Saturday, February 13, 2016


   Beah Richards was an iconic and peripatetic performer who could almost always be assured of the role of mother or grandmother in many well known dramas. I had seen her in many TV shows and movies and wondered about her.  At one point, early in the civil rights period, a white neighbor of mine wrote a play that Beah Richards actually produced with her own money. It was a Black Cinderella - back in the early days of the movement and way ahead of its time dramatically and culturally speaking.  Who was this Beah Richards?  Her father was a preacher and always called Black people Black -- way ahead of his time.  "My mother didn't want to bring children into THIS world."
   Beah Richards achieved some notoriety in plays on Broadway and finally in television when roles opened up a bit to African Americans.  She invariably played women older than her age from the beginning, perhaps because of the limited roles for Black women.  She played the mother to Sydney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?", the mother to Robert Hooks in "Hurry Sundown", to James Earl Jones in "The Great White Hope", to Danny Glover in "And the Children Shall Weep" and to Eriq La Salle in the TV drama "ER".

   From 1967 on she was never short of TV roles, The Bill Cosby Show, Hill Street Blues, Murder She Wrote, the mini-series "Roots: The Next Generation" and many more.
   Richards was also a dancer, an orator, and a prolific writer of plays, poems, and novels - from the Obituary in The Guardian:  "Richards also enjoyed success as a writer with One Is a Crowd, and A Black Woman Speaks and Other Poems. Adapting these for the stage, she went on tour with a show called An Evening With Beah Richards. Further stage roles included James Baldwin's The Amen Corner and a Lincoln Centre revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, directed by Mike Nichols."
   A quote from the New York Times obituary seems appropriate - "Looking back to her childhood as the daughter of a minister, Ms. Richards said: ''I always relate the theater to the church. There is the sharpness of image, the poetry. And like the church, the theater must always be an exploration for truth.''

   Yet there is little hint in any of the accounts of her life about how incredibly involved and ahead of her time she was with Civil Rights and in fact, the situation of Africans and African Americans in the world.  I found a small hint of this when I was researching Eslanda Robeson - Beah Richards was part of an international group of African and African American women.  She was friends with W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson as well.
  This site gives much more information than any about the complexity of Beulah Richardson - it includes this drawing of her and the fact that she delivered a poem at a meeting in 1951 at the Women's Workshop at the American Peoples Peace Conference in Chicago, Illinois. She received a standing ovation from 500 people in attendance.
The opening lines of that poem: 
"It is right that I a woman
should speak of white womanhood.
my fathers
my brothers
my husbands
my sons
die for it: because of it.
and their blood
chilled in electric chairs,
stopped by hangman’s noose,
cooked by lynch mobs’ fire,
spilled by white supremacist mad desire to kill
give me that right "

This poem was written for a contest which she won -- here's a great summation of it by Sokari writing in 2011 - "As a young woman trying to be an actress and dancer in Hollywood in the 1950s and facing the proverbial slammed door, Beah decided to go to New York. She was penniless and hearing about a peace conference in Chicago with a prize for the poem which best expressed peace, she decided to enter her poem “A Black Woman Speaks……” Beah entered a poetry competition. I never heard of this poem yet it’s at least as powerful as Sojourner Truth’s’Aint I a Woman“. The poem speaks to the primordial memory of pre-Americas, slavery, rape, imprisonment, racism, humiliation, lynchings and centuries of dehumanization of Black peoples. The poem though it speaks to these vile memories and realities, is a poem of resistance. An act of survival and despite the terrible hardships of the journey from there to here, I, we remain standing our pride in tact."

   Beah Richards won an Emmy just days before her death in 2000.  Apparently she wished that her ashes be strewn over the confederate graveyard in Mississippi -- the last act of a true fighter for freedom!  Born in 1920, Richards was an incredibly rich person who shared her visions and knowledge and depth of understanding with others. Just read Lisa Gay Hamilton's description of working with her on "Roots" and when she met with her to tape the 70 hours of conversation for the movie she made.  You will be forever impressed at what an amazing person she was. She is deeply missed.

