Born 11 November 1907, Evansville, Indiana; died 27 March 1977, Peking, China
Also wrote under: Shirley Graham DuBois
Daughter of David A. and Lizzie Bell Graham; married Shadrach T. McCanns, 1921 (died); W. E. B. DuBois, 1951
Shirley Graham, a lifelong advocate of human rights, was born on the farm of her great-grandfather, a freed slave and blacksmith who used his home as an Underground Railroad station for runaway slaves. Graham and her four brothers grew up in a variety of cities—New Orleans, Colorado Springs, and Spokane—in which their father, an African Episcopal minister, received pastoral assignments. Graham married a year after completing high school, but within three years she became a widow with two sons to support.
Graham studied music theory and composition at the Sorbonne. While there, she also learned about African music from West African students studying in France. In 1931, Graham matriculated at Oberlin College, where she received both the B.A. and M.A. degrees. Her years there marked the beginning of her career as a dramatist and composer. Graham's one-act play, Coal Dust, and her three-act comedy, Elijah's Ravens, were performed during this period; both had been written in 1930. A musical drama, Tom-Tom (1932), was based upon Graham's knowledge of African rhythms; it was later revised into an opera for which Graham wrote the libretto and music.
Appointed head of fine arts and drama at Nashville's Tennessee State College in 1935, Graham continued to write plays and compose music. Between 1935 and 1938, she was affiliated with the Chicago Federal Theater as supervisor of the "Negro Unit." Her major works during this period were Little Black Sambo (1937), a children's drama for which she wrote music, and The Swing Mikado (1938), a jazz adaptation of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera and her most successful musical composition.
Awarded a Julius Rosenwald fellowship in 1938, Graham studied at the Yale School of Drama, where two of her plays were presented: It's Morning (1940), the tragedy of a slave mother who kills her daughter rather than have her sold away, and Dust to Earth (1941), a three-act drama about the futile efforts of a coal miner to rescue his son from a mining accident.
Although she was a successful dramatist, Graham's major literary contribution was made in the field of biography. Her decision to research and record the lives of significant black people was influenced indirectly by her cultural and political activities with the NAACP, which appointed her a national field secretary in 1942, and directly by the death of her son Robert, who because of his race, was mistreated in an army camp and denied proper hospital care.
Graham's biographies combine history and fiction in celebrating black life during a period of general neglect. They are primarily popular books recognizing the contributions made by blacks to American culture and preserve the history of black achievement for the world. Because Graham's biographies delineate heroic qualities for emulation and seem especially suited for young adults, they have become categorized as "juvenile" literature and have not received the critical attention they deserve.
Graham's fictional biographies are lyrical, rather than analytical, in technique. They derive their power from her control over form and dramatic structure. Graham has explained her method in these works as that of a storyteller constructing a narrative "within the framework of little known true facts," by documenting dates and main events, but also by creating probable incidents in order to "illustrate character, reveal trends, or bring actual facts into juxtaposition so as to emphasize them." Unfortunately, her achievement has been obscured by a wider familiarity with black history among contemporary readers, and her effort has been overshadowed by more scholarly works.
Graham wrote 12 biographies. Among the most successful is Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World (1946), which traces the life of the famous singer from his boyhood through his forty-sixth birthday. Graham uses the musical patterns of a classical concerto and modern blues to orchestrate the details of Robeson's life. In There Was Once a Slave: The Historic Story of Frederick Douglass (1947), Graham relies on an association between the North Star and liberty as the controlling metaphor for her poignant narrative. Your Most Humble Servant (1949), the first book-length treatment of Benjamin Banneker, a late 18th-century astronomer, mathematician, and surveyor, is Graham's major work on a historical figure.
Graham married the famous Harvard-trained social scientist, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, four days after his eighty-third birthday and on the eve of his indictment as an "agent of a foreign principle." Their marriage culminated a 30-year friendship during which Graham was guided by DuBois' emphasis on "Beauty, Accomplishment, and Dignity" as the criteria of Black art. Throughout the years of her marriage, Graham devoted much of her attention to political work against oppression and to cultural activities for peace. She was also her husband's companion-helpmate on his final project, a massive Encyclopedia Africana, yet she did not live in his shadow; she helped to found Freedomways, a magazine on the African-American freedom movement, and was selected its first editor. Her last three books, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Son of the Nile (1972), Zulu Heart (1974), and Julius K. Nyerere: Teacher of Africa (1975), reflect Graham's international perspective after a decade of living on the African continent.
His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W. E. B. DuBois (1971) is essentially Graham's own biography. In it, she emerges as the exemplar of the values and virtues defining the heroic men and women of her biographies. The book is notable for its quiet celebration of love, loyalty, conviction, and courage. Sensitive and vivid in language, Graham's memoir documents a personal experience and outlines a cultural history.
In her final years, Graham was acclaimed for her contributions as writer, scholar, teacher, and activist to black and third-world cultures. Her life and her art stand as testimony to the vitality of DuBois' ideals of "Beauty, Accomplishment, and Dignity."
I Gotta Home (1939). Track Thirteen (1942). Dr. George Washington Carver, Scientist (with G. D. Lipscomb, 1944). The Story of Phillis Wheatley (1949). Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable, Founder of Chicago (1953). The Story of Pocahontas (1953). Booker T. Washington: Educator of Hand, Head, and Heart (1955).
The papers of Shirley Graham are housed in the W. E. B. DuBois Manuscript Collection at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, as well as at the Washington Conservatory of Music Collection at Howard University in Washington D.C.
Bedini, S. A., The Life of Benjamin Banneker (1972). Hamalian, L. and J.V. Hatch, eds., The Roots of African American Drama (1991). Miller, E., ed., The Negro in America (1970). Perkins, K. A., Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays Before 1950 (1989).
Afro-American Encyclopedia (1974). Black American Writers: Bibliographical Essays (1977). Black Playwrights, 1823-1977: An Annotated Bibliography of Plays (1977). CB (Oct. 1946). DLB:AAW (1988). Negro Almanac (1976). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Crisis (Aug. 1932). NYT (5 June 1973, 5 April 1977).
—THADIOUS M. DAVIS