Shirley Graham Du Bois
Shirley Graham Du Bois (November 11, 1896 – March 27, 1977) was an American award-winning author, playwright, composer, and activist for African-American and other causes. In later life she married the noted thinker, writer, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. With him, she became a citizen of Ghana in 1961 after they emigrated there. She won the Messner and the Anisfield-Wolf prizes for her works.
She was born Lola Shirley Graham in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1896, as the only daughter among six children. Her father was an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and the family moved often. In June 1915, Shirley graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington.
She married her first husband, Shadrach T. McCants, in 1921. Their son Robert was born in 1923, followed by David in 1925. They divorced in 1927. In 1926, Graham moved to Paris, France to study music composition at the Sorbonne. She thought that this education might allow her to achieve better employment and be able to better support her children. Meeting Africans and Afro-Caribbean people in Paris introduced her to new music and cultures.
In 1931, Graham entered Oberlin College as an advanced student and, after earning her B.A. in 1934, went on to do graduate work in music, completing a master's degree in 1935. In 1936, Hallie Flanagan appointed Graham director of the Chicago Negro Unit of the Federal Theater Project, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. She wrote musical scores, directed, and did additional associated work.
In the late 1940s, Graham became a member of Sojourners for Truth and Justice – an African-American organization working for global women's liberation. Around the same time, she joined the American Communist Party.
She and Du Bois married in 1951, the second marriage for both. She was 54 years old; he was 83. They later emigrated to Ghana, where they received citizenship in 1961 and he died in 1963. In 1967, she was forced to leave after a military-led coup d'état, and moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she continued writing. Her surviving son David Graham Du Bois accompanied her and worked as a journalist.
She died of breast cancer on March 27, 1977 in Beijing, China, where she had gone for treatment.
After meeting Africans in Paris while studying at the Sorbonne in 1926, Graham composed the musical score and libretto of Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro (1932), an opera. She used music, dance and the book to express the story of Africans' journey to the North American colonies, through slavery and to freedom. It premiered in Cleveland, Ohio. The opera attracted 10,000 people to its premier at the Cleveland Stadium and 15,000 to the second performance.
According to the Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, her theatre works included Deep Rivers (1939), a musical; It's Morning (1940), a one-act tragedy about a slave mother who contemplates infanticide; I Gotta Home (1940), a one-act drama; Track Thirteen (1940), a comedy for radio and her only published play; Elijah's Raven (1941), a three-act comedy; and Dust to Earth (1941), a three-act tragedy.
Because of the difficulty in getting musicals or plays produced and published, Graham turned to literature. She wrote in a variety of genres, specializing from the 1950s in biographies of leading African-American and world figures for young readers. She wanted to increase the number of books available for students in elementary school that dealt with notable African Americans. Because of her personal knowledge of her subjects, her books on Paul Robeson and Kwame Nkrumah are considered especially interesting. Other subjects included Frederick Douglas, Phylis Wheatley, and Booker T. Washington; as well as Gamal Abdul Nasser, and Julius Nyerere.
Her late novel Zulu Heart (1974) included sympathetic portrayals of whites in South Africa during a time of conflict with Africans.
Selections from her correspondence with her husband (both before and after their relationship began) appear in the three volume collection edited by Herbert Aptheker, Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois (1976). Graham Du Bois is the subject of the biography, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois (2000), by Gerald Horne.
"We are a race of artists. What are we doing about it?"
– "Towards an American Theatre," Arts Quarterly, Oct–Dec 1937
Biographies for young readers:
- with George D. Lipscomb, Dr. George Washington Carver, Scientist, New York: Julian Messner, 1944
- Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World, 1946; winner of Anisfield-Wolf Prize; Connecticut: Greenwood Press, reprint 1972
- Your Most Humble Servant: Benjamin Banneker, New York: Julian Messner, 1949
- The Story of Phillis Wheatley: Poetess of the Revolution, New York: 1949
- The Story of Pocahontas, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1953
- Jean Baptiste Pointe duSable: Founder of Chicago (1953)
- Booker T. Washington: Educator of Head, Hand and Heart, New York: Julian Messner, 1955
- His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W.E.B. Du Bois, New York: Lippincott, 1971
- Julius K Nyerere, Teacher of Africa, New York: Julian Messner, 1975
- Du Bois: A Pictorial Biography, Johnsons, 1978
- There Once Was a Slave (1947), the Messner Prize-winning historical novel on the life of Frederick Douglass; and
- Zulu Heart, New York: Third Press, 1974
- Aptheker, Herbert. (ed) – The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois, Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976
- Horne, Gerald. Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois, New York: New York University Press, 2000.
- Nishikawa, Kinohi. "Shirley Graham," The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature. Ed. Hans Ostrom and J. David Macey, Jr. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005, pp. 652–53.
- Aptheker, Bettina. "Graham Du Bois, Shirley," In Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Susan Ware and Stacy Braukman (Eds). Cambridge,, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004, Pp. 248–249.
- "Shirley Graham", Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, 2001, accessed January 18, 2012
- Linda Ragin, "Review: Gerald Horne, 'Race Woman'", Books for Blacks Website, 2000, accessed January 18, 2012
- Schmalenberger, Sarah, "Debuting Her Political Voice: The Lost Opera of Shirley Graham", Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 26 No. 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 39–87.
- Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois, New York: New York University Press, 2000
- "Shirley Graham (Du Bois)", in Women of Color, Women of Words, 2005. Retrieved 14 March 2009
- "Shirley Graham Du Bois", African American Registry
- Hine (ed). Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, New York: Carlson, NY, 1993
- Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.