Order of Multitudes

Shirley Graham, Curator of an Unconventional Museum

Dr. Lucy Caplan is a scholar of African-American opera in the early twentieth century. Her work focuses on the life and work of Shirley Graham Du Bois and in particular her opera, “Tom-Tom.” While researching “Tom-Tom,” Dr. Caplan has drawn similarities between the museum and the opera’s archival impulses, arguing that Graham had taken on the role of curator and archivist herself by highlighting different Black experiences of the early twentieth century in her work. We sat down to discuss how this particular operatic archive, with its educational and curatorial aims, challenges the definition of museums.   

Allison Chu: This Sawyer Seminar is focused on exploring the organization of knowledge, and it is focused around three pillars: the atlas, the encyclopedia, and the museum. I believe it was in a recent conference presentation that you described the process of rediscovering a historically forgotten opera and its sense of “newness.” Would you like to talk a little about the process of finding this opera and what it was like to rediscover something that had been forgotten in recent cultural memory?

Lucy Caplan: I first came across Shirley Graham’s opera “Tom-Tom” as an undergraduate looking for a research paper topic. I had a long-standing interest in opera and African-American studies, and I came across a listing in a finding aid. I had never heard of Graham, I had never heard of this piece, and I had never even been to an archive before. I was immediately intrigued by what I found, both because the piece is so epic and complex and incredible, but also because it was unknown to me and to many other people. I asked myself, why is this piece sitting here in the archive? Why is there so little written about it? Why hasn’t it been a part of our sense of American operatic history? Why doesn’t it have a more salient place in cultural memory? 

At the same time, I did find that there had been previous efforts to preserve Graham’s legacy, so I kind of want to push back against this notion of “rediscovery” as the best framework for thinking about it. There is an article from the eighties (1985) by a scholar named Kathy Perkins and an article by the musicologist Sarah Schmalenberger from 2006. And of course it was in the archive, which meant that it hadn’t been lost entirely, which is the case for so many scores by Black composers. That was the result of Graham’s son preserving the score for years. 

AC: Could you talk a little bit about what else was in this archive and how that archive was constructed?

LC: The papers are held at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard; Harvard acquired that collection in 2001. Graham was married to W.E.B. Du Bois—they got married in 1951—and I like to refer to her as Shirley Graham when discussing “Tom-Tom” because she wrote the opera and did many other things long before they married. He was in his 80s when they got married, and she was in her 50s. Towards the end of his life, she became the person in charge of curating and preserving his archives, so Shirley Graham was instrumental in setting up the W.E.B. Du Bois papers which are at UMass-Amherst, and more broadly in preserving her husband’s legacy. She wrote books about him, including a biography, and did much work to preserve his cultural memory at a time when, because his politics were so radical, he had been discredited by a lot of mainstream forces in the United States. When she died, there was no one to do that work for her. Graham’s biographer, Gerald Horne, suggests that she had no one in her life to take on the role of curator and organizer of her legacy. She died in 1977, and her papers were not archived until 2001. There was a 24 year gap when, if scholars wanted to write about her life, there was no place to go other than her husband’s archive. I think the way Horne got access to her information was by running into her son on the street in New York, and the son mentioned that he had all this stuff from her. The story contrasts with the formal channels through which her husband, Du Bois, had been canonized. It brings up a lot of really interesting gendered questions about archival production and curators. 

AC: In that 24 year gap, was her son, David Graham Du Bois, the one that held all of those materials and papers?

LC: I think he had a great deal of them but I’m not sure if he had the entire collection. The collection is very substantial, around 47 boxes. It has tons of correspondence, scrapbooks, and a lot of her writings. She wrote several very creative, semi-fictionalized, elaborately written biographies of important figures in Black diasporic history. She wrote one about Paul Robeson, so there are copies and drafts for those; there are a lot of musical and theatrical writing and photographs. It is a very rich collection of these materials in addition to the stuff about “Tom-Tom.” For the opera specifically, in addition to the score, there are a lot of reviews, newspaper clippings, a program, and correspondence that she wrote while the opera was being produced. She was also a student at Oberlin at the time; there are some materials related to her schoolwork, like student essays, which are really fun to read, and notifications for things on campus that she was involved in. She had two kids; while she was at Oberlin, they were in the care of her parents, so she wrote a lot of letters to them that are another fascinating component of that collection.

AC: Do you think that piecing together the story of this particular archive has changed how you think of archives, or has influenced your own understanding of the process of archiving today?

