Shirley Graham Du Bois and Black Liberation

*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 giving the Black Power salute, ca. 1968 (Credit: W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).

Shirley Graham Du Bois was an important contributor to 20th century Black liberation thought. Nowhere is the significance of her contributions more evident than in Freedomways, the journal she founded and edited in the 1960s. As a publication dedicated to the historical and contemporary freedom struggles of Black people throughout Africa and the diaspora, Freedomways provides crucial insight into Graham Du Bois’s vision of liberation from imperialism. Her essay “Negroes in the American Revolution,” published in one of the journal’s first issues, exemplifies Graham Du Bois’s nuanced and thought-provoking view of the temporality of Black liberation in America.

Negroes in the American Revolution” was published in the second number of Freedomways, an issue organized around the theme of revolution in the African diaspora. It appeared alongside essays about the Cuban and French Revolutions, the latter penned by W.E.B. Du Bois. Focusing on the history of African Americans in a crucial moment of the formation of the United States, Graham Du Bois turned to the production of historical narratives as a means to contest imperialism’s erasure of people of African descent as both historical actors and knowledge producers.

To better understand the importance of re-imagining historical narratives and the temporality of liberation that Graham Du Bois envisioned, it is important to attend to both what her writings say and what they do. In other words, what did her essay “Negroes in the American Revolution” say about liberation and how did it enact a form of resistance? Graham Du Bois herself showed the importance of interpreting her writings as both statement and action when on April 26, 1961, she wrote a letter to the president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, on the letterhead of the then newly-founded journal. The letter began, “Dear Osagyefo, This is a personal letter. I write on this stationery so that you may see what I am doing.”

Her use of letterhead was a deliberate and powerful rhetorical gesture that invited Nkrumah to engage with not only her words as content, but also with the stationery itself as a material object that did the work of showing her activity as editor of Freedomways. It is therefore in this context of Freedomways as both an outlet for imagining and articulating ideas about global Black liberation and as a political project that in itself enacts that vision of liberation, that we must read her article “Negroes in the American Revolution.”

In her essay, Graham Du Bois first summarized the prevailing attitude of white Americans on the left who decried civil rights demands as being rushed: “Heads shake and one hears that stirring up trouble only hinders progress. All in good time! Not too fast! NOT TOO FAST!” To this sentiment she responded with an incisive question: “just how long does liberation take?” Her question asks us to consider the duration of the process of freedom struggles. It pushes back against the idea that because freedom is a slow process it must necessarily be interminable, and highlights instead the urgency that must undergird this process.

In the rest of her essay, Graham Du Bois turned to history in order to emphasize the urgency of her contemporary moment. She took a retrospective look at the American Revolution as the founding moment of the nation and showed how the history of that moment intentionally excluded free and enslaved Black people from the narrative. She then highlighted the crucial roles that enslaved and free Black people played in the Revolution. She ended by reproducing in full letters from Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Jefferson that attest to the central rather than peripheral presence of African Americans in the nation’s founding period. At the end of this historical analysis came Graham Du Bois’ second incisive question, “Progress, which way?”

At first glance, Graham Du Bois’s essay seems to suggest that writing Black people back into a historical narrative from which imperialism has erased them is a crucial step towards challenging imperialism and gaining full citizenship. By attending to history’s silences and erasures, she illustrates how the production of new historical narratives by Black intellectuals can do the work of recognizing Black people’s roles in the nation’s founding period and therefore legitimize their claims to full citizenship.

But it is also more than this, and we get a clearer vision of her idea of liberation when we are attentive to the temporality that she expresses.  Her closing question, “Progress which way?” challenges the myth of the forward march of history, the claim that the United States is always and continuously making satisfactory progress towards racial equality and full citizenship for Black people. The problem with the construction of a linear historical narrative is that this linearity is a myth that is wielded in the service of de-emphasizing human agency, as we see with white liberals’ admonitions of “too fast” and “all in good time.” Graham Du Bois refuses the language of tempered progress that is undergirded by the implicit idea that liberation will eventually come not because of our collective urgent action but rather because of the inevitability of progress’s forward march. By asking “progress which way?” she suggests that the production of history can code as a forward march, that which is in effect movement backwards, away from liberation rather than towards it. Progress is not a given, an end to which we are inevitably propelled by history’s forward motion, but rather the result of Black agency in revolution and in historical production.

Ever the internationalist, Graham Du Bois appended to her essay a short poem titled “Immortal Link” by the Indian poet and musician Jan Niskar Akhtar, translated from Urdu. The poem begins, “A martyr’s blood/Shed in space and time/Has always set the world aflame/Shaking the earth with burning tremors.”

These opening lines point us once again towards a reading of temporality. They establish a link between the martyr in the poem and the enslaved and free Black Americans that are the protagonists in Graham Du Bois’s essay. They therefore drive home the idea that Black agency in revolution is very much a question of negotiating not only territory but also temporality.

W.E.B. Du Bois’s essay that followed Graham Du Bois’s titled “Africa and the French Revolution” made the same argument but on an international scale. Drawing heavily from C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, W.E.B argued that people of African descent played a crucial role in the French Revolution and that it is nearly impossible to understand the full scope and implications of the Revolution without understanding French imperial history, particularly its history in Haiti. He began his essay with a history of the French Revolution dominated by white actors. He then paused in the middle with the assertion “this is not the complete story let us go over the details again” and then rewrote a different history of the French Revolution, this time with a focus on Haiti. Like Shirley, W.E.B too showed what it would look like to center Black agency in world history.

If the Du Boises’ essays on Black agency and revolution were saying one thing—that there is the need to re-write Black people into existing Western canonical narratives of history—they were doing something more radical. They were reimagining some of the very foundational elements of forms of knowledge, in this case, time. The alternative vision of time that their essays enact is one that keeps coming back on itself dialectically as it interrogates, reflects on and attempts to redress not only the exclusions within the historical narrative but the very fundamental notions of progress and liberation.

Graham Du Bois’s writings about freedom remain timely. They remind us to be attentive not only to the content of her work, but also to her work as action, as creation, and as production. Her searing critiques of racism and imperialism, and her trenchant questions about the United States’ myths of racial progress, remain pertinent in our current political moment because they highlight the necessity for different linguistic and temporal frameworks for thinking through and enacting liberation from imperialism.

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Annette Joseph-Gabriel

Annette Joseph-Gabriel is a scholar of contemporary Francophone Caribbean and African literature with interdisciplinary specializations in Black transnational feminisms and slavery in the Atlantic world. She is currently an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan. Her book, Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire, (University of Illinois Press, 2020) mines published writings and untapped archives to reveal the anticolonial activism of Black women in the French empire. Her articles have appeared in Small Axe, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Slavery & Abolition, Nouvelles Études Francophones, and The French Review. She is managing editor of Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International. Follow her on Twitter @AnnetteJosephG.