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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

June 28, 2001

AMHERST - The condominium where David Graham Du Bois is creating his "nest" was, until recently, simply a perch where he touched down while teaching a pair of journalism courses at the University of Massachusetts each spring. His other home is a nine-room Cairo apartment overlooking the Nile.

It was love at first sight when Du Bois arrived in Cairo in 1960, and the romance is still going strong. He has taught in Amherst since 1983, but each year, he said, "I was gone the second day after classes" ended.

However, Du Bois, 76, is retiring this week and planning to stay, for the most part, in Amherst. He has decided to devote his remaining years to burnishing the legacy of his stepfather, the pioneering, pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois, and launching the creation of a six-volume "Encyclopedia Africana," a project his stepfather started four decades ago. Health issues, particularly emphysema, which requires him to use a portable machine, played a role his decision to be here.

His apartment here is small; his desk, piled high with newspapers and books, sits on a landing opposite the front door. There is a small kitchenette and much of his bedroom is given over to storage. The sunken living room is decorated with family photos and artifacts from an international lifestyle, including a 2-foot-high Nigerian mask given him by an Egyptian air force officer. He has a Ching Dynasty porcelain figurine of the Old Man of Wisdom and a machine-woven tapestry celebrating construction of the Great Wall of China, presented by Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai to his stepfather on the occasion of his stepfather's 91st birthday.

Last summer, Du Bois shipped three filing cabinets of his papers from Cairo to Massachusetts. He is returning to Cairo in July to inventory his library, which includes many of his parents' books. He will bring them to the United States when he finds a suitable repository.

His life in Cairo started on a whim after an academic year in China. Having gone to that communist country without State Department approval, Du Bois feared his passport would be confiscated upon returning to the United States, so he decided "to see a little bit of Africa first." He went to Marseilles and caught a steamer to Egypt.

He taught American literature at Cairo University and in 1961 gained some notoriety when an English-language newspaper published a letter he submitted condemning the Bay of Pigs invasion. Soon, he landed a job with a news service that supplied articles to publications around the world.

"That was the most fascinating time of my life," said Du Bois.

He covered the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the moving of the Abu Simbel Temple to higher ground.

He often visited Ghana, where his mother and stepfather had settled at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah, the first post-Colonial black African leader. He became a Ghanaian citizen, and the traditional West African kente cloth his mother gave him on that occasion adorns his sofa in Amherst. W.E.B. Du Bois died in Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95, and his wife (David's mother), Shirley Graham Du Bois, stayed on as director of Ghanaian television until a military coup in 1966. She then traveled briefly, lived in Cairo, and died in China in 1977. ("Race Woman: The lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois" by Gerald Horne was published last year by New York University Press.)

Du Bois learned Arabic but never became a Muslim. When Malcolm X was in Cairo for three months in 1964, Du Bois asked him about his conversion.

"Some of us need blinders to keep us on the straight and narrow and that is what Islam has been for me," he recalled the American militant's telling him.

DuBois, raised mainly by his Methodist grandparents, said he never felt that need.

Du Bois's next job was with Egyptian radio as the announcer for English short-wave transmissions to America. Disgusted with the vagaries of international politics, he returned to the US in 1972 for the first time in 13 years. Drawn by the activities of the Black Panther Party, he went to Oakland, Calif., where, for the next four years, he edited the group's newspaper. By then, the Black Panthers had abandoned much of their revolutionary rhetoric in favor of electoral politics, with leader Bobby Seale's nearly successful mayoral run.

Cairo beckoned, however, and he returned with press credentials from the San Francisco-based Pacific News Service, for whom he filed occasional reports. When his mother died, Du Bois assumed her role as custodian of his stepfather's legacy. She had already donated her husband's papers to the University of Massachusetts, where the library and the African-American studies department bear his name.

In the almost two decades that he has been shuttling back and forth between Amherst and Cairo, Du Bois has devoted himself to teaching, memoir writing, and promoting translations of W.E.B. Du Bois' works. Though Amherst is now his primary residence, he isn't giving up what he calls his "digs" in Cairo.

"Egyptians are known all over the Arab world as the `Dum A' Hafif,' " he said. Literally translated, that means "light blooded," he said, but it refers to an "almost childlike - in a healthy sense - jovial, happy-go-lucky, sense of playfulness.

"I get a tremendous amount of relief" from being there.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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