  Lisa Gay Hamilton's beautiful documentary "Beah: A Black Woman Speaks" won the Grand Jury prize at the AFI Film Festival.  It is taken from over 70 hours of conversations recorded by the actress Hamilton.
   "BEAH: A BLACK WOMAN SPEAKS, the directorial debut of actress LisaGay Hamilton, celebrates the life of legendary African American actress, poet and political activist Beah Richards, best known for her Oscar nominated role in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER. While Richards' struggled to overcome racial stereotypes throughout her long career onstage and onscreen in Hollywood and New York, she also had an influential role in the fight for Civil Rights, working alongside the likes of Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and Louise Patterson."
   A last quote from Beah Richards - "There are a lot of movies out there that I would hate to be paid to do, some real demeaning, real woman-denigrating stuff. It is up to women to change their roles. They are going to have to write the stuff and do it. And they will." 
—Beah Richards

Obituary The Guardian - 
Short Bio -
New York Times obituary - 
Bio and more -
Interview YouTube -  Clip from "Beah: A Black Woman Speaks"
Bio from -   
Her poem in full - 
HBO shines a light on Beah Richards, a mentor to many - 

Friday, February 12, 2016



   Wanda Coleman was a poet of formidable and prodigious ability who grew up and lived in Los Angeles, California.  I think that she is not well known to people outside of Los Angeles but she should be.   I had the privilege of seeing her at a celebration of the Ashgrove (a magical music venue in Los Angeles that was attacked and burned down twice in the 70s but now is resurrected as a committee that puts on performances at the very place it ended -- The Improv on Melrose Avenue).
   Wanda Coleman was born in 1946 and died in 2013 -- much too short a life.  Here is the Poetry Foundation's assessment of her - "Poet and writer Wanda Coleman was a blatantly humanist artist who won much critical acclaim for her unusually prescient and often innovative work, but who struggled to make a living from her craft. In discussing “my life in poetry,” More magazine, April 2005, Camille Paglia said of Coleman: “She’s not as central as she should be. Her language jumps off the page.” With twelve books of collected writings published by the small Black Sparrow Press by 2001, as well as numerous other publications, she has created a body of work that is first of all focused on racism and that, secondly, ponders the "outcast" status of living below the poverty line in California, specifically her birthplace Los Angeles, and the southwestern United States. Anger, unhappiness, hate, and violence are often intrinsic to the themes of her stories and poems. Her subjects are often controversial and her tone unapologetic."
   What makes the best poetry, art, music sometimes are the experiences one has in struggle, in questioning the status quo, in fighting against injustices.  Wanda Coleman should have been the poet laureate of Los Angeles.  "In his 1999 assessment, Alistair Paterson, Editor of Poetry New Zealand declared: “Coleman’s poetry, politically aware, darkly humorous, sensual and iconoclastic, presents a remarkable talent developed throughout a difficult life. . . . It’s the kind of poetry other writers can use as a yardstick for measuring their work—it sets a standard and demonstrates what a beautiful, adaptable, usable language colloquial English is.”

   But here is the assessment that grabs the most at your heart and gut -- why Wanda Coleman was so different, so unique as a poet and writer - "Writing in Black American Literature Forum, Tony Magistrale summarized, "Coleman frequently writes to illuminate the lives of the underclass and the disenfranchised, the invisible men and women who populate America's downtown streets after dark, the asylums and waystations, the inner city hospitals and clinics. . . . Wanda Coleman, like Gwendolyn Brooks before her, has much to tell us about what it is like to be a poor black woman in America." Admittedly I am completely enamored of people who use their gifts to illuminate the lives of every day and downtrodden masses.  Wanda Coleman didn't suppress her anger at the realities of life in our south Los Angeles and perhaps that was one reason why she was not better known or celebrated. "The poet Juan Felipe Herrera called Coleman the “word-caster of live coals of Watts & LA.”
with Arthur Miller at National book awards

