From Wed Feb 14 20:56:50 2001
From: Kimberly Ellis <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] BOOK: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois
Precedence: bulk
Date: Wed, 14 Feb 2001 20:13:12 -0500 (EST)

Review of Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois

Reviewed by William Jelani Cobb, Africana, 12 February 2001

Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois
By Gerald Horne
Format: Hardcover, 352 pages
ISBN: 0814736157
Publisher: New York University Press
Publication Date: September 2000

If you don’t know my name, James Baldwin, in a moment of crystal insight, once divined, you don’t know your own. And, truth told, the man was not being hubristic or speaking in self-praising tongues when he dropped that truth on us. Baldwin was breaking down the dialectic of recognition, assailing the willful blindspot that rendered black lives in America invisible. Take Baldwin’s truth, and raise it a factor to account for gender and then again for radicalism, and you understand why we know next to nothing about the life of Shirley Graham Du Bois.

Among the dramatis personae of the twentieth century, Graham Du Bois is one of those remarkable figures who somehow slipped beneath the radar of history. Her identities as musician, composer, author, playwright, intellectual and Pan-Africanist were obscured by one other role—that of spouse to W.E.B. Du Bois. Given the magnitude of Du Bois’s contributions to modern scholarship and politics, it’s understandable that the old sage would cast a long shadow among his peers and associates; given the accomplishments chronicled in Race Woman, Gerald Horne’s meticulously researched biography of Shirley Graham Du Bois, it’s clear that she should have cast some shadows of her own.

Born in 1896, just one year after Booker T. Washington’s famed (and infamous) Atlanta Compromise speech, Graham Du Bois’ life stretched to the cusp of the Reagan Presidency. In between, she lived on four different continents, contributed to the major intellectual debates of her era, survived as a communist during the McCarthy era, and counted heads of state in China, Ghana, Guinea and Egypt among her close friends. While a calcified bias against influential women and the non-personhood that the McCarthy era imposed upon radical thinkers account in part of Graham Du Bois’ low historical profile, her invisibility is at least partially a product of her own personality.

Horne charitably writes that his subject had a flair for re-inventing her identity; less diplomatic commenters referred to her as a skillful liar. Gerald Horne’s book does much to unravel the enigma of Shirley Graham Du Bois. Horne, who has also written biographies of W.E.B. Du Bois and Benjamin Davis, Jr., the black communist politician, is thoroughly familiar with the context in which Shirley Graham Du Bois lived and struggled. It comes as no surprise that Horne is particularly effective in deciphering the labyrinthine alliances and battles that engaged Graham Du Bois and the black left during the most arctic stretches of the Cold War.

By turns imperious, humorous, stern, personable, populist and self-important, she appears to have been a woman at ease with her own contradictions. She displayed a life-long tendency to balance her defiance of conventional female roles with a maternalism that placed her in a caretaking role for her male peers. Her maternal disposition may have been an effort to compensate for having left her two young sons in the care of her parents in order to pursue a writing career. Born the daughter of an itinerant Baptist clergyman, Shirley Graham was well aware of the designated role of women in family. A youthful marriage—motivated, Horne asserts, by a desire to escape the strictures of her home life—ended in divorce, but Graham insisted for the next six decades that she had been widowed.

She was also defined by her ability to create strategic relationships, particularly among powerful men. In this context, her marriage to Du Bois, who she had, ironically, met during childhood when he was already a famous scholar, is part of a longer pattern of interaction. In Jazz-age Paris, she became fast friends with the writer Eric Walrond; at Oberlin University, she cultivated ties with an influential professor whose interest in her transcended matters of academia; in New York, she was on a first-name basis with NAACP secretary Walter White, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Langston Hughes. Whether these relationships were a matter of opportunism or pragmatic necessities in a world dominated by male authority is, of course, subject to interpretation. Nevertheless, Horne makes it quite clear that Graham Du Bois was a fiercer critic of white supremacy than male supremacy for most of her life.

Though Graham Du Bois was a life-long race woman, her radicalization and eventual membership in the Communist Party were spurred on by her experiences in World War II—after she had penned the opera Tom-Tom and the play Dust to Earth, and directed a half-dozen theatrical productions. Just as World War I had given rise to the New Negro movement and Vietnam provided radical impetus for the Black Panthers, Graham found herself in the orbit of communist intellectuals and activists during the Second World War. At the same time, her casual relationship with Du Bois began to take on deeper significance. Du Bois, whom his biographer David Levering Lewis has described as a priapic adulterer, had likely initiated a relationship with Shirley Graham prior to his wife’s death. Shortly after her death (and just before his 1951 trial for subversion), the 83-year-old Du Bois and 54-year-old Shirley Graham were married. Contemporaries of the couple accused Graham Du Bois of being something of an ideological courtesan attempting to lure Du Bois into the Communist Party.

While Horne asserts that Du Bois’s eventual membership in the Party can be best understood as a product of his decades-old radical politics, it is clear that his spouse was not without influence. In the wake of his acquittal, the couple came under increasing surveillance, had their passports suspended and ultimately traded in US citizenship to help Kwame Nkrumah’s fledgling nation-building project in Ghana.

Following Du Bois’s death in 1963, Graham Du Bois became a pivotal advisor and confidante to Nkrumah, undertook the creation of a television network in Ghana and alienated scores of Ghanaians and Afro-American expatriates with her tendency toward self-importance. When Nkrumah’s government was toppled three years later, she became a sort of inter- national citizen of the Left, narrowly skirting factional conflicts between China and the USSR and living as America’s premier Negro Non Grata. Prior to her 1977 death, Graham Du Bois was embraced by a younger generations of radicals, studied the Egyptian Pyramids (and became a precursor of the Afrocentrist movement) and wrote a book about her late husband. Born in Jim Crow-era Indianapolis, she died eighty years later in Maoist China—still scribbling notes about Nkrumah and Zhou-En Lai on her deathbed.

In his rendering of Graham Du Bois’s life, Gerald Horne has completed a work of substantial deduction and skill. In essaying the magnitude, complexity and import of Graham Du Bois’s days, Race Woman removes one central name from the list of history’s missing persons.