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The Soul of David Levering Lewis

The Soul of David Levering LewisAward-Winning Scholar Contemporizes Black Intellectual Tradition

By Ronald Roach

At the 20th anniversary gala of Black Issues In Higher Education this past June, Dr. David Levering Lewis was honored with an inaugural John Hope Franklin Distinguished Contributor to Higher Education award. Lewis’ prize-winning scholarship played no small part in his selection along with philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, and Dr. Sybil Mobley, the retired dean of Florida A&M University’s School of Business and Industry, for accomplishments that have enriched American society and the world.

In this question-and-answer session, Lewis shares his perspectives on a variety of topics, including the life of Dr. W.E.B.

Du Bois, who the New York University history professor chronicled in an acclaimed two-volume biography. For the exemplary scholarship that went into the Du Bois project, Lewis earned two Pulitzer prizes in biography, one for each of the volumes.

In addition to the extraordinary life and times of Du Bois, Lewis has authored books in subjects ranging from the Dreyfus affair in 19th-century France to the U.S. civil rights movement, from African resistance to European colonizers to the blossoming of African American art and culture in Harlem in the 1920s. Currently, he is exploring in a forthcoming book the movement of Islam into eighth-century Spain.

Here is what Lewis had to say:
BI:  Given that the life and works of W.E.B. Du Bois are said to inspire considerable intellectual and political activity among African Americans, how well do you think his legacy is understood overall?

DLL: I think the appreciation of Du Bois has taken quite a surge in the past decade. The interest in him has gotten out from under the shadow that somewhat restrained him. That shadow being allegations of unpatriotism and reproaches for having been self-exiled from his own country, and the general libel that he was a subversive influence. We’ve grown up considerably since that bad period in the ’50s — coming out of the ’50s into the ’60s and beyond when it was difficult to take an assessment of people’s influence without being somewhat hamstrung by partisan and ideological critiques.

There is a development we ought to be mindful of and that is that, as with any world-class figure, there is a tendency to compartmentalize, or to serve up parts of the life (which) for one reason or another seem more useful than others. Like Martin Luther King Jr., it seems the public in general is more mindful of the earlier years of Du Bois’ public life. So the interest in The Souls of Black Folk — that marvelous (work) — has always been strong. As a result of the centenary last year and those celebrations around it, it’s particularly alive.

That to some extent has meant that the contributions of the later years, especially the contributions after World War II, have languished somewhat. I think that’s beginning to change and I hope that I, to some extent, have been able to make a contribution in that regard. That is to say in many ways perhaps the magnum opus of Du Bois is Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, which appeared in 1935 many, many years after The Souls of Black Folk. That work’s important in the academy; in various fields of history and sociology. (It) has loomed larger and larger among academics, and one hopes that there will be a more generalized appreciation of the great saliency of that work in terms of its explanation of race and racism, and economics and politics, and opportunities missed and lost in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

BI:  What questions would you encourage other scholars to pursue in regard to examining Du Bois?

DLL: There is an industry now in the academy and I think I would applaud that. I assume it will continue (and) build on its own momentum. Du Bois the novelist, to my surprise, is receiving a lot of attention. I’m not trained in literature. I didn’t give as much play to Du Bois the writer of fiction as I might have, but there are a lot of people to take care of that aspect of his career. Du Bois, the sociologist, the University of Pennsylvania, in a sense, to make amends for not keeping Du Bois as someone who (would) have been one of its greatest faculty people back in the 1890s, has given a lot of attention to his sociological research and writing. And on it goes.

But there is an aspect that invites a lot of attention, and that is the globalism embedded in Du Bois’ writings, especially the writings from the 1930s on, starting with that book I mentioned, Black Reconstruction In America, 1860-1880. There Du Bois began to say that everything is linked. Racism in the United States is part of a larger problem of distribution and political hegemony. So the criticism he had been making of the American South and of Jim Crow became by the third decade of the 20th century a much more encompassing criticism of the way in which the planet had been put together coming out of the industrial revolution.

That kind of synoptic look at the way things work and don’t work is one of the most marvelous gifts embedded in Du Bois’ scholarship. I would really hope that aspect, you could call it a diasporic aspect, (is studied). It is global. Since the 21st century is one (about) which the chattering classes say is the century of globalism, we want to understand what globalism should be. Du Bois is a very good lens through which to look at the unfolding 21st century and globalism.

BI:  There are a number of scholars who invoke Du Bois’ career that combined scholarship and activism as the basis for what Black studies and Black scholars should embrace. Do you have any thoughts about combining scholarship and activism?

DLL: I think the combination of scholarship and activism is an imperative. If your scholarship is any good then it must have some relevance. If it has some relevance, it’s not inappropriate for you the scholar to make sure people appreciate its relevancy.

There’s a danger, of course. We have this concept of the public intellectual. There have always been people who performed in the way (the) public intellectual is described. But as we live in the culture of celebrity and overdoing everything there can be a danger that the scholarship diminishes as the activism rises. The danger there is that people begin to pronounce on everything from an increasingly thin base of scholarly data and knowledge.