   Wanda Coleman was like many people I know who did not enjoy her experience in our public schools.  In many ways her experience was completely the reality of so many people in our society - one of struggling to make a life for herself and her two children, while at the same time experiencing moments of breakthrough and enlightenment. She did not finish college but she did teach at the college level.  Perhaps had she been more compromising and written more for commercial sources (such as Days of Our Lives for which she won an Emmy) she might have had an easier life.  But I think that's why I loved and gravitated to this amazing woman who didn't want to compromise.  She did fortunately earn national awards which gave her some time for writing - a National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1981-82) and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry (1984).  Fortunately she won many awards and recognitions for her work which has been published over a 30 year period, both poetry and novels, essays and short stories.  She was also an amazing performer - and that was where I was privileged to experience her work.

   "I have gained a reputation, locally, as an electrifying performer/reader, and have appeared at local rock clubs, reading the same poetry that has taken me into classrooms and community centers for over five hundred public readings since 1973." Coleman added: "Words seem inadequate in expressing the anger and outrage I feel at the persistent racism that permeates every aspect of black American life. Since words are what I am best at, I concern myself with this as an urban actuality as best I can." After some forty years of writing Wanda Coleman remains devoted to the themes of racism and female experience and to Los Angeles. The city has been a vital part of her writings and an important outlet for her poetry readings, typically classified as “take-no-prisoners” performances (San Francisco Examiner, February 1986) that “bring you into her world” (LA Weekly, April 1984). Coleman has shared the stage with such legends as The Hollywood Ten, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, and Alice Coltrane. In the 80s, L.A.’s music underground welcomed Coleman as she appeared with Henry Rollins, Lydia Lunch, and Exene Cervenka with whom she recorded Twin Sisters."

   "Coleman summarized her complex love-hate relationship with her birthplace by stating that when she visited other places, she 'finds Los Angeles has been there before I arrive'."  Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times (she died at only 67 years of age) states what I have always thought -"A native of Watts who long was regarded as L.A.'s unofficial poet laureate..."  She was a columnist for the L.A. Times and I remember treasuring her columns.  She was fiercely critical of Maya Angelou and this led to her ostracism in some circles.  From the obituary:
   "Many of her poems burned with remembered insults and injustices, as in "Chapter 2 of the Story" from"Bathwater Wine," which describes her experiences with a librarian whose bifocals "magnified the bigotry in her eyes."
her gray eyes policed me thru the stacks like Dobermans
she watched me come and go, take books and bring books
she monitored the titles and after a while decided
she'd misjudged her little colored girl
and for a time she tried to apologize in her way. to engage
in small talk. i never answered back. once, she set
special books aside to gain my trust respect smile
i left them untouched
hating her more for that."
   "In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, she lamented seeing "Black Los Angeles ... smothered slowly under the kudzu of a persistent and prolific racism."    In “What Does A Black Poem Look Like?,” a blog post for the Poetry Foundation, Coleman wrote, “In Y3K, I hope that the readers of my poetry will look back and find it dreadfully passé and that the emotional, social and oft political issues I confront are things of the savage past…. To Hell and Damnation with timelessness. I want my poems to go out of date as fast as possible.”
With Austin Straus  Red Hen Press

[I could find surprisingly little information about Wanda Coleman - so included the brief Wikipedia entry. That is very sad. Someone should write a biography. I hope someone will.] includes an MP3 of her - 
Virtual Venice tribute - 
Ed Pearl tribute to -
Obituary in L.A. Times -
Biography of Wanda Coleman - 
Wikipedia -
The Academy of American Poets - 
Biography tribute -
NPR tribute - 

