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Posts Tagged ‘Du Bois’

portrait_of_shirley_graham
Photo: Carl Van Vechten
Portrait of composer Shirley Graham (1896-1977), later Shirley Graham Du Bois, taken July 18, 1946.

One of my favorite places to walk — because it’s lovely and because it’s easy to move away from maskless people — is the shady local cemetery. Naturally, I have read a lot of tombstone inscriptions on my walks, and one thing I’ve noticed is how often a woman’s marker says “his wife” or identifies the deceased as “wife of.” I have never seen a stone that describes a man as “husband of.” This hierarchy seems to apply to all races in our country.

So when I share today’s story about Black opera composer Shirley Graham, I’ll just say her husband was known as W.E.B. Du Bois and had a career in his own right.

David Patrick Stearns reported recently at WQXR radio that one Africana studies professor wants everyone to know Graham’s story.

“ ‘This is the time to unleash my voice again.’ Such is the message that Oberlin College’s Africana studies professor Caroline Jackson Smith is hearing, beyond the grave, from the late activist / composer / writer Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896–1977). … Smith moderated a panel following the Caramoor Festival’s recently streamed excerpts from Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, Du Bois’ 1932 opera that is said to be the first by an African American women composer. A full production is hoped for in 2021.

“From the outset, few listeners could’ve known what to expect, because — unfairly — Du Bois’ name has faded in history. … Born in Indianapolis, this daughter of a preacher lived all around the country during her childhood. As an adult, she was often on the move, most significantly with educational pursuits at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she studied composing and began writing Tom-Tom in 1926.

“The opera, however, predates most of what she was known for: Her joining the American Communist Party in the late 1940s, her 1951 marriage to the famous sociologist / activist W.E.B. Du Bois, their back-to-Africa immigration to Ghana in 1961, her later move to Cairo, and her many, many writings along the way.

“In fact, she seemed to write constantly, whether comedies and tragedies for the stage, biographies of fellow radical Paul Robeson (as well as Booker T. Washington and Gamal Abdul Nasser) as well as novels, almost right up to her death from breast cancer. Given her global existence, it’s fitting that she died in China but was a citizen of Tanzania.

In 1932, Tom-Tom was the kind of hit that composers dream about at its Cleveland Opera premiere. Reviews were excellent and two performances reportedly drew stadium-size audiences of 25,000.

“Descriptions suggest it was more than an opera — it was more like a pageant with dancers, singers, musicians, and even elephants. … Tom-Tom disappeared until a score was found among Du Bois’ papers in 2018 at Harvard by Lucy Caplan, then a Yale University doctoral candidate in American and African American studies. The six excerpts presented on the July 9 livestream from Caramoor revealed a convincing synthesis of spirituals and West African folk music applied to a Wagnerian template. …

“This is not a fragile but endearing ballad opera like Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha. … Tom-Tom is an opera with a mission: to connect the African American community with something beyond its history of American slavery. The only apt comparison that I can come up is Kurt Weill’s the Eternal Road, a 1937 pageant whose mission was to call attention to the plight of European Jews in Nazi Germany. …

“In writing Tom-Tom, Du Bois had plenty of education to draw on, and during her period in Paris at the Sorbonne, she discovered that the music that her missionary brother brought back from Liberia (as well as the spirituals she grew up with as the daughter of a minister) stuck in her head much more readily than the conventional chord progressions of western music, according to the 2000 biography by Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois. Later, she would translate those impulses directly into Tom-Tom, whose prelude was played by three timpani that were translated into what she considered an accurate rendering of African drumming. …

“Act I takes place in 1619 Africa, when a tribal human sacrifice is interrupted by the invasion of slave traders. Act II is set in mid-19th-century America, progressing on to then-contemporary 1930s Harlem in Act III. … How this epic-sized production was financed and mounted remains to be revealed.

“For all of the success of the opening (Horne quotes critic John Gruesser as describing the piece as having ‘the length, complexity and power to be called major’), the opera’s moment in the sun was brief.

“As Horne put it, ‘She quickly discovered that writing operas during the Great Depression was not the soundest method by which an African American woman could escape privation.’ Du Bois went on to the Federal Theater Project doing just about everything, including composing a number of works, including a musical. But after the early 1940s, she seems not to have pursued the kind of composing career that would prompt her — or those impressed with Tom-Tom — to return to the opera in later years.

“Being female and African American in a white, male-dominated world couldn’t have been encouraging. But looking at Du Bois’ biography in the long term, she was about spreading her message — whether as a civil rights activist, advocate of Socialism in various guises, and much else — in whatever form was most effective. Almost anything is more agile than the high-overhead medium of grand opera.” More at WQXR, here.

Photo: Lotte Jacobi, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Composer Shirley Graham Du Bois with her husband on his 87th birthday, 1955.

shirley_graham_du_bois_and_w_e_b_du_bois_on_his_87th_birthday_1955

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