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Shirley Graham-DuBois


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The Life of Shirley-Graham DuBois

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Shirley Graham-DuBois

  1. 1. Shirley Graham-DuBois Uncovering the life of the “widow”
  2. 2. Goals <ul><li>Goal of this presentation is to first highlight the accomplishments of Shirley Graham that have not been given sufficient attention in historical records of the civil rights movements; and show how extensive and diverse her talent and experiences were. </li></ul><ul><li>Second, to disprove the notion that she is culpable for her famous husband’s turn to Communism. </li></ul>
  3. 3. Early Life <ul><li>Shirley Lola Graham was born November 11, 1896 in Indianapolis, Indiana. </li></ul><ul><li>Her father, Rev David Graham a Protestant minister, instilled in his daughter the belief in racial justice </li></ul><ul><li>A vocal opponent to Jim Crow south, Rev. Graham organized NAACP Chapters and held meetings. </li></ul>Young Shirley Graham
  4. 4. Absent Mom <ul><li>Marries Shadrach T. McCants in 1921 at the age and divorced by 1927. </li></ul><ul><li>Leaves her two sons, Robert and David, with her parents to embark on a career in the arts, even traveling to Paris for 3 years. </li></ul><ul><li>Divorced, single mother worked tirelessly to compensate for her absence by showering sons with gifts and money. </li></ul>Rev. David Graham Etta Graham
  5. 5. The Artist “ My feeling was that if the other children understood, if they really knew what Negroes did, and what they had contributed; if they really knew about Africa…naturally they would see, and they would understand. Because they didn't know was the reason they acted the way they did.…” -Shirley Graham-DuBois
  6. 6. Re-invention <ul><li>Now calling herself Shirley McCanns, she shaved off about 10 years from her age, falsely claimed herself to be a widow and embarked on a career in the arts. </li></ul><ul><li>In 1929, DuBois moved to Paris, where she studied music composition at the Sorbonne. While in Paris, she met many French-African musicians, whose compositions excited her. </li></ul><ul><li>After returning to the U.S in 1930, she enrolled Oberlin College in Ohio to complete her bachelor's degree in art. </li></ul>
  7. 7. Tom Tom <ul><li>In 1932, became the first African American woman to write and produce an opera with an all-black cast. </li></ul><ul><li>Despite a lack of formal training, Graham turned her one-act play into the opera Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro at the Cleveland Stadium in 1932. </li></ul><ul><li>Drew 10,000 people (of all races) at its premiere and 15,000 in the second showing (including then governor of Ohio, Newton Baker) </li></ul>Shirley Graham at the time of the opening of Tom-Tom , circa 1932
  8. 8. Tom Tom <ul><li>An expression of racial pride, Graham uses the play to “map the journey of Africans in North America from slavery to freedom” </li></ul><ul><li>The opera begins in an African jungle in 1619 and ends in 20th century Harlem with a recurring cast of central characters: Voodoo, Boy, Girl, Mother, Preacher. </li></ul><ul><li>Contrary to similar plays at this time, Graham was intent on displaying a raw but proud image of Africans. Striving for authenticity, she uses the music she was introduced to in Paris by French-African musicians. </li></ul>
  9. 9. The Director <ul><li>In 1935, an act of Congress established the Federal Theater Project as a part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s &quot;New Deal.&quot; </li></ul><ul><li>Graham appointed director-supervisor of Federal Theatre #3, the &quot;Negro Unit&quot; of the Chicago Federal Theatre, where she put on provocative and successful productions, such as Little Black Sambo and Swing Mikado. </li></ul>FTP poster, 1936
  10. 10. Swing Mikado <ul><li>Swing Mikado (1938) a jazz adaptation of the Gilbert and Sullivan play “The Mikado.” </li></ul>Swing Mikado , 1938
  11. 11. Little Black Sambo <ul><li>Little Black Sambo (1938) a children's drama. </li></ul>Little Black Sambo , Aug 1938
  12. 12. End of FTP <ul><li>By 1938, the House Un-American Activities deemed that the Federal Theater Project was a hideout for communists. </li></ul><ul><li>Graham leaves her position shortly before the FTP is shut down entirely. </li></ul><ul><li>She then heads for Yale Drama School for the opportunity to “hone her craft.” </li></ul>
  13. 13. Yale <ul><li>Awarded a Julius Rosenwald fellowship in 1938, she spends her time at Yale studying, researching but still playwriting. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>It’s Morning (1940): A precursor to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, features a slave mother, Cissie, who on the eve of Emancipation kills her own daughter to prevent her from being sold. Afterwards she declares unrepentantly: </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>“ when da saints ob God go marchin’ home </li></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Mah gal will sing! </li></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Wid all da pure, bright stars, </li></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Tuhgedder wid da mawnin’ stars --She’ll sing!” </li></ul></ul></ul></ul>
  14. 14. Transitioning <ul><li>Despite critical acclaim, her career in the arts was not very lucrative and she was having difficulty making a living and remained “virtually poverty-stricken.” </li></ul><ul><li>Her frustrations were evident in a letter she wrote to then friend W.E.B. DuBois saying, </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ If I had no responsibility other than myself I’d feel perfectly safe to strike out into the professional world and take what comes.” </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Responsibilities to her sons drove her to look for a salaried position. </li></ul>