Thursday, February 11, 2016


   Gil Scott-Heron is perhaps the most well known figure on my list of lightly or unknown heroes of African American history.  If nothing else, people remember his song "THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED."   
   Often mentioned as the Father of Rap, Gil Scott-Heron is still not well enough known among the young who might be able to truly appreciate him.
   I heard an interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the other day and in it he mentions having known Scott-Heron and actually playing drums with him a few times when he came to Los Angeles to play.  For several years I made it a point to look for his appearances -- always in the month of February.  I remember seeing him at the Wilshire Ebell, Marla Gibb's Marla's Memory Lane Jazz and Supper Club, and McCabes in Santa Monica. I always wondered why he varied his venues -- but then, he was always at least an hour late arriving. Perhaps each venue did not ask him to return?
   Gil Scott-Heron's ability to speak to the demons in our minds and souls was unsurpassed. I learned that his own demons would ultimately defeat him, in a final way.  He would go to jail his last few years only because of drug possession [OUR HORRIBLE DRUG LAWS - THE UNITED STATES IS INHUMANE AND DRACONIAN], and die at the very young age of 62.

   But before this, before the ravages of age and pain and guilt and destruction Gil Scott-Heron would achieve a body of work that left to us an incredible treasure of spoken word and music.   Just the titles alone conjure up images that won't easily leave one's consciousness.  Each song felt as if he was giving us a political tutorial, an inside view, a lesson in empathy.   WHITEY ON THE MOON, HOME IS WHERE THE HATRED IS, [“God, did you ever try to turn your sick soul inside out so that the world could watch you die?”]  SAVE THE CHILDREN,  WHO'LL PAY REPARATIONS ON MY SOUL, LADY DAY AND JOHN COLTRANE,  WINTER IN AMERICA, JOHANNESBURG, WE ALMOST LOST DETROIT, THREE MILES DOWN, SHUT EM DOWN, and ALIEN (HOLD ON TO YOUR DREAMS).
   From the L.A. Times:  "Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago on April 1, 1949. His mother, a librarian, and father, a professional soccer player from Jamaica, split up when he was 2, and he went to live with his grandmother in Jackson, Tenn.
    "There he had firsthand experience with racial issues: He was among a group of black children who integrated a local elementary school. He also began playing piano and encountered one of his major influences."
   "I was a big fan of Langston Hughes, who wrote a weekly column in a black newspaper," he said in a 1999 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. "My grandmother used to get it every Thursday, and we used to sit out on the front porch and read it."  
   "The Harlem poet and author triggered Scott-Heron's literary side, and after he moved to New York to live with his mother, his talent led him to the prestigious Fieldston School. He went on to Hughes' alma mater in Pennsylvania, Lincoln University, and in 1970 published a novel, "The Vulture," followed by a volume of poetry, "Small Talk at 125th and Lenox."

   From the NY Times:  "Mr. Scott-Heron often bristled at the suggestion that his work had prefigured rap. “I don’t know if I can take the blame for it,” he said in an interview last year with the music Web site The Daily Swarm. He preferred to call himself a “bluesologist,” drawing on the traditions of blues, jazz and Harlem renaissance poetics."  

"Yet, along with the work of the Last Poets, a group of black nationalist performance poets who emerged alongside him in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Mr. Scott-Heron established much of the attitude and the stylistic vocabulary that would characterize the socially conscious work of early rap groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. And he has remained part of the DNA of hip-hop by being sampled by stars like Kanye West."

“You can go into Ginsberg and the Beat poets and Dylan, but Gil Scott-Heron is the manifestation of the modern word,” Chuck D, the leader of Public Enemy, told The New Yorker in 2010. “He and the Last Poets set the stage for everyone else.”

The last epitaph for G. Scott-Heron -
Who Is Gil Scott-Heron? a movie -
Biography, streaming albums -
Discography at Discogs --  
Obituary in New York Times -  
Rolling Stone obituary - 
Los Angeles Times obituary - 
Dave Zirin Interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


   Do you know the name of Paul Robeson's wife?  Did you know that she was as accomplished and intelligent as he was? (just as W.E.B. DuBois' wife was).  I have concentrated these posts on women because there are so many African American women we don't know much about and must!  Really, every month should be African American History Month - and would be if we taught history properly - more inline with THE PEOPLES HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES by Howard Zinn, for example.

