Rewriting Shirley Graham Du Bois

*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 Du Bois shaking hands with Chen Yi in 1968 (W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).

More than two decades ago, I bumped into Shirley Graham Du Bois‘ son, the now deceased David Du Bois, on a midtown Manhattan avenue. It was then that he casually informed me that his mother’s papers resided in the Cairo flat where he then lived. I quickly arranged to fly there and stay there for days on end, taking copious notes, while he performed admirably the role of the gracious host.

Nothing was off limits—except for a file that he had segregated, which I inadvertently read. Therein were love letters between her and a leading Pan-Africanist—not named W.E.B. Du Bois. I deemed it to be unethical to report on this research finding but assumed that at some point in the future, another scholar would: alas, subsequent scholars have informed me that no such cache of letters are with her papers now, presently deposited in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Were these letters destroyed? Are they still in Cairo? Or did David’s segregation save me from the fate of too many biographers: a latter day King Leer?

Whatever the case, I do know that this vignette underscores the age-old point that the duty of the historian is to rewrite history, not least because—inevitably and as may happen in the case of Shirley Graham Du Bois—new records materialize and changing conditions shape our interpretations of history.

On this latter point, in my biography of Shirley Graham Du Bois, I was quite critical of her “Maoism,” the infatuation with China during the height of the “Cultural Revolution,” taking place as she was breathing her last breath in that nation in the late 1970s. Today, I remain critical of this political stance.1 For example, she—and many others such as Amiri Baraka and a good deal of the U.S. delegation to the 6th Pan African Congress in Tanzania—never grasped fully that China had cut an anti-Soviet deal with U.S. imperialism in the early 1970s during President Nixon’s journey there. This deal induced this Asian giant to side with Washington during a true turning point in world and African history: the 1975 proclamation of independence in Angola (a land from which emerged a significant percentage of the people now known as “African-American”), which was vouchsafed by the dispatching of thousands of Cuban troops, opposed by Washington, apartheid South Africa—and “Maoist” China.

However, just as London’s obsession with Moscow led to the disastrous Crimean War of the 1850s, the British Empire’s backing of Japan’s transformational defeat of Russia in 1905 backfired spectacularly on 8 December 1941 when this Asian archipelago ousted the British from Hong Kong, Singapore and other colonial nodes. These developments devastated the once mighty Lion of Europe and, in the process, inflicted a mighty blow on white supremacy. Washington’s subsequent maniacal obsession with Moscow as evidenced by Nixon’s journey, led to massive direct foreign investment in China creating an apparently unstoppable juggernaut, inducing sleepless nights on the east bank of the Pacific.

If present trends continue—a big if since if present trends had continued, looking forward from the early 1890s, U.S. cities would now be drowning in horse manure from animals pulling wagons and stagecoaches—this small planet will be facing a passing of the baton from Washington to Beijing or alternatively, the two giants weakening each other, leading to a potent duopoly of Tokyo and Delhi, whose relationship stretches back 2500 years to the founding of Buddhism. (This is an optimistic reading and, obviously elides the realistic trajectories of both climate change and nuclear war.)

Thus, it is highly possible that changing conditions may influence future historians to view Graham Du Bois’s “Maoism” more benignly than I did in my earlier biography. Perhaps they will see her view as visionary, envisioning a set of trends now evident in 2019 that future generations may smile upon—and, possibly, eyeing my posture suspiciously, as ensnared hopelessly in the boggy mesh of the Cold War.

Moreover, I daresay that future historians may be more adventurous researchers than myself, which will open new doors for understanding. For example, my research on Shirley Graham Du Bois did not involve research in Islamabad, a frequent haunt of hers, nor China, nor Moscow, not to mention other sites where she ventured.

This thought occurred to me again, as I read the magisterial work of Paula Giddings detailing the triumphs and travails of the trailblazing Ida B. Wells. What prompted my cracking open this volume is a poem of Giddings I ran across in the Howard University student newspaper, dated 28 January 1966:

“I ride down the highway shadowed by pinnacles of progress on one side / and the abyss of bias on the other”: this captured the moment then and now and I came to find that her marvelous book did the same.

I confess: the length of this work—800 pages—I found daunting and besides, I thought that I had learned all I needed to know from the similarly insightful biography of Mia Bay. But differently stimulating minds can produce similarly insightful books and this holds true not just for Wells, but also for Graham Du Bois.

Moreover, Giddings’ worthwhile work emphasizes marvelously in pointillistic detail the impact of her subject’s crusading abroad and in the process cites sources from Great Britain. This reminds us—as in the case of Graham Du Bois, who resided mostly abroad from her exile in Ghana in 1961 until her death about a decade and a half later—that historically our torturous struggle against malevolence has depended heavily on allies abroad, a point I underscore in a book on the music we call “jazz” that will be published shortly.2

Who is to say what archives abroad will reveal about the peregrinations of Graham Du Bois that will justify—if not mandate—a new biography? And it is not just new archives and changing conditions that demand continuing research and writing on fascinating subjects like Graham Du Bois. It is also deepening ideological understanding. As I write, I am in the process of preparing a book on the 16th century roots of settler colonialism in North America.3  There is much to say about this project but one point relevant to the discussion at hand is that in the 1590s as the enslaved African population in London was beginning to surge, it seems that a major backer of this devilish scheme were certain Englishwomen who saw this new labor force—possibly—as rescuing them from drudgery, just as dishwashing machines and the like would be welcomed in coming centuries. This point is not inconsistent with the new book by Stephanie Jones-Rogers, though she deals with the mature period of slaveholding settler colonialism.

This excursion should remind us that our contemporary understanding of feminism is subject to evolution and being enriched by historical excavation. It is no secret that relations between women of various ancestries and class backgrounds in North America has been fraught—at times—and this sheds light on what I write (and what future writers might expand upon) about the vexed relationship between Graham Du Bois and modern conceptions of feminism. In sum, rewriting Shirley Graham Du Bois is not only feasible but mandatory in light of what her brilliant life tells us about the world.

  1.  I elaborate on this point in Gerald Horne, White Supremacy Confronted: U.S. Imperialism and Anticommunism vs. the Liberation of Southern Africa, from Rhodes to Mandela (New York: International, 2019); Gerald Horne, From the Barrel of a Gun: The U.S. and the War Against Zimbabwe, 1965-1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
  2. Unfortunately, in a book subsidized by our “peers” in Black Studies at Harvard, Sean Wilentz has just produced yet another tome arguing that the U.S. Constitution was not fatally compromised by slavery—and is our ultimate guarantor–and seeks to refute Thurgood Marshall in the process. See No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019); Also see David Waldstreicher, Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (New York:  Hill and Wang, 2009). Such demobilizing piffle does little to aid our understanding of the crisis we of African descent in particular face in light of the misdeeds of the oafish 45th U.S. president. See Madeline Albright, Fascism: A Warning (New York: HarperCollins, 2018).
  3. Gerald Horne, Apocalypse Arriving: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy and Settler Colonialism in North America in the Long 16th Century (forthcoming); see also Gerald Horne, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism:  The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy and Capitalism in North America and the Caribbean in the 17th Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018).
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Gerald Horne

Gerald Horne holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. Horne received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. from Princeton University. His research has addressed issues of racism in a variety of relations involving labor, politics, civil rights, international relations and war. One of the nation’s most prolific and influential historians, Horne is the author of more than thirty books.