PERSONAL: Born in Chicago, IL.
ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY.
CAREER: Writer, educator, and historian. New School University, New York, NY, professor of African-American history.
AWARDS, HONORS: Notable Book Award, New York Times, 1988, for We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi; Pulitzer Prize finalist in history, 2003, for At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America.
(With Seth Cagin) Hollywood Films of the Seventies: Sex, Drugs, Violence, Rock 'n' Roll, and Politics, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1984, published as Born to Be Wild: Hollywood and the Sixties Generation, Coyote Books (Boca Raton, FL), 1994.
(With Seth Cagin) We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1988, reprinted, Nation Books (New York, NY), 2006.
(With Seth Cagin) Between Earth and Sky: How CFCs Changed Our World and Endangered the Ozone Layer, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1993.
At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including Mother Jones, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times.
SIDELIGHTS: Historian and educator Philip Dray keeps a low personal profile, but his books are highly visible. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America was Dray's ground-breaking contribution to a long-ignored and misunderstood aspect of American history. "You don't really know what lynching was until you read Dray's ghastly accounts of public butchery and official complicity," Time reviewer Richard Lacayo wrote of Dray's first solo effort.
Dray has written three books with Seth Cagin, beginning with Hollywood Films of the Seventies: Sex, Drugs, Violence, Rock 'n' Roll, and Politics in 1984. The book analyzes films from this decade from such filmmakers as Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Francis Ford Coppola responded to defining events, including the rise of the counterculture, the Vietnam war, Watergate, and nuclear proliferation. The authors propose that films of this period, such as Easy Rider, Bonnie & Clyde, and Five Easy Pieces, reflect changing attitudes about sex, drugs, violence, music, and politics, paving the way for escapist films, notably those of directors George Lucas (Star Wars) and Stephen Spielberg (Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Neal Rentz wrote in the Film Quarterly that Hollywood Films of the Seventies "succeeds at displaying how the counterculture became a dominant force in Hollywood … the best study of the period." A Publishers Weekly reviewer added that Cagin and Dray "deliver solid … analyses of dozens of films, showing how they met or diverged from the central concerns of Americans seeing social structures change around them." Ten years after its original publication, the book, popular with film-studies courses at the university level, was reprinted under the title Born to Be Wild: Hollywood and the Sixties Generation.
We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi—the title is taken from a verse in the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome"—recounts the killing of three young civil rights workers who disappeared in 1964 while helping to register black voters. When the local police refused to investigate, the Federal Bureau of Investigation got involved. In 1967, the Justice Department succeeded in proving that seven of eighteen defendants, including some Ku Klux Klan members, were guilty of murdering the three victims, and the men were convicted of violating the victims' civil rights. Among the guilty were the Neshoba County sheriff and his deputy. As the authors point out, this was the first time in Mississippi that a white man was found guilty of a crime against a black person or anti-segregationist.
We Are Not Afraid, Anthony O. Edmunds wrote in the Library Journal, is "the most exhaustively researched, eloquently written, and accessible account of this crucial episode." The authors portray the three young men and the Mississippi they were trying to change. They "capture brilliantly the terror shaping this world," Nicolaus Mills wrote in the Nation. Naomi Bliven, in the New Yorker, found that Cagin and Dray's "meticulousness re-creates a time that in retrospect appears a turning point in American history, and their love of detail imparts complexity—a kind of richness—to a story whose outlines are melodramatic. Their most memorable figures are the least well known: poor black Mississippians of both sexes and several generations who risked—and, in many instances, lost—their lives for the vote. The siege of Mississippi, as much as the siege of Yorktown, was an American victory; Cagin and Dray show its cost." We Are Not Afraid won a New York Times Notable Book of the Year award.
Dray and Cagin also coauthored Between Earth and Sky: How CFCs Changed Our World and Endangered the Ozone Layer. Although it involves complex science, Mary Carroll, in Booklist, was impressed with the book as "social history." She added: "The authors handle their study's scientific content effectively, but clearly what fascinates them most is the seismic shift in U.S. science from the unflagging technical optimism of James Midgley, inventor of both leaded 'ethyl' gasoline (1921) and chlorinated fluorocarbons (1928), to the 'dark pessimism' of many contemporary atmospheric scientists."
Chlorinated fluorocarbons, or CFCs, were among the first synthetic chemicals created for industrial use. Initially used as a refrigerant for food storage and air conditioning and later as an aerosol-can propellant, in manufacturing Styrofoam, and as a solvent, CFCs were hailed as breakthrough technology. But in 1974, after millions of tons of CFCs had penetrated the atmosphere, it was discovered that they were destroying the Earth's protective ozone layer. In Between Earth and Sky, Dray and Cragin demonstrate how the rise and fall of a scientific innovation mirrors American attitudes toward science. The authors present a "level-headed record of the arguments in the CFC investigations," one Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote.
While researching We Are Not Afraid, Dray gained access to the archives of the Tuskegee Institute, which has kept statistics on the lynching of blacks since 1882. Dray found the historical significance of lynching was more profound than anticipated and, in At the Hands of Persons Unknown, he presented his findings in a volume that also investigates group violence, mass hysteria, and American reform movements.
