees and churn out a torrent of operas, plays, and books.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Preface 1
Introduction: Perspectives 16
1 Family 38
2 On Her Journey Now 52
3 The Middle of Her Journey 71
4 Crossroads 89
5 Shirley Graham Du Bois 115
6 Home 134
7 On the Road Again 152
8 Mother, Africa 173
9 Detour 197
10 Black, to the Left 217
11 The End of Her Journey 243
Notes 265
Index 347
About the Author 363
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