Black Radicalism and Shirley Graham Du Bois’s Curatorial Imagination

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Shirley Graham Du Bois to recognize the anniversary of her passing in March 1977. The contributions in this forum center her intellectual and cultural production as an author, playwright, activist, Pan-Africanist, and Black radical. 

W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois in Accra, Ghana, ca. January 1963 (Ruth Lazarus, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers/MS 312, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).

In Looking for Lorraine, African American Studies scholar Imani Perry writes that “memory is not simply a way of holding on, it is a reencounter.” The phrase’s lyricism about the intersection of longing and remembrance provides a pathway into thinking about the ways that Shirley Graham Du Bois narrated and interpreted her association with W. E. B. Du Bois—both in life and death.

If the act of making historical memory is a kind of reencounter with the deceased, then the role of Shirley Graham Du Bois’s curatorial imagination in crafting the legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois offers a fascinating site at which to understand how history and memory intermingle. In this post I reflect briefly on her archivally oriented and preservationist minded efforts to craft Du Bois’s legacy as a Black radical, Pan-African intellectual. Thinking about her curatorial imagination as a site of analysis deepens our grasp of what historian Gerald Horne calls Graham Du Bois’s many “lives.” Examining Shirley’s work of crafting W. E. B.’s legacy through an assemblage of history and memory centers her cultural labors as a “new perspective” on women’s work in the making of the Black radical intellectual tradition.

As a young girl Shirley met W. E. B. in the early 1900s when he stayed at her family’s house in Colorado during one of his lecture trips. However, once she reached adulthood he loomed large in her consciousness and in her work. Starting in the mid-1930s the two began romantic liaisons while W. E. B. was still married to but living away from his first wife Nina Gomer Du Bois. Though desire and love bonded the two, there existed between them an intellectual affinity and political kinship, what political theorist Charisse Burden-Stelly calls “mutual comradeship.”1 In his biography of her, Horne writes of Shirley that “Being able to flaunt his presence was an emblem of her own success” and that her efforts formed an “ideological shield” to preserve her late husband’s memory.

While the work featured in the round table highlights many of the most salient features of Graham Du Bois’s life as an artist, intellectual and activist, beyond her placement of W. E. B.’s archive at UMass in June 1973, it is her efforts over time to curate the legacy of her radical husband that invite further analysis.

Shirley’s correspondence reveals her attempts to curate Du Bois’s future well before he died in 1963, an example of her archivally minded actions to cement his legacy. Shortly after her marriage to W. E. B. in 1951 she proposed the creation of a Du Bois Foundation. (Her son David Graham Du Bois continued these efforts in the 1980s and brought the Foundation to fruition, most specifically aligned to his ideological vision of maintaining the legacy of W. E. B.’s socialism and communism.) This initiative sought to publish Du Bois’s remaining work, and to arrange funding for republishing some of his early books such as The Suppression of the African Slave Trade and The Philadelphia Negro. She wished for Du Bois to continue “to use unsparingly the accumulated knowledge and experience of many years for the good of all of us.”2 The Foundation also aimed to preserve W. E. B.’s archive by “disseminating and preserving the contributions to human development made by Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois.”3 In 1957 she described his archive as “nine steel file cases and thirty smaller wooded cases [that] are bursting with papers.”4 Shirley intended to use the archive to publish her own definitive book on W. E. B. before making his papers more widely available to scholars and students. The abundance of archival material in Shirley’s possession—“perhaps the best library on colored peoples in America,” she said—formed the documentary foundation for her book His Day is Marching On: A Memoir of W. E. B. Du Bois.

The resting place for Shirley Graham Du Bois and W. E. B. Du Bois. W. E. B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture, Accra, Ghana, 2019 (Credit: Erik McDuffie).