  15. 15. The Activist “… in the final analysis white supremacy has us by [the] throat because the white man has the money. Yet I’ll be damned if I’m sorry.” -Shirley Graham-DuBois after her dismissal from USO
  16. 16. Race Woman <ul><li>From an early age, Shirley Graham, encouraged by her father, voiced her opinions on racial injustices. </li></ul><ul><li>At age 13, she wrote her first editorial to an Indianapolis paper protesting racial discrimination, after she was denied access to a YWCA swimming pool because she was black. </li></ul>
  17. 17. Voicing Her Opinion <ul><li>In 1942 she became the YWCA-USO Director of Fort Huachuca, Arizona, “a highly segregated military base that had fifteen thousand black men and women soldiers.” </li></ul><ul><li>After witnessing the death of 3 black soldiers as a result of racial tensions, Graham rapidly defended the men who protested against the events. </li></ul><ul><li>As a result, she was accused of “rabble rousing” and forced out of the USO. </li></ul>Fort Huachuca, 1943
  18. 18. N.A.A.C.P <ul><li>Although her bold actions eventually led to her dismissal it caught the attention of the NAACP who quickly hired her as a field secretary in NY. </li></ul><ul><li>With the NAACP she goes on to help lead largest membership drive in the organization’s history. </li></ul><ul><li>Around the same time, she decides to join the Communist Party. </li></ul>
  19. 19. Black Feminism <ul><li>Along with Eslanda Robeson, Beulah Richardson and others, formed an early black feminist group “Sojourners for Truth and Justice” largely in support of Rose Lee Ingram in 1951. </li></ul><ul><li>Organization created to “… give inspiration and courage to women the world over, the colored women of African and Asia who expect us to make this challenge.” </li></ul>Rosa Lee Ingram with her 2 sons.
  20. 20. The Biographer
  21. 21. The Biographer <ul><li>Resigns from NAACP after only one year due to an “urge to do creative work.” </li></ul><ul><li>Begins writing biographies of famous African American figures such as George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass and Paul Robeson. </li></ul><ul><li>In 1947, biography of Douglass wins the Julian Messner Award--which carried a prize of $6,500, a substantial sum then--for &quot;the best book combating intolerance in America.&quot; </li></ul>
  22. 22. The Biographer <ul><li>Motivated by her desire to educate young people about African American history. </li></ul><ul><li>Books combine historical fact with fictitious dialogue that some criticized but others lauded as “imaginative.” </li></ul><ul><li>Books were quite popular and boosted Graham’s celebrity in mainstream publications. </li></ul>
  23. 23. Financial Prosperity <ul><li>Unlike her work with operas and musicals, her biographies finally provided her with a stable income and she became financially secure. </li></ul><ul><li>Sadly, this time period also marked the death of firstborn son, Robert in 1944 from what she claims was racist medical treatment in his hospitals. </li></ul><ul><li>Following his death, Graham-DuBois became more vocal about racism and drifted deeper toward leftist politics. </li></ul>
  24. 24. Mrs. DuBois <ul><li>In 1951, Shirley Graham married longtime friend/advisor/mentor W.E.B. DuBois, months after the death of his first wife Nina. </li></ul><ul><li>After months of harassment and legal battles regarding their Communist leanings, the couple decided to relocate to Ghana where W.E.B. had accepted a job position. </li></ul><ul><li>While in Ghana they renounced their U.S. citizenship in 1961, and become citizens of Ghana. </li></ul>
  25. 25. Kwame Nkrumah, W.E.B. DuBois, Shirley Graham and unidentified man in Ghana,1961
  26. 26. Shirley, W.E.B & The Left &quot;There were times when I felt that Shirley had been assigned from the Party to take ... to grab him.” -Kyrle Elkin, friend of W.E.B. DuBois, 1987
  27. 27. “Femme Fatale” <ul><li>Portrayed by HUAC as the more radical spouse who was keeping her husband in the Left. </li></ul><ul><li>Also DuBois former colleagues in the NAACP explained his departure to the Left as being a result of “age, ego bitterness and communist handlers, not least of whom was said to be Shirley Graham-DuBois” </li></ul><ul><li>This image is likely enhanced by the fact that he was 30 years her senior at the time of their marriage. </li></ul>
  28. 28. Fact or Fiction? <ul><li>Although it is true that Shirley was very vocal about her political opinions and that she did introduce him to her circle of friends (Howard Fast, Paul and Eslanda Robeson, etc), the notion that she somehow coerced W.E.B to the Left is inconsistent with the dynamics of their relationship and insulting to the intellect of W.E.B. </li></ul>
  29. 29. Wife & #1 Fan <ul><li>Shirley first met DuBois when she was a small child and was enamored for decades prior to their marriage.“Undoubtedly, I had been in love with him for a long time …”, she recalls in her memoir of W.E.B. </li></ul><ul><li>As W.E.B. biographer David Levering Lewis noted, there is no validity in the notion that she was planted by the Party because even before she was a Communist, “she had already been in stealthy pursuit of W.E.B. DuBois for half a lifetime.” </li></ul>