The chief justification for a lynching, Dray wrote, was usually revenge for the rape of a white woman by a black man, regardless of any factual basis for such claims of rape. What, then, was the motivation for such inhuman behavior, Dray asked. Lynchings escalated, Dray found, once blacks were emancipated during the Civil War period. This, combined with many white women entering the work force, put pressure on white men, especially in the impoverished South, to try to maintain the status quo through racial intimidation. Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times, called Dray's work "a landmark work of unflinching scholarship."
Dray delves into what he calls the quasi-religious and ritualistic aspects of lynchings, which often involved mutilation in order to prevent the victim's soul from entering heaven—and leaving little evidence in the unlikely event of a murder trial. In fact, Dray said, lynchings were often announced in advance in the local newspapers, picnic baskets prepared, and victims' body parts handed out as souvenirs. "If you now find yourself obsessed, in the wake of September eleventh, with the possibilities of other heinous acts, if you feel like a target for zealotry and extremism, if you are now doubting your government's ability to protect you, then you are getting an idea of what it has felt like to be African-American for a good part of this country's history," Washington Monthly reviewer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote.
In an interview for National Public Radio's Fresh Air program, host Terry Gross asked Dray why there are no author photographs in We Are Not Afraid and At the Hands of Persons Unknown. Was it to keep his race anonymous? Dray, who is white, said he wanted readers not to presuppose the author's viewpoint. But more importantly, Dray added: "You can't help but have the sense you're more the messenger than the author because the subject itself is so overwhelming, so painful, that you want to get out of the way a little bit and let the story come through."
Dray returned to the subject of scientific innovation in Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America. Dray concentrates on the story of Franklin's scientific experiments that helped define a number of fundamental concepts. In particular, Dray describes his experiments with electricity and the lightning rod, and how they directly affected the residents of eighteenth-century America. Prior to Franklin's discoveries about the lightning rod, people were at the mercy of this elemental force of nature. Lightning regularly started fires that burned down homes and barns, struck bell-ringers in towers, and even touched off explosions in ammunition stores. When Franklin discovered that metal rods could divert the destructive power of lightning harmlessly into the ground, citizens in both the U.S. and Europe were eager to install them, and countless lives and much property were saved. Though the clergy accused Franklin of meddling in God's domain by thwarting divine wrath, the inventor was not persuaded to acquiesce. Dray, "in the book's most absorbing pages, details not only Franklin's experiments but the intellectual and religious setting in which he worked," commented William Grimes in the New York Times. Dray explores a number of Franklin's pioneering scientific beliefs, including his notion of an atomic basis for electricity, and also describes many of his other inventions, including the armonica, a musical instrument that produced notes by means of friction on rotating glass bowls. By chronicling Franklin's scientific career, Dray offers a "masterful glimpse of this aspect of Franklin's work but also a captivating cultural history of Franklin's America." Dray's "congenial history has information that will surprise even veteran Franklin fans," observed Gilbert Taylor in Booklist. Grimes concluded: "There are other Franklins—the entrepreneur, the diplomat, the statesman, the architect of independence—but in Franklin the scientist, Mr. Dray may have found the happiest one of all."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 15, 1993, Mary Carroll, review of Between Earth and Sky: How CFCs Changed Our World and Endangered the Ozone Layer, p. 1476; January 1, 2002, Vernon Ford, review of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, p. 781; August, 2005, Gilbert Taylor, review of Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, p. 1986.
Early American Literature, summer, 2006, Douglas Anderson, "Benjamin Franklin and His Readers," review of Stealing God's Thunder, p. 535.
Film Quarterly, summer, 1985, Neal Rentz, review of Hollywood Films of the Seventies: Sex, Drugs, Violence, Rock 'n' Roll, and Politics, p. 37.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2005, review of Stealing God's Thunder, p. 670.
Kliatt, September, 2006, Susan Offner, review of Stealing God's Thunder, p. 61.
Library Journal, May 1, 1988, Anthony O. Edmunds, review of We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi, p. 78; January, 2002, Charles L. Lumpkins, review of At the Hands of Persons Unknown, p. 122.
Nation, February 13, 1989, Nicolaus Mills, review of We Are Not Afraid, p. 202.
New York Times, January 21, 2002, Janet Maslin, review of At the Hands of Persons Unknown, p. E11; August 16, 2005, William Grimes, "Franklin, the Lightning Rod Known Round the World," review of Stealing God's Thunder, p. E6.
New Yorker, July 11, 1988, Naomi Bliven, review of We Are Not Afraid, p. 81.
Publishers Weekly, February, 1984, review of Hollywood Films of the Seventies, p. 136; March 29, 1993, review of Between Earth and Sky, p. 42; November 26, 2001, review of At the Hands of Persons Unknown, p. 51; May 23, 2005, review of Stealing God's Thunder, p. 69.
Time, January 28, 2002, Richard Lacayo, review of At the Hands of Persons Unknown, p. 57.
Washington Monthly, January-February, 2002, Ta-Nehisi Coates, review of At the Hands of Persons Unknown, p. 52.
Emory University Web site, http://www.emory.edu/ (December 5, 2006).
Georgetown University Web site, http://www.georgetown.edu (December 5, 2006).
Middle Tennessee State University Web site, http://www.mtsu.edu (December 5, 2006).
Random House Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (December 5, 2006), "A Conversation with Philip Dray."