The journey of an itinerant activist, narrated by historian Horne (Fire This Time, not reviewed).
Shirley Graham Du Bois had a life in the arts and something of a political reputation before she married W.E.B. Du Bois, the noted scholar and civil rights leader, in his autumnal years. Horne would have us believe that she didn’t simply marry him as a matter of convenience (he was 81 and she was 55 at the time), but he acknowledges that Shirley’s marriage to Du Bois gave her life a stability and grounding that she never really had before. Extremely fair-skinned, Shirley (born in Indianapolis to Native Americans who claimed French, Scots, Irish, and English blood) always insisted that she was Negro. Her father was a much-traveled African Methodist Episcopal minister who took care to develop his daughter’s interest in music and writing. Shirley’s early years were a dilettante’s muddle of assorted colleges attended, countries visited, and opportunities missed. In the middle of the Depression she staged an opera (Tom Tom) with a cast of 500. No one came. She seemed to have a far greater talent for latching on to people of influence—from NAACP founder Mary White Ovington to Mao Tse Tung—and moving on in her opportunistic way. Slowly, she drifted into political involvement and married Du Bois during the heart of the “Red Scare”—a fact she seemed to enjoy flaunting whenever she took trips to the Soviet Union and China. In the 1960s she joined the cabinet of Kwame Nkrumah, then the president of Ghana. A Communist, she became a citizen of Tanzania and died in China in 1977. Chou En Lai attended her funeral.
Any woman who divorces her first husband simply by declaring him dead is at the very least intriguing: Horne takes on a difficult subject and does a serviceable job.