   Eslanda Goode Robeson was born in 1895 and died in 1965.  Here is her biographer's [Barbara Ransby] short description from an interview at Democracy Now (link below):   "She was initially a scientist and a chemist. She met Paul Robeson in 1919, and they married in 1921. She became the architect of his early career. She was his manager and publicist and confidante and coach. But then she decided to really forge a more independent career of her own, and she was a journalist, an anthropologist. She authored or co-authored three books: one about her travels in Africa, another one with Pearl Buck in 1949, and another one was a biography of her husband Paul. So she was an intellectual. She was an anti-colonial activist. She was an anti-racist. She advocated women’s rights. And she allied herself with a world anti-capitalist movement at a time when that was very costly to do so."
  I have wanted to share the book that Eslanda wrote - African Journey - because she gave my parents a copy with an inscription for my father.  "For Charlie Kramer with thanks for so cheerfully accepting me as one of the guys.  Gratefully, Eslanda Good Robeson."

This and the photo of Paul - inscribed to me and my sister  "To Anne and Joan, You have a wonderful dad.  Paul" are among my greatest possessions.  An autographed photo of W.E.B. DuBois is another.
   From a review of the biography of Eslanda Robeson by Barbara Ransby we learn this about her middle class and educated family and their influence on her:  "Ransby identifies Eslanda’s grandfather and mother also named Eslanda, as influential figures in Eslanda’s early life and later political positions. Eslanda’s grandfather Francis Lewis Cardozo, a prominent South Carolina politician during Reconstruction and later a respected educator in Washington DC who advocated for blacks, was a significant symbol of race pride for Eslanda. Eslanda Sr shared left-leaning views and in the 1910s volunteered with black socialist internationalist Hubert Harrison’s newspaper The Voice and supported female suffrage groups. By detailing Francis Cardozo and Eslanda Goode's political pasts Ransby helps to demonstrate that the ideological commitments Eslanda took up later in life built on a family tradition of leftist activism."

   Eslanda Robeson traveled to many different countries both with and without her husband. Because of their political activities, their passports were taken away for a period.  Barbara Ransby again:  "But they made the best of the time that they were here. They certainly were not cowed or silenced. Essie traveled around this country during that period, and she was a correspondent at the United Nations. She wrote extensively. She was there actually at the founding of the United Nations in 1945, and then she became a correspondent for a number of progressive and black publications. She wrote about decolonization in Africa, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. She wrote about the conflict in Korea. She wrote about India. So, she really had this very broad worldview, even when they were confined to this country."
   Eslanda spoke and wrote about Africa, particularly in order to dispel the ridiculous stereotypes that our country exposed.  She talked about Africans as intelligent, and beautiful, and brilliant in a way that went against the views of the time, with African Americans themselves not embracing their fabulous heritage.  She was so ahead of her time in so man ways. And courage -- her courage was striking given the amount of repression she and Paul suffered.

   Her international solidarity was extensive, including friendship with Nehru and his family.  Barbara Ransby:  "She had studied at the London School of Economics. She studied with Bronislaw Malinowski. Jomo Kenyatta, the future leader of Kenya, was one of her classmates, as were a number of future African independence leaders. And she talked about Kenyatta’s influence on her, piquing her interest in Africa and the complexity of Africa as a continent, and the very specific cultures of southern and East Africa and Central Africa. So she traveled to Africa in 1936 to do her anthropological work in part because she disagreed with some of the racist comments and assumptions that she found among her classmates and some of her professors at LSE. So, she wrote of the connectedness between African Americans and Africans. She said Europeans have the old country, and sub-Saharan Africa, even though it’s not a country, it’s our old country—plural, our old countries, if you will. So she wrote extensively about that."

   Eslanda Robeson was called before the Senate Internal Securities Committee, McCarthy's committee in the Senate. She testified separately from Paul and it was about her book that they were interested. Indeed, she was seen as subversive for calling for African independence. 

