Memories of Lulu Dube must be a springboard for teaching
HE late wise man from Mali, Amadou Hampaté Bâ, said that in Africa, an old person who dies is a library that burns. This is truly the case of Lulu Dube, the last surviving child of Reverend John Langalibalele Dube, the founding president of the African National Congress and his wife, Angeline Khumalo, who died on May 26, at the age of 84.
If we cannot do much to prevent the falling of these giant trees of our African savannahs and forests, we can at least build libraries around their memories; always to use their memories as a springboard for teaching both the young and the not-so-young about key moments in our history.
I met Auntie Lulu Dube, as she was affectionately called by all, in January 1999, when I first visited South Africa and heard about her father. My students and I were on a monthlong study tour of “poetry, performance and the politics of identity in South Africa”. We had just visited the Ohlange High School, where Nelson Mandela famously cast his vote in 1994, and walked around John Dube’s unkempt and overgrown gravesite on top of a small hill overlooking this memorable African intellectual high-place of yesteryear. We were then led to the house of John Dube, where we were welcomed by the guardian of the temple, Lulu Dube, a charming elder with a bright smile and mild manners. She showed us some memorabilia and described the photos hanging on the walls of her childhood home. I was touched by both the grandeur and the humility of the place and the spirits inhabiting it. This captivating mixture showed on Lulu Dube’s face as well as in her motherly approach to visitors. I felt a strange sense of attachment to Ohlange, as a place of memory, and also to the person of Lulu Dube, not suspecting that I would be spending the next 14 years of my life riveted in research about John Dube and a constellation of people who played a pioneering yet little-known role in the liberation history of South Africa.
I visited Auntie Lulu many times over the years to hear stories about her childhood and about her father “Mafukuzela”, the busy-bee who was often away from the house on fundnotwithstanding Lulu Dube and Jackson Wilcox, the 89-year-old grandson of William C. Wilcox and Ida Belle Wilcox, who adopted her father John Langalibalele Dube. raising trips for the Ohlange Institute, the first independent industrial education school built by a black person in South Africa.
One day, she recalled when her dress caught fire because she had been too close to a kerosene lamp while studying. Luckily that night, her father was home and had managed to douse the fire before rushing her to the McCord Hospital in Durban. What emotion I felt in her voice while she evoked a moment in the life of a family that history had placed at the forefront of a momentous fight for collective emancipation from oppression. How I relished such moments and the opportunities to hug another mother of mine on the southern tip of the African continent.
Over the years, I noticed that there was a big gap in Auntie Lulu’s knowledge about her father’s history and time in the United States in the late 19th century. It was the story of how her father had a unique opportunity to study in the U.S. There had been many legends about Dube’s departure as a young man to the other side of the Atlantic, where few black Africans had gone and returned with knowledge and prestige. Credo Mutwa, the famous Zulu shaman, had even said that young John Dube, so determined to get education and spread it among his people, chose to stowaway on a boat going to the U.S.
“He would have died of thirst or hunger had not a couple of sailors discovered him in the hold. They frogmarched him, more dead than alive, to the captain’s cabin. The captain at first did not know what to do with John Dube … should he clap him in irons or throw him overboard? Finally, it was decided that the young Zulu could be useful aboard the ship and that he would work for his passage to the U.S. as a stoker — feeding shovels of coal to the roaring and ever-hungry furnaces of the great vessel. “Ye’re as ugly an’ black as the very devil, my bhoyo,” said the captain to John Dube. “An’ by the Virgin Mary, ye’re agonna work like him.”
For her part, Auntie Lulu knew that her father was taken to the U.S. by missionaries of the American Board. But who were those missionaries? She was very curious to know. You can imagine her joy and surprise when a few years later, I brought her the news that I had found a lot of information about these missionaries because, strangely enough, it turned out that they were closely connected to Northfield, Minnesota, the town where I lived in the U.S. I told her the gist of their amazing story. William and Ida Belle Wilcox, who had arrived in Inanda in 1881 after their wedding in Northfield, became the adoptive American parents of 16-year-old John Dube, when they accepted in 1887, in opposition of other missionaries, to take charge of the education of the 16-yearold Zulu boy and provide opportunities that were closed to him in South Africa because of British colonial policies. I told Auntie Lulu that I had even found the descendants of these benefactors, not only of her family but also of the entire South African nation.
She decided to write a very moving letter to Reverend Jackson Wilcox, the 89-year-old grandson of William C. Wilcox (1850-1928) and Ida Belle Wilcox (1858-1940), as a belated expression of South Africa’s gratitude. It is from that initiative that I brought back members of the Wilcox family from California and Alaska to South Africa in November 2007, to reunite them with Auntie Lulu and the descendants of John Dube, in memory of the exJohn ceptional friendship between a Zulu boy and a white American family that changed the course of the history of South Africa. This visit was covered by Stephen Coan of The Witness in an article titled “Not quite your ordinary family reunion” (Weekend Witness, December 8, 2007). It is also the topic of the second film in my Inanda trilogy, Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa.
The last time I saw Auntie Lulu was during another big moment of historical retrieval, on August 31, 2013, at the Brixton Cemetery, where a gravestone was unveiled for the late Nokutela Mdima Dube (1873-1917), her father’s first wife and the woman who built in equal partnership with him, everything that is known today as the Dube legacy: the Ohlange school (1900), the Ilanga newspaper (1903) and to a certain extent, the African National Congress (1912). This woman, who had been excluded from history for 95 years because she had not been able to give a child to John Dube, was posthumously welcomed back into the Dube family by Auntie Lulu and all the descendants of John Dube.
May the soul of Lulu Dube rest in peace among the brave forefathers and foremothers of the revolution, whose legacy she kept alive and protected for posterity through her tireless philanthropy and her wise leadership in the Inanda community.