Nina Yolande’s Lament

*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. 

Shirley Graham and David Du Bois with oil workers, ca. 1972 (Credit: W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).

Shirley’s shadow blocked

the sunshine I should have sensed,

but I tasted first.

Our trees bore our fruit.

The children proved the best ones,

first one plucked away.

The second, like me,

failed to yield the juice you craved;

girl-children we stayed.

While, publicly, you

chastised time for limiting

gender blossomings,

privately, you stopped

gardens from overgrowing

in the home you watched

from afar, tended

by lectures spoken to all,

like fertilizer

killing bugs of hope,

expectations pulled like weeds,

before they all grow.

And I learned to know

single long stems stand alone,

away from gardens,

left to last so long,

till nourishment ceased to be,

and leaves fell like tears

dropping over years,

watching other planted buds

have their pollen sucked

and then plucked, like me

until the tree called Shirley

over-shadowed all.

*Organizers’ Note: Poet and literary scholar Sandra Staton-Taiwo’s work appears in this forum courtesy of Broadside Lotus Press and the author. It was first published in her volume Broad Sympathies in a Narrow World: The Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois, which received the 2018 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award. Rich with layers of meaning, Staton-Taiwo’s poem is a brilliant and complex exploration of Du Bois’s first wife Nina Gomer Du Bois (1871-1950), to whom W. E. B. was married for over 50 years and his second wife Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977), whom he wed in 1951.

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Sandra Staton-Taiwo

Sandra Staton-Taiwo earned a doctorate in African American literature from Howard University in 2001. She has taught at several colleges, including Penn State York and Gettysburg College, and is presently a faculty member at Alabama State University. Her new book, Broad Sympathies in a Narrow World: The Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois (Wayne State University Press), is a collection of poems that reflects Staton-Taiwon’s exploration of and engagement with Du Bois’s personal and political lives.

Comments on “Nina Yolande’s Lament

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    Also of interest alongside of “Nina Yolande’s Lament” is Sonia Sanchez’s tribute poem to Shirley Graham Du Bois, “Kwa Mama Zetu Waliotuzaa,” first published in 1979 in Feminist Studies and later in her book I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems. Since Staton-Taiwo’s poem addresses Du Bois’s daughter Yolande (1900-1961), another piece to consider is Elizabeth Alexander’s “Yolande Speaks” from her collection Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010.

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