Shirley Graham Du Bois’s Labor of Love

*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 Moscow’s Red Square, May 1, 1959 (W. E. B. Du Bois Papers/MS 312, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).

The time is ripe for a scholarly reexamination of the life, activism, and writing of Shirley Graham Du Bois. She was a political revolutionary and Black Marxist with unwavering commitments to Pan-Africanism and Afro-Asian alliance. She is central to the history of Black nationalist women and we know that it was she who radicalized Du Bois politically, motivating him to join the Communist Party of the United States in 1961. She was a prolific writer and she understood that political pedagogy begins in childhood. She penned accessible, novelistic biographies of Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and Paul Robeson, among others. Today, these titles would be found in the young adult section of libraries and bookstores. Her biography of W.E.B., His Day Is Marching On (1971), is engaging, immersive, and just fun to read. It should be more regularly referenced in treatments of W.E.B.’s life. From her anti-fascist organizing to her interests in the interior lives of Black children growing up in a world that denied their humanity, Shirley Graham Du Bois’s work uncannily matches up with many of the political and scholarly preoccupations of our own moment.

Beyond an assessment of Graham Du Bois’s intellectual impact, both in relation to but also beyond her formative influence on W.E.B.’s thought, I would like to see literary scholars take Shirley Graham Du Bois more seriously as a significant Black writer of the last century. In addition to her many biographies written for young adult readers that doubled as lively reads for adults, she published a novel, Zulu Heart, in 1974. When, in the final years of her life, she joined the faculty of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst, she taught courses in literature and in creative writing.1 Her writing has been neglected because she wrote in genres that have been historically undervalued in the academy, but also because her writing had to be produced amid domestic and other caretaking responsibilities, and thus was shaped by the conditions of her labor and the demands placed on her time.

I’ve become particularly fascinated by Graham Du Bois’s final publication, Du Bois: A Pictorial Biography. The book was published posthumously in 1978, after Graham Du Bois’s passing in 1977. In his forward to the volume, David Graham Du Bois calls it his mother’s “last completed literary creation.” Graham Du Bois was so committed to this final project, a loving and tender photographic essay dedicated to her husband’s life and legacy, that she delayed travelling to China to receive urgent medical attention for cancer.2 David Du Bois notes,

Warned by her doctors that delaying hospitalization was extremely inadvisable, she nevertheless insisted upon a two-week layover in Cairo, Egypt (her home since 1967), in order to fulfill that commitment [to the Johnson Publishing Company]. Weak and in pain—and we now know already hopelessly riddled with cancer—she completed that commitment: the selection and captioning of additional photos from her vast collection in Cairo and the preparation of textual materials.” (ix)

David Du Bois emphasizes the pain his mother suffered as she meticulously captioned and curated the photographs that were to appear in the volume. We might also think about her work assembling the Du Bois photographs in terms of what scholars have talked about as the care work of editing itself.3 In this case, Graham Du Bois’s photo-editing was a labor of love in which she literally sacrificed her own health in order to ensure the completion of the project.

The published book, which was ultimately edited and prepared for production by Doris Saunders of the Johnson Publishing House in Chicago, reflects not those experiences of pain and illness, but of happiness, leisure, and even joy. One is perhaps most immediately struck by how smiley Du Bois appears in many of the photographs selected by Graham Du Bois: Du Bois leisurely reclining in a hammock at the Cambridge Rod and Gun Club in Maine; Du Bois and Graham Du Bois having tea on the “cheerful sun porch” of their home in Ghana; the happy couple on a Bahamian beach, in their bathing suits. The biography reproduces photographs taken from the archive at UMass Amherst, but others are drawn from Graham Du Bois’s personal photo collection. There is a striking juxtaposition between very formal photographs – Du Bois giving speeches, receiving honors, and meeting ambassadors and world leaders – and Graham Du Bois’s personal photographs, in which we see Du Bois delightfully unguarded in his down time. The pictorial biography also includes narratives and photographs of Du Bois’s first wife, Nina Gomer, including a stunning photograph from around 1940 that is reproduced as a full-page portrait. The visual and narrative representation of Gomer raises questions about how we might begin to think about Graham Du Bois’s relationship, not to Du Bois, but to other women. Is there a feminist ethic at play in her careful and tender representation of Du Bois’s first wife?