  30. 30. Mrs. DuBois <ul><li>Before he was her husband, he was her mentor, advisor, and supporter. He consoled her after her beloved father died in 1936, wrote her recommendation for a fellowship, and advised her on her plays while at Yale. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ I was not only his wife, I was his close companion for the last twenty years of his life. Even before I married him he was the dominant force on my life.” </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>-Shirley Graham-DuBois, 1964 </li></ul></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><li>In fact, after their marriage Shirley willingly took a backseat to her more famous husband and enjoyed the “position” that she had “to maintain” as Mrs. W.E.B. DuBois. </li></ul>
  31. 31. Life after DuBois “ for the first time in my life I am really part of a dynamic, progressive government which is doing something every day … Africa is leading the way! I am most fortunate and happy to be in the front ranks.” -Shirley Graham-Dubois, 1964
  32. 32. Shirley Graham-DuBois led by Kwame Nkrumah at funeral service for W.E.B DuBois 1963
  33. 33. Citizen of Ghana <ul><li>Following the death of her beloved W.E.B. in 1963, she became an advisor and official to Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana. </li></ul><ul><li>She also hosted important meetings with governmental officials including Chinese premier Zhou En-lai. </li></ul><ul><li>Heading the countries television network she was named the Founding Director of Ghana Television. </li></ul>
  34. 34. Ghana Television <ul><li>Her work included training technicians and staff, and developing facilities and national infrastructure to handle the new communications medium. </li></ul><ul><li>Also served as chairman of the partnership with the Japanese corporation Sanyo, to provide television sets to Ghana. </li></ul>
  35. 35. Nation Building <ul><li>Passionate about development of Ghana, she encouraged settlement of ‘talented’ African-American expatriates to come help with “nation building”. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ Africa doesn’t need ‘leaders’. It does need the help of skilled technicians, experiences and exceedingly well trained.” </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>-Shirley Graham after turning away Robert F. Williams </li></ul></ul>
  36. 36. On to Cairo <ul><li>Forced to flee Ghana, after Nkrumah is overthrown in 1966 in coup and relocates to Cairo, Egypt near son, David. </li></ul><ul><li>She begins to become “Egypt-centric”, even writing biography of Gamal Abdel Nasser. </li></ul><ul><li>Also begins an intimate memoir of her late husband, W.E.B. DuBois titled His Day Is Marching On. </li></ul>
  37. 37. Back to the U.S.A. <ul><li>Early 1970, Shirley Graham receives invitation to speak at Fisk University but her visa application is denied due to her former political allegiances. </li></ul><ul><li>White House, in response, besieged with letters from friends and supporters including Shirley Chisholm, Adam Clayton Powell, Edward Koch, and others. </li></ul><ul><li>In the spring of 1970, her visa is approved. </li></ul>
  38. 38. Afro-Pride <ul><li>Travels the country visiting institutions and giving nationalist and Afrocentric lectures at places like Fordham, Morehouse, Dartmouth and more. </li></ul><ul><li>Lectures included: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ Africa and the Middle East” </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>“ Africa and Pan-Africanism” </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>“ Egypt is Africa” </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>“ We Are an African People, We Shall Win!” </li></ul></ul>
  39. 39. Final Years <ul><li>Continues to advocate for the liberation of and equality for African peoples, women, African-Americans </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Rallied against indictment of Angela Davis, 1972 </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Wrote novel about South Africa, Zulu Heart, 1974 </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Completed biography of Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere, 1975 </li></ul></ul><ul><li>April 1977, passes away from cancer in China. </li></ul>
  40. 40. Legacy &quot;The many contributions of Shirley Graham have on the whole been neglected in the annals of American theatre history. Graham was one of the few black women, prior to the 1950s, to actively pursue a career in professional theatre as a playwright, composer, designer, and director. &quot; (Perkins 209)
  41. 41. Historical Legacy <ul><li>Like many wives of historical African-American figures (Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King, etc), Shirley Graham-DuBois’s historical record is usually limited to her life lived in tangent with husband W.E.B. DuBois, neglecting her individual accomplishments. </li></ul><ul><li>In addition, her controversial political activities with the Communist Left have no doubt contributed to her alienation. </li></ul><ul><li>Finally, she is often subtly depicted as a &quot;femme fatale&quot; who seduced W.E.B DuBois to Leftist politics. </li></ul>
  42. 42. <ul><li>Gerald Horne’s “Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham DuBois” is the first biography to highlight her entire life prior to and after her famous marriage. </li></ul><ul><li>Book sheds light on her accomplishments and even elucidates that her most productive years were the ones when she was not married. </li></ul>“Race Woman”
  43. 43. More than a widow <ul><li>A true Pan-Africanist, she was passionate about racial uplift and used her talents to further the black race through music and the arts; political activism and organizing; and writing luminous biographies of African figures. </li></ul><ul><li>Shirley Graham-DuBois was a talented playwright, intellectual, pioneer, political activist, biographer, organizer who deserves more of a historical record. </li></ul>