Lessons from Shirley Graham Du Bois

I recently finished reading Gerald Horne’s biography of Shirley Graham Du Bois (Race Woman: the Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois)

Graham made important contributions to 20th century liberation struggle through her writing, art, teaching, and mentoring of younger revolutionaries across the globe. The traces of her life — her decisions, commitments, how she learned from her bold and fearless experiments in freedom struggle — are gems of insight that should be studied deeply.

I’ve come to think of biographies as guides for how to ask deeper questions of my own life, and as guides for imagining ways in which we collectively work toward a better world — because Black folk have been confronting the question of what it means to be free for a very very long time. I’ll credit Andrew Douglas and Jared Anthony Loggins for encouraging this way of thinking. I’ve come to think of biographies not so much as about one particular person, but as intimations of ways many folk in a particular time and place were engaging with their world. Our world is therefore a creation of their struggle–made somewhat better because they (collectively) dedicated themselves to radical change; they leave as our inheritance fragments of their imaginations. Fragments that might somehow be pieced together to form complete maps of places where a dignified life is possible for all. In those ways, Graham’s life is a treasure of possibility.

Dr. Gayatri Sethi reminds us often that the caregivers of the world are tired — the Black and Brown and Indigenous women who have been holding us together as we are apart, the Aunties, Mama’s, Sistas, Didi’s — tired by holding safe spaces while institutions, regimes, practices, and privileges mark us for death in ways sensational and subtle. Care is necessary to any liberation effort, yet it is marginalized, made invisible, devalued, and dehumanized. Reading Graham’s life is a refrain, testament, and witness to a life of working through these challenge on multiple levels.

Joy James gives a name to the processes which bind the most important people on this planet to extractive yet existential practices of care. James names this role The Captive Maternal. In The Womb of Western Theory: Trauma, Time Theft, and the Captive Maternal, she writes “Captive Maternals can be either biological females or those feminized into caretaking and consumption”. She and goes on to say

Although black males are most publicly policed, imprisoned, and executed by state violence and vigilantism, and remembering to call out the names or images of their female counterparts is an important additive in a black death roll call and mobilization, this lens is shaped by paternal power, imagery, and desires. For Captive Maternals, the chit-chat of the little cuts and rat-like gnawing is the norm; they face verbal slander and intimidation, physical violence, domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, and contempt, policing in schools, jobs, society, and prisons, from every sector. Still, it is not their victimization that marks them; it is their productivity and its consumption. Throughout history, Captive Maternals provided the reproductive and productive labor to stabilize culture and wealth.

Joy James, The Womb of Western Theory: Trauma, Time Theft, and the Captive Maternal

In her early career, Graham is having none of that mess of “being consumed”. She enters into a marriage as an escape from the patriarchy of the Black pastor-father; only to find herself bound to someone invested in the same patriarchal none sense. She affirms herself with a self-possessed “Nah”, says goodbye to patriarch #2 and heads to Paris and then Harlem to build a career as a writer and dramatist. She works some things out with her mother (Etta Graham, also Captive Maternal) — Etta will care for Shirley’s two sons while she heads off to blossom in the experiments of the Harlem Renaissance. Etta reprises lead role as Captive Maternal allowing the gifted daughter-writer to grow into her own. Through the next 30 years, Graham navigates precarity (she is always one step away from homelessness, dodging creditors), parenting in a variety of arrangements, but writes and produces an opera, creates and stages innovate plays while also battling racism in american theater, publishes books, articles, and inspires the next generation as an educator at Howard, Morgan State, Oberlin, and Yale.

The amount of effort that Graham devoted to developing a space for Black theater in the Federal Theater Project. Why is the very idea of public funding to sustain, employ, house, nurture artists now anathema? What do we mean by “culture wars” and what does Graham still have to teach us about waging a transformative cultural insurgency?

Contemplating Graham’s journey is an opportunity to rebel against bourgeois notions of what a “stable family” is — “normal” and “stable” are terms used down to this moment as pretexts for state violence against the Black and Indigenous families. What do your Black elders who survived the Great Depression have to teach you about resilient family design? The resilience of Black family structures in the light of poverty, share-cropping, exploitation, insecure employment, all-too-visible and present death manifests as a dynamic flowering of improvisation and joy. It’s not pathology, it’s every-day genius.

In the late 1940s a relationship develops between Graham and Du Bois. In 1951, Graham, in her mid fifties — accomplished writer, socialist, Black activist — and eighty year old W.E.B. Du Bois marry. That Graham is Du Bois’s caretaker and companion speaks again to the complex relationships that her life. It is the reason that Du Bois is able to withstand the incessant attacks — being both an outspoken Pan-Africanist, intellectual, communist at the height of the 1950s anti-communism.

Contemplate how Graham is piecing Du Bois back together day after day when their entire social network is collapsing under the pressure of state surveillance and intimidation. Their passports are seized, Du Bois is arrested and put on trail for being an “undeclared foreign agent”.

Another Joy James essay, “Sorrow: The Good Soldier and Good Woman” is pertinent

State soldiers fight in family units on battlefields. The enslaved refashion family with their fictive kin. The imprisoned force its reappearance with manufactured gender roles. Revolutionary cadres forge family in underground armies. Youthful gangs reinvent it in the street. The corporate state polices and ritualizes it with legalistic trappings.

With notable mortality rates, the women—part Greek chorus and part cyborg—bear the brunt of this middle passage, this birthing. They create and are held captive by this primary social and political unit, one that reproduces and trains soldiers and so prepares society for life and killing.