LC: It’s interesting because the abundance of Graham’s archive stands in such contrast to the lack of public or cultural knowledge of “Tom-Tom” in particular. What I’ve found in researching the piece and going back to this archive many times over the last several years is that there’s a lot there. There are gaps just like any other archive, but there’s also a lot of material there to think about the opera and its complexities. For instance, the only score that’s in the archive is a piano-vocal score. There are no parts, and there are only a few indications as to orchestration, but not a ton of information there. But, if you look in some of the letters she was writing in correspondence with the conductor, they talk quite a bit about the orchestration. The archive is like a  jig-saw puzzle. It can be really valuable and useful, but at the same time, like many archives, it highlights what’s missing. 

AC: I’m interested in this idea of “newness” even though this opera is from the early twentieth century. How can we classify what is “new” or “unfamiliar” material in the twenty-first century?

LC: When the opera was produced, in 1932, it was often described as “new.” There was a ton of rhetoric in the press and in the promotion of the opera discussing its newness, like “this is opera that you’ve never heard before” or “this is new opera.” That was due to the fact that it was an opera about African diasporic history, and it was an opera that used a wide variety of material, ranging from West African folk songs to spirituals to cabaret songs from Jazz Age Harlem. So there was a lot of rhetoric about the newness of the piece as well as the novelty factor of a Black female composer. But what I’ve been trying to think about is how that air of newness has persisted as a result of the fact that the opera has not been heard. In my research on the piece, I’ve come to think of that persistence as a ripple effect. Because of the absence of this piece from performance and from the stage and from centers of knowledge about opera, it means that other performers, composers, artists, and intellectuals haven’t been able to engage with the ideas and sounds it presented. So one absence perpetuates further absences. In that sense, its newness is something that has been a detriment because it has led to a lack of engagement and lack of expansion of the art form in that direction. But at the same time, it leads to a kind of still exciting sense of radicalism in the opera and because of the way that it is still so unexpected and unfamiliar to contemporary listeners, it retains that same sense of excitement around new information and new production even though it has technically existed for almost a century. So there are a lot of different dimensions at play.

AC: Sometimes we think of the body of operatic repertoire as a museum, with canonic works preserved and consistently presented on stage over and over again. How does your work challenge that definition of opera as a kind of a museum, and can we redefine what a museum might look like through the performing arts? How can a museum in the twenty-first century be dynamic?

LC: While I was doing my dissertation research, I came across an article from the 1920s that said, “Verdi for opening night again!” So boring, so predictable, and obviously things have not changed much in the last hundred years. In thinking about the operatic canon, the museum is often associated with staleness or safety or even a lack of creativity or originality. Works like Graham’s push us to reconsider that in some interesting ways because it’s a work that has lived in an archive and has been preserved in its own way, but in a way that’s totally separate from the stage. What makes “Tom-Tom” such an interesting piece to think about the museum and the archive is it has an archival impulse in the music itself. The piece itself has a museum-like quality to it. Graham writes in the program notes to this opera in a very understated and modest way that “any Black person could have written this work.” (I’m paraphrasing here.) She says “I’m more of a vessel for putting all of these melodies and sounds and songs than a composer.” It’s a really different model of knowledge production or artistic production than your typical operatic composer. It’s a very anti-Wagner way of thinking about the role of the composer. But it speaks to how she was really invested in narrating a history of Black musical development on stage through the opera. The first act uses all these transcriptions of folk songs. She cites in the program notes that she learned them from fellow students who were African immigrants that she met while studying in Paris, and from her brother, who worked as an American missionary in Liberia for several years. Her transcriptions are obviously second or third hand versions of that music, but they have this kind of curator’s impulse behind them, in that she is attempting to put this music on stage rather than glossing them with her own interpretation. She does a similar thing with the spirituals in Act II, it’s this pretty straight-forward four-part choral arrangement of the spirituals that she’s using there. And in Act III, she incorporates these found sounds, like taxi horns from Harlem and cabaret songs. So these are all different ways of taking existing material and putting it on the stage rather than thinking about her voice as the primary compositional voice. 

I’ve been thinking of all of these aesthetic choices as a curatorial approach to what it means to compose an opera. Graham was kind of doing curatorial work rather than trying to create a more standard and through-composed kind of piece. I think that fits in interesting ways with her later work in biography and curating Du Bois’ legacy. She saw herself as an archival thinker and artist. She also saw her work as pedagogical and educational. Later, when she was no longer working in the arts, she said a lot of things about how her impulse was always to educate people about Black history, whether she was working in music, or writing, or working as a lecturer, or in politics. Education was at the center of what she saw as her intellectual project. Thinking of the opera as a site for education and curating is a really interesting reframing of how opera relates to the museum or how the canon is like a museum.