Not hard to imagine how racist the committee was towards Mrs. Robeson. "Did you write the book by yourself?"    Barbara Ransby:  "And she said, you know, "I’m perfectly capable of writing a book by myself. I take offense at the question." And she then flipped the questions that the committee was asking her and asked them, you know, what was their legitimacy? How did they dare ask her these questions? She invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, but she also invoked the 15th Amendment, which is the right of blacks to vote. And the reason she invoked that is to point out that some of the Southern senators who served on that committee came from states where black people could not vote. And so, she really tried to use that testimony to make her own political statements rather than to cow and to be a victim of McCarthy’s inquisition. Afterwards, he sort of—McCarthy kind of glared down at her and said, "If you were a man, I would hold you in contempt."
   Sadly Essie (Eslanda) Robeson died too young, before her husband who would mourn for her the rest of his life. She was his rock, his spirit support, his agent, his equal of course.  He found life very hard after she was gone.  

Paul, Eslanda, and Paul Jr.  

Helpful Links:
Democracy Now special program - Remembering Eslanda Robeson-- 
Video of same program Democracy Now -
Eslanda Good Robeson Facts - 
Eslanda Goode Robeson - Reviews in History of Ransby book -- 
Black Agenda Report review of Ransby book --   
Digitizing Diaspora - Congo Diary: Eslanda Robeson's Second African Journey --
Buy the book African Journeys at Abe Books -- 


   Two women stand out in my memory as being largely responsible for the success of the Civil Rights Movement.  One is Ella Baker and the other is Fannie Lou Hamer.

   Fannie Lou Hamer is known for her efforts for voting rights, in forming the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, her fight to be seated at the Democratic convention.  She worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which fought segregation and injustice in the south.
   Born in 1917, she began picking cotton at age six and was as good or better than most adults by the age of 10.  I doubt that many people today can imagine the suffering and endurance of this courageous fighter for civil rights.  When she went to register to vote, she was threatened that she would have to move. So she did.  Later she was arrested with others and beaten so badly she could not feel her legs.
   Her famous words "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired" are inscribed on her tombstone.
She only lived from 1917 to 1977 and it isn't difficult to imagine that the hardships she suffered took a toll on her.  She was one of 20 children born to sharecroppers. She did get to finish the sixth grade while working in the fields. She was hospitalized for a minor ailment and the doctor gave her a hysterectomy without telling her, leaving her unable to have children. She adopted four children anyway.        Attending a civil rights meeting in 1962 changed her life.
   By 1964 she was fighting for the right of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates to be seated at the convention, as opposed to the illegally constituted all white delegation.  Go to this link and you'll find the speech she gave.
An excerpt:   "I laid on my face and the first Negro began to beat. I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.

After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.

The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit on my feet - to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush.

One white man - my dress had worked up high - he walked over and pulled my dress - I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.

I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.

All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

Thank you."

"Fannie Lou told  the convention that as a result of this beating, she suffered permanent kidney damage, a blood clot in the artery of her left eye, and a limp when she walked.  Her  riveting testimony to the convention, which was interrupted by a hastily called speech by President Johnson,  informed the country about the treatment blacks were receiving at the hands of whites in the state of Mississippi and the rest of the south." [At Howard University's biography of Fannie Lou Hamer.] 
   Shot at, beaten, thrown out of her home of 18 years, arrested, incarcerated, and more -- nothing could stop this amazing and courageous fighter for the rights of all African Americans in the United States. She will never be forgotten.


Testimony and biography - 
Biography - 
Biography - 
Fannie Lou Hamer statue - 
Fannie Lou Hamer biography - 
Fannie Lou Hamer - 
Howard University biography - 

Monday, February 8, 2016


   In 1971 I flew to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to live for a year at least, taking the chance of finding a job teaching after just earning my elementary teaching credential at UC Berkeley.  I can't forget the apprehension of my mother when I took that 36 hour journey.  Why did I want to live in one of the 16 poorest countries in the world?  In one word: Revolution.
   My sister had met the wonderful Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu and another Zanzibari in Cuba in 1964.  Babu insisted I could find a job if I went to Tanzania.  What I found were the most profound experiences, events, and people that I would ever again encounter in my life. I was 24 years old and not very assertive. But I had to go. I had to see the place where all the revolutionary independence movement of Africa were headquartered, where African Americans were welcomed to set up businesses and live freely, where so many wonderful people came to support, or sometimes hinder, President Julius Nyerere's programs of Ujamaa, Uhuru, and INDEPENDENCE.