Joy James, “Sorrow: The Good Soldier and Good Woman,” in Joy James, Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing  and Prison in a Penal Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

What are the networks of care and support that kept Graham and her family going? The book details the closeness and complications of the relationship between Graham and her son David, other friends and unwavering supporters across the globe were there for them; during their time in Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah provided a staff to assist the couple. But we have to keep digging deeper if we take Graham’s commitment to socialism seriously. The amount of labor required to support Du Bois is significant–who’s making sure he takes his medicines, who dresses him, bathes him when that becomes difficult, who provides the assistance getting from place to place? Horne hints at a housekeeper the couple had in New York. What was her name? How did this person or other folk like her extend grace and support to Graham and Du Bois? Who were the un-named nurses and attendants in Accra, or Beijing that became “second family” or rather “real family”? Are they not every bit as essential to de-colonialism and the building of a just world? Crucial to the very idea of a revolution from the “ground up”? I think about how we so desperately need the histories of collective Black struggle that take seriously families and other networks of care. How does resistance require us to reassess the tension between basic needs and commitment to struggle? What is class suicide?

Despite the social death at the center of the slave system and the organized abandonments of today’s neoliberal capitalism, despite beatings, lynchings, shootings, mass incarceration and systematic impoverishment, Black people have survived and thrived. In slavery, African people in the Americas owned virtually nothing, not even the skin on their backs. They had every reason to give in to despair. Yet they somehow managed to survive, to extend recognition and respect to each other while in bondage, and to maintain a commitment to the linked fate of all humans.

George Lipsitz, in Futures of Black Radicalism

It is telling that James begins the essay with a quote from Assata Shakur, who like Graham had her u.s. citizenship revoked and who will probably, like Graham, die stateless (Graham died and was buried in the Peoples Republic of China). The NAACP, founded by Du Bois, distanced itself from he and Graham; aligning itself with anti-communism. It is telling that the Black u.s. president refused to pardon Shakur and that the united state’s Black political elite continue to avoid direct connection with her and other political prisoners and exiles.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes of Du Bois

the great communist W. E. B. Du Bois saw places people made–abolition geographies–under the participatory umbrella of what he called “abolition democracy”.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence

How was Du Bois forced to deepen his understanding as he witnessed his partner reconstruct a livable world that the u.s. security apparatus had destroyed?

Horne hints at the likely clinical depression that both Graham and Du Bois faced from the early 1950s onwards, but what does living with depression look like? There are so many untold stories of the deep psychic damage that state-lead counter-insurgency had upon individuals, families, churches, and community organizations. Stories of BLM organizers spiraling out are retweeted. Would it be just as revolutionary to build systems of healing? Is accountability part of healing? We all uphold the fascism integral to racial capitalism.

I think about how in the collective lives of Graham and Du Bois there is a deep urgent message to radically confront and dismantle ablelism and ageism–most especially in radical organizing spaces. What does it mean for Graham to be active as a radical well into her 70s? What do we lose by discounting the wisdom of elders who have taken white supremacy head on in several iterations? What have we lost in not taking to heart and mind the lessons of elders that have had to rebuild and (re)imagine family in catastrophe after catastrophe? These are not abstract questions, the grandmothers and great aunts in my life who were age-mates of Graham had to do this. I try to keep their voices as in mind as I write these words — may their voices and those of my mother speak through me.

Do we provide the elders within the movements the level of care that they need in a society that still provides inadequate support to the elderly? Aren’t these elders precisely the ones who vote, or don’t, who still keep communities together, who can advise, who speak truth, and give less than two small damns about the consequences of truth-telling, who pay liberation’s price each day?

An oppressive system creates the condition in which those without access to the visual spectrum, those without access to the normalized conception of spoken language, those who move through the world in ways that challenge the constructed world are subjected to diminished life. As the state’s counterinsurgency kills and maims, the “high value targets” and the “non-combatants caught in the crossfire” have work with new physical and psychological embodiments. This all seem to have been acknowledged and worked through in the family and community of struggle that Graham constantly had to create and re-create. She published, traveled the world, taught and advised revolutionaries despite being the subject of endless fbi (count the lists Graham was on), state department, and intelligence agency machinations.

Graham was a revolutionary, beloved and trusted by both Kwame Nkrumah and Zhou Enlai — in a very deep sense — she held high leadership positions in Nkrumah’s government and was an effective administrator and facilitator Ghana’s nascent public broadcasting and arts program. Graham was frequently in China after Nkrumah’s overthrow. Zhou Enlai turned to her for consolation and advice in facing his own travails during the Cultural Revolution. How then do we reconcile Graham’s class privilege with her real and tangible commitments to socialist projects in Ghana and China? Graham’s life highlights the fact that any revolutionary movement is going to have to allow for a spectrum of voices and participation, and dedicate itself to a process of constantly finding the common ground across divisions of class, race, language, the particulars of the bodies we inhabit, age. What are the places that allow us to act as if class had withered away? What did Cabral mean by class suicide?

I keep trying to fold these lessons in, integrate them as part of an extended ancestral legacy. Graham reminds me of the grandmothers and aunts — she was born the same year as my grandmother. I see in her the love, contradictions, and commitments of those women. They built families that spanned a spectrum of structures, they sustained communities, constantly maneuvering around patriarchy and misogynoir, constantly finding creative ways to thrive while in constant precarity. My grandfather’s eldest sister raised him and his brother. My great great grandmother–born enslaved–raised my other grandfather and his bother. These women have always been holding up the struggle, leading the struggle, revitalizing the struggle, reinventing the world.

All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change.

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

The care givers, the sustainers are tired,tired af, rightly mad af, and still doing the work. We owe theme the commitment, solidarity, reciprocity in the sustaining love needed to for us all to exist.

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