As much as I admire and have learned from Gerald Horne’s biography of Graham Du Bois, I’m not sure if I agree with his reading of Graham Du Bois as a mother figure to the male intellectuals and activists in her life. For one, the continual framing of Graham Du Bois as “mother” ends up privileging a set of Oedipal interpretations of her life over an engagement with the intellectual content of her work. At the same time, there is an undeniable narrative of feminine self-sacrifice and even maternal-like devotion that defines the narrative of the Pictorial Biography. And insofar as self-sacrifice is undeniably about women’s labor, I think it would be wrong to ignore or to disparage Graham Du Bois’s emphasis on the sacrifices she made for W.E.B.’s work as well as his physical well-being. I also want to take seriously Graham Du Bois’s desire to capture and make public her self-sacrifice for Du Bois throughout the Pictorial Biography. Instead of being embarrassed by the narrative of wifely devotion that comes across in this and other of her works, we should think about how Graham Du Bois deployed a rhetoric of sacrifice, devotion, and even of her “helpfulness” to highlight her own labor in supporting and even guiding Du Bois’s career at the end of his life. For example, Graham Du Bois selects one photograph in which she is bent over tying Du Bois’s shoes on the occasion of his 87th birthday. She captions it: “I am being helpful.” One might read a narrative of submission here, but I want to instead highlight Graham Du Bois’s wry sense of humor in this caption, as well as her playfulness. Graham Du Bois was proud of her caretaking and devotion to her partner and it’s clear that she wanted to be remembered for this after her passing. The Pictorial Biography thus also shows how Graham Du Bois was interested in narrating and shaping her own legacy, just as Du Bois sought to do in his (many) autobiographies.

Du Bois: A Pictorial Biography is a tender memorialization of W.E.B., but it was also packaged by Johnson Publishing as a tribute to Graham Du Bois herself. Her author’s bio on the book’s dust jacket reads as a loving tribute to her and as an obituary, and the page facing the volume’s title page is not a photograph of Du Bois, but of Carl Van Vechten’s 1946 photograph of Graham Du Bois. Graham Du Bois sought out Johnson Publishing in Chicago because she knew that a Black publishing house would ensure the book found its way into African American homes. Johnson’s decision to open the book with a portrait, not of W.E.B., but of S. G. D., ultimately transforms Graham Du Bois into a kind of paratext (or para-image). And Graham Du Bois’s fascinating status as paratext—the photographic and narrative frame for the rest of the volume – further points to how she carefully shaped and tenderly curated Du Bois’s legacy in the final decades of his and her life.

  1.  Correspondence with Dr. John Bracey, 18 January 2019.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Sarah Blackwood, “Editing as Care Work: The Gendered Labor of Public Intellectuals,” Avidly, 6 June 2014. See also, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018).
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Britt Rusert

Britt Rusert is Associate Professor in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (New York University Press, 2017) and co-editor of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018). Rusert received her Ph.D. in English and certificate in Feminist Studies from Duke University. Her research and teaching focus on black speculative fiction and visual cultures, slavery, science and technology studies, gender and sexuality, and critical theory. She is currently working on a study of William J. Wilson’s Afric-American Picture Gallery (1859), a text that imagines the first museum of Black art in the United States. With Adrienne Brown, she edited Du Bois’s fantasy story, “The Princess Steel,” for PMLA. Follow her on Twitter @brittrusert.

Comments on “Shirley Graham Du Bois’s Labor of Love

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    A joy to read, this piece. The author is obviously a stylist. Just a small comment on the small matter of sacrifice and service. While I have not read into the relevant archives anywhere nearly as deeply as the author and some of those she cites, like Gerald Horne, I have read some of the SGD correspondence. For those with ears to hear, there is an echo of the US black sacerdotal (Christian) tradition, textual and hymnal, in her letters. Reading Professor Rusert’s joyful piece, like the poet I wonder as I wander. Among other things, I wonder if SGD’s devotion to sacrifice and service is totally unrelated to her upbringing in the church, more precisely her preacher-father’s African Methodism. I wonder.

    • Avatar

      This is a really compelling way to think about SGD’s emphasis on “service” in her writings – thank you for it (and for your kind words about the essay).

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