   One day while I was visiting Babu and his beautiful wife Ashura, a woman came to the door. I believe I must have been going out as I was not able to meet her.  It turned out to be the marvelous Shirley Graham DuBois, second wife of W.E.B. DuBois. (AND THAT IS PRONOUNCED DUBOYS - Dr. DuBois said he was not French.)  
   There are not enough words to describe the intelligence, accomplishment, talent, creativity, wide-ranging interests, brilliance, and more that compose the body and soul of Shirley Graham DuBois.  While still a college student at Oberlin University, DuBois wrote a 3-act, 16-scene opera that was performed in front of 10,000 and then 15,000 people in Cleveland.  She was the first African American woman to compose an opera for an all Black cast.  "Tom-Toms was a history of African America set against the music she composed."
   Shirley Graham DuBois was a fighter for equal rights from the very beginning of her life. She worked for the YWCA and was fired after defending two men who had been falsely accused.  She promptly went to work for the NAACP and organized branches throughout the country.
   She wrote award-winning autobiographies and novels:  Dr. George Washington Carver, 1944; What Someone Wanted, 2007; His Day is Marching On: A Memoir of W.E.B. DuBois, 1971; There Was Once A Slave: The Heroic Story of Frederick Douglass, 1947; Julius K. Nyerere: Teacher of Africa, 1975; Paul Robeson: Citizen of the World, 1971; Zulu Heart: A Novel, 1974; Gamal Abdel Nasser, Son of the Nile, 1972, and more, including Paul Robeson, Anne Royall, Phillis Wheatley, Jean Baptiste du Sable, and Pocahontas.

Gerald Horne, her biographer, describes her thusly:  "During her event-filled life, this diminutive, light brown-skinned woman with a broad gray streak in her hair was variously a composer, playwright, drummer, biographer, editor, novelist, and political activist. However, the zenith of her life may have been the time she spent in the 1960s -- after the death of her spouse, W.E.B. DuBois -- as a pivotal advisor and official in the government of Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana."  A description of this book about her states: "Gerald Horne draws a revealing portrait of this controversial figure who championed the civil rights movement in America, the liberation struggles in Africa and the socialist struggles in Maoist China.  Through careful analysis and use of personal correspondence, interviews, and previously unexamined documents, Horne explores her work as a Harlem Renaissance playwright, biographer, composer, teacher, novelist, Left political activist, advisor, and inspiration, who was a powerful historical actor."

Books that include Shirley Graham DuBois:
The East Is Black: Cold War China In the Black Radical Imagination by Robeson Taj Frazier
Want to Start A Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle edited by Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharris, and Komozi Woodard
Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham DuBois by Gerald Horne.

DuBois, Shirley Graham [DuBoisopedia] -
Project Muse: Race Woman - 
Shirley Graham DuBois, composer, playwright, novelist, activist | African American Registry - 
The Musical Life of Shirley Graham DuBois | Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University - 
DuBois, Shirley Graham, 1896 - 1977. Papers, 1865 - 1998 (inclusive), 1905-1975 (bulk): a Finding Aid - 