That’s a concern that is much rather pressing these days. Beyond that, of course, is the way in which the media insists on simplifying every idea and concern so that nothing can be complicated. Nothing can be really nuanced.

BI: What do you think Du Bois would say about the current predicament of the African American community? Would he have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision? Would he have agreed with what Bill Cosby had to say about low-income Blacks at the Brown celebration gala in Washington, D.C.?

DLL: To take your question, the middle part of it, on Brown v. Board, he gave the answer the year after the court’s 1954 ruling, when in 1955 the court qualified its ruling with the caveat that it would have to be “with all deliberate speed.”  Du Bois said that civil rights with all deliberate speed was an oxymoron. He deplored the (1955) ruling of the court and warned in his writings and various newspapers and periodicals that the Brown decision would be proved a disappointment because it did not face up to the economic and political problems that would come as a result of not facing up squarely, immediately and robustly to the legacy of second-class citizenship.

If one could imagine Du Bois living on forever and observing the discussions around the 50th anniversary of that turning point decision, I think he would say — as he said in his first book, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade — that societies must face up to evil promptly and in a timely way. Otherwise the problems become, as the years go by, almost insuperable when the cost of their remedy becomes very daunting.

I think Du Bois would be rather guarded in his response to Bill Cosby. Certainly, Bill Cosby has no wish to blame the victim, and he makes that clear repeatedly. But it is true that the social problems he identified — poor school performance, (an) appalling (drop out) rate, graduation rates in public high schools, the moral permissiveness, a general lack of a commitment to the hard work of citizenship that he sees amongst some of the young people — Du Bois says that those things have causes larger than the failure to live up to opportunities. They have to do with the failure of a rich society to target its social problems with the resources adequate to mend them.

Many people would say that enormous amounts of money have been thrown at the problem of education and we’ve come up short. I think Du Bois would say that we still have to throw money at the problems, but we have to be smart about (it).

BI:  Did the writing and recognition of the Du Bois biographies change fundamental views you hold in your own life outlook, perspectives about scholarship or views about American society?

DLL: The biographies did have an impact in that they were very gratefully well-received and that meant professional opportunities for me that were wonderful to have. The success of those biographies allows me to move on to other projects with confidence that there will be interest in whatever I should do and the support to do those things.

My personal experience in living such a long time with W.E.B. Du Bois — the idea was to (write) one long biography and to do that in under five years. Well, it was a two-volume set and it took me 15 years. I did write another book in between, but it was then a very intimate and long-term experience living in his life. I began the project of writing the first full-scale biography and I suppose I would describe myself a liberal Democrat, as someone who had been by no means scandalized by Du Bois’ decision to leave the United States, or his joining of the Communist Party. Those issues had rather seemed to me to be on the edge of excessively eccentric. When I came to Du Bois’ later years and began to meet the people — many, many dozens who had been central to his experience on the Left — I found myself beginning to question my own politics, and I finished the biography somewhat radicalized.

To my surprise, I think I became as angry as Du Bois was at the way in which this enormously rich country wastes its resources in ways that leave large numbers of people without a chance to improve their lives, and others whose lives have been improved by hard work, good citizenship — their lives ( are held) hostage to the misappropriation of great sums of money in order to maintain a military industrial complex that increasingly enriches a smaller, ever smaller number of people.

I think perhaps I would have come to that same indignation on my own, but there was no chance I wouldn’t have done so fairly quickly after living with Du Bois…One doesn’t have to leave the country, give up on citizenship, or join the Communist Party to share Du Bois’ outrage. It would be one thing if it was hardly possible to produce in the United States what Martin Luther King famously called the “just society,” but it can be done. It’s a matter of politics, it’s a matter of tax policy, it’s a matter of the size of the defense budget, it’s a matter of the wisdom and prudence of the foreign policy, (and) it’s a matter of the educational level of the electorate. All of them require a great deal of brainpower, study and commitment, but they are fixable things.

BI:  Is there a need for more history examining American society before and since the Brown decision that would explain why only a minority of African American children are getting quality public education?

DLL: Public education in America in general is going from bad to worse, and, for that matter, education in general, is the result of our insensate response to 9/11 — to begin to destroy the one industry that has really worked well in this country. That is higher education as practiced in the great American research universities, which until now educated the elite. I mean elite in the simply technical sense of people who are positioned to serve in ways that give them leverage in their societies.

The larger problem is that somewhere along the line we’ve decided that we can dispense with fundamentals. The fundamentals are not really Latin or Greek; they are geography and physics and English and a little bit of history. It really can position young people marvelously well in their world if they have some basic knowledge so that they don’t get snookered as time goes on, either by things that are academically fraudulent, or pulled into the popular culture vortex. That’s a general problem, but it impacts populations of color disproportionately, and that’s what Bill Cosby is deploring.