Before her memoir appeared, however, she arranged for Ghana Universities Press to publish a volume of W. E. B.’s poems, another part of her effort to shape a particular version of Du Bois as an artist. Presenting a more radical Du Bois, Shirley invited Ghana’s president and the Du Boises’ comrade Kwame Nkrumah to pen the Foreword to the poems. He found in Du Bois’s verse the Black scholar’s “indomitable spirit” and described the poetry as “the eloquent expressions of a sensitive Fighter Poet who for three-quarters of a century struggled against waves of Oppression, Misery and Woe which engulfed his people.” Published in 1964, the slim volume exemplified Graham Du Bois’s efforts to preserve her late husband’s legacy as a radical, Pan-African poet, intellectual, and scholar.

Outside of the poems, which had limited circulation in the United States, the most public registers of Shirley’s work to document her husband’s legacy appeared in two books about W. E. B. completed in the 1970s. While I reference her memoir above, in the interest of space I focus solely on the visual biography of Du Bois she published.

Shirley’s final publication, Du Bois: A Pictorial Biography was a very self-conscious project to frame her late spouse’s legacy. Published the year after her death in 1978 with Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Company—the same corporate outfit associated with midcentury black magazines Ebony and Jet—Graham Du Bois believed in John H. Johnson’s work and his ability to assist in reaching a wide audience. In the Foreword to his mother’s book, David Graham Du Bois alluded to this very fact. “She felt strongly that a Johnson-published book on Dr. Du Bois would ultimately find its way into far more Afro-American homes than one done by any major, white owned publishing house,” he commented. The decision to go with Johnson Publishing Company proved a perceptive choice for Shirley to place her late spouse’s legacy in front of a new generation. David also described the pictorial biography as a “major contribution to the legacy left us by Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois and a fitting conclusion and memorial to the life of Shirley Graham Du Bois, whose later years were so totally devoted to promoting and safe-guarding that legacy.”

Seven of the book’s twelve chapters visualize W. E. B.’s latter years, which makes sense given the time period with which Shirley’s life intersected his. However, an emphasis on the twilight period of his career—with numerous pictures of their sojourn in the late 1950s to China and Russia, along with the last three chapters of images from Africa—also renders a radical Du Bois, which was just the kind of political optics she wished to give the world of her late husband. Up until her final days, Graham Du Bois believed in the power of art and images to render a visual politics that dignified Black life and culture in rebellion against white supremacy, especially that of W. E. B. Du Bois.

While Graham Du Bois’s two books published in the 1970s offer ample evidence of how she curated her husband’s memory more publicly after his death, her correspondence also documents the wide expanse of her curatorial imagination. To discuss how Shirley shaped Du Bois’s legacy and memory is not to summarize it as mere propaganda, behind-the-scenes angling, or a shrill practice of situational politics. Rather, acquainted with Du Bois’s life and mind, she understood the wisdom of longer-term planning and thinking. Furthermore, her own experience with FBI surveillance equipped her with knowledge of propaganda’s power both in the form of anticommunist recrimination and in the mode of literary and artistic resistance to white supremacy. As a Black radical woman, she used her artistic sensibilities and her skill as an intellectual and writer to re-narrate the reception of, perception about, and reputational future of her husband, with whom her own destiny was indelibly bound.

*This post is drawn from my article, ““There must be no idle mourning”: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Legacy as a Black Radical Intellectual,” Socialism and Democracy (forthcoming, 2019).

  1. Charisse Burden-Stelly, “W.E.B. Du Bois in the Tradition of Radical Blackness: Radicalism, Repression, and Mutual Comradeship, 1930-1960,” Socialism and Democracy (forthcoming, 2019).
  2. Shirley Graham Du Bois to Professor and Mrs. Frank W. Waymouth, March 31, 1953, Box 17, Folder 11, Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.
  3. Shirley Graham Du Bois to Percy Julian, December 13, 1952, Box 17, Folder 9, Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.
  4. Shirley Graham Du Bois to Robert M. Hutchins, March 16, 1957, Box 11, Folder 20, Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.
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Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies. In 2018-19, he is a W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, his publications examine the American prosperity gospel, the history of evangelical Christianity, televangelism, African American religion, Black intellectual history, and the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. He has published several books, including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History with Amy Helene Kirschke (University of Missouri Press, 2014); and Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York University Press, 2015). At present, he is at work on several projects related to W. E. B. Du Bois, along with a short biography of James Baldwin for Rowman & Littlefield’s Library of African American Biography series.