Sunday, February 7, 2016


   I met Thelma Dale Perkins a few times when she came to visit my parents in Los Angeles. Such a gracious and lovely person, I knew there was something special about her besides just her friendship with my parents.  My plan was to try to visit her in North Carolina where she had retired but I never made it.  She died in 2014 and I feared I would never learn her true history. I knew snippets - that she was a friend of WEB DuBois; that she was a feminist activist in New York City. But not much more.
   Here is one site that talks about her "civic engagement" - and I am indebted to them for writing this although it gives an entirely one-sided picture of this dynamic and energetic fighter for the rights of African Americans, especially women.
   One photograph captures the dignity of this beautiful woman:
   A bit of her illustrious history may explain some of her accomplishments:  She was born in Washington D.C. in 1915 to parents who had settled in DC post Reconstruction.  "Her maternal uncle Frederick Douglass Patterson was the third president of Tuskegee Institution and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987." "The youngest of four children, Thelma attended Birney Elementary School and the locally renowned Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, America’s first public school for African Americans. In 1932, she entered Howard University to study teaching and social work."
   Thelma Dale joined organizations in college that promoted the role of African Americans in larger society.  She attended chats with Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House discussing issues facing youth at the time.  "After graduating in 1936, she worked for distinguished Howard University sociologist Dr. E. Franklin Frasier on a National Youth Administration Fellowship and for the Federal Government.  [I believe that this was where my father met Thelma Dale Perkins as he was the organizer of the National Youth Administration and gave scholarships to students.] "Integration continued to be an important cause for Thelma and in the 1940s she accepted the position of acting Secretary of the National Negro Congress. During that time, Thelma assisted with early civil rights activities and formed lifelong friendships with such luminaries as Paul Robeson and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois."
   Mrs. Perkins later recalled, “I resigned from the government rather than sign a loyalty oath and accepted the job of National Secretary of the National Negro Congress in New York City.”
   Thelma Dale was friends with Paul and Eslanda Robeson. She was managing editor for Paul Robeson's newspaper Freedom and involved in the campaign to restore Robeson's passport (taken from him in the McCarthy era). 

   In 1957 she married Lawrence Rickman Perkins, Jr. and adopted two children: Lawrence Dale Perkins and Patrice Dale Perkins.
   An excerpt from a book gives a better picture of the activist Thelma Dale:  "In 1945, Thelma Dale, a member of the United States' Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) and engaged political activist, attended the foundational meeting of the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF) in Paris, France.  She described the gathering as an "exhilarating experience," and gave a glowing account of its civility and spirit of solidarity in stark contrast to everyday life under segregation back home. Dale cherished the opportunity to internationalize the struggle of Black women in the United States, and hoped for fruitful learning experiences and rewarding interactions 'with women from the colonial countries, the Soviet Union and many other lands."  "Indeed, about 850 women from 40 countries had accepted the invitation to the meeting from the Union des Femmes Francaises, women who had been active in the French Resistance movement in World War II and had close links to the Communist Party."
   Thelma Dale Perkins is also mentioned in the book about Eslanda Robeson by Barbara Ransby.  "Sojourners for Truth and Justice was made up of a dynamic mix of creative Black women, many of them leftists and communists.  Essie, author Shirley Graham DuBois, actress Beulah (Beah) Richards, author Alice Childress, Thelma Dale Perkins, and activist Louise Thompson Patterson were among the founding core.  They were joined by California publisher Charlotta Bass, who served as the group's president...They described the Sojourners as "a militant Negro women's movement...dedicated to the militant struggle for full freedom of the Negro people and an uncompromising fight against white supremacy."  Sojourners fought for the freedom of a Georgia sharecropper who had killed at white man in 1947. She and two teenage sons were sentenced to death for the killing, even though it was clearly an act of self-defense.  Ultimately they won their freedom and The Sojourners were certainly the most helpful in that outcome.  
   I'll never forget Mrs. Perkins admonishing my father because he did not attend the speeches given by the great Charlotta Base while she campaigned for Vice President with the Progressive Party.  He thought it wouldn't be helpful but Mrs. Perkins thought he was wrong.  I was too shy to ask her why but I think she felt that a white man's support for the struggle of African Americans was important to the outcome of that struggle.
   Thelma Dale Perkins has a tribute to Paul Robeson in the book Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner.  I hope you will take the time to read this.  
   There is really not enough material available about this woman whose contributions to the struggle for freedom can't be overstated.

More Links:
Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War by Dayo F. Gore -      
Excerpt from a book -   De-Centering Cold War History: Local and Global Change edited by Jadwiga E. Pieper Mooney, Fabio Lanza.   Chapter 3.