Well, the fix is complicated. It is money. It is taking the No Child Left Behind seriously in putting money behind it. It means that Head Start, a program that has worked ever since its conception in the Great Society, should be extended and enhanced. Of course, neither of those things is going to happen. So there are lots of specific things that need doing, but there’s a larger (issue), when it comes to people of color.  It is simply that if one consistently denies people the natural course of their upward movement…generationally again and again and again as it happened with people of color in the United States, then it’s rather hard to tell them at the end of a certain run of these bad experiences, say from Reconstruction to the collapse of the inner cities, “Look here, be of good cheer, put on your suit, scrub up, go to school and after your lessons, work hard and you’ll succeed” because statistically that hasn’t been the case. 

The society itself needs to come to grips with the consequences with what it has done to itself, but unfortunately we’re now in a moment of self-celebration in which new minorities are pouring into the country and they’re supposed to be succeeding, and they don’t need handouts. Of course, some do and not everybody is of good cheer with the course of immigration. But there are so many ways in which by wedge and by evasion we can step away from historic problems. In fact, we will simply continue to live with them, with the consequence, of course, some of us succeed and succeed marvelously. So we will have a Jackie Robinson phenomenon, the people who come to dinner, the Colin Powells, the Condoleezza Rices and many people of color who will join the Republican party, and that will give an illusion that everything is well and good. And what isn’t is taking care of itself, and if it doesn’t, we’ve done our best to help it. The consequences of that are not going to be good in 20 or 30 years. They’re pretty bad now.

BI: Can you talk about the work you’ve been pursuing in the past three years? Did the Du Bois biographies equip you to tackle anything in particular?

DLL: After living with Du Bois for 15 years, I really was not unhappy to take leave of him. The interest in various aspects (of Du Bois’ life) is robust, so I’ll come back in a few years and look at where Du Bois studies are, or where Du Bois is in the public mind. But I wanted to go off in another direction. It does respond to what I was saying earlier about a global perspective. And I think that global perspective I took enhanced my Du Bois research and explains where I now am.

I’ve been writing a short book on the moment when Islam arrives in what becomes Europe, when it arrives in the eighth century on the Iberian Peninsula. In less than five years, the Arab, Yemeni and Berber forces conquer what becomes Spain and install themselves for 700 years. In doing so, (they) keep advancing out of and over the Pyrenees into the European heartland. You can imagine what the consequences of a successful occupation of what becomes France might have been.

Of course it doesn’t happen. The reasons why it didn’t happen have been somewhat misinterpreted. The consequences of it not happening have not been speculated upon. So this book of some 170 pages leaves the reader with a number of — not counterfactual but almost — deeply researched (speculations). So that I would hope people would step back and say, here we are in the 21st century once again confronting Islam. To an alarming degree, we are being told that this is a clash of civilizations in which it’s a zero-sum competition.

I’m suggesting in that book that history never fixes itself in ways that justify these large demonolog (ies) that we often fall into, and that the explanations for conflicts, for tensions, have a rather more straightforward explanation than we are given to accept. I should put it this way —  that the straightforward explanation obscures rather more basic and simpler explanations of power, abuse, hegemony and failure to know one’s enemies or those people who don’t share our views. In that way, Du Bois’ wide-angle approach to things I took away, but I won’t blame him for what I have to say in this short book about issues of Islam and Christianity a long time ago.

BI:  How would you describe the influence of John Hope Franklin and his scholarship on you as a historian?

DLL: I have spoken at considerable length about the significance of John Hope Franklin’s career and its impact upon me and his contributions not only as a scholar but as an activist, a man whose scholarship has had real-world consequences in immediate ways. Franklin’s role was as one of the historians who consulted in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s preparation of its brief that led to the affirmative decision in the Brown v. Board of Education. It’s very seldom that a scholar, an historian, has the opportunity to take his research and hand it over to people who are on the front lines of social change.

It seems to me that I’ve always known John Hope Franklin. I went to Fisk and of the names that every Fisk alumnus carries with (her or him), John Hope Franklin is near the top of the list. Near because I say Du Bois is at the top.

I don’t know that I was born to be an historian. I think probably I didn’t know that in any case, because I went to law school after Fisk, but I decided that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. So here I am an historian. Well, while I was deciding to become an historian John Hope Franklin became the chairman of the department of history at Brooklyn College. Now that certainly is a distinction. It had never happened before that a person of color had chaired a major history department. That meant a lot to me. If I had doubt about (the) viability of a career in history, that example certainly help put to rest such concerns.

But more than that, I have relied upon his counsel year after year. There have been times in my career when I was uncertain of what decisions to make and I had the great assurance that I could always pester John Hope Franklin for his good counsel. And it was always uniformly excellent counsel.

Then, finally, in the Du Bois research I came to know John Hope Franklin, or an aspect of his career that I had not been aware of, and that was his courage during that period in the 1950s when Du Bois became an un-person, when many progressives were tarred and feathered with the brush of subversion. John Hope Franklin was a rock; he was loyal to his friends. In the case of W.E.B. Du Bois, Franklin spoke out in his defense, not (about) Du Bois’ Communism, but of the right of an intellectual to express ideas that were not popular. I find that admirable. It was a high risk to take and we may be heading again into a period when the free concourse of ideas in the academy will have a price put upon it. In the final years of an active teaching career, I will have John Hope Franklin’s example of high scholarship, great courage and civic activism.

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