Lester, Julius

views updated

Lester, Julius

January 27, 1939

The son of a Methodist minister, Julius Lester, a writer and professor, was born in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1960 he received his bachelor's degree from Fisk University, and from 1966 to 1968 he was director of the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. For seven years, from 1968 to 1975, he was the host and producer of a live talk show on WBAI-FM in New York. From 1968 to 1970 Lester was a lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York City. From 1971 to 1973 he was also host of a live television show, Free Time, on WNET-TV in New York. Lester has been a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the department of Afro-American Studies (19711988) and then in the departments of Comparative Literature and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. From 1982 to 1984 Lester also served at the University of Massachusetts as the acting director and associate director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. In 1985 he was writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University.

Lester's serious scholarly side is well evidenced in the long introduction he wrote as editor of the two-volume anthology The Seventh Son: The Thoughts and Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois (1971). To Be a Slave (1969) was nominated for the Newbery Award, and The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History (1972) was a National Book Award finalist. Other works written and edited by Lester, which make clear the diversity of his interests, include (with Pete Seeger) The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly (1965), Look Out Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama! (1968), Black Folktales (1969), Search for the New Land: History as a Subjective Experience (1969), Revolutionary Notes (1969), The Knee-High Man and Other Tales (1972), Two Love Stories (1972), Who I Am (1974), All Is Well: An Autobiography (1976), This Strange New Feeling (1982), The Lord Remember Me (1984), and Uncle Remus: Tales from the Briar Patch, 4 vols. (1999).

Lester's early work basically falls into two categories, one encompassing African-American history and the other recreating tales and legends from African-American folklore. In both cases, Lester deals with white oppression and the historical basis for the relationship between the African-American community and the mainstream white community. While his earliest work was sometimes criticized as "antiwhite," Lester was later credited with stressing the broader implications of the civil rights era for all Americans.

Lester has had a long record of being embroiled in controversies and of dramatic turns in his search for moral verities. This is perhaps best exemplified by the events following the publication in 1988 of Lovesong: Becoming a Jew. Lovesong is, among other things, Lester's account of how a hesitant early fascination with Judaism in the late 1970s led finally to an official conversion in 1983. In Lovesong, however, Lester accuses the late James Baldwin of making anti-Semitic remarks in a 1984 University of Massachusetts class discussion. The accusation led to furious conflicts on the campus and eventually to his estrangement from the University of Massachusetts' department of Afro-American Studies.

Lester has continued to write prolifically, adding especially to his growing list of highly regarded books for children and young adults. Characters featured in these works typically fall into two categories: those drawn from Afro-American folklore and those drawn from black or Judaic history. Recent titles include John Henry (1994), The Man Who Knew Too Much: A Moral Tale from the Baila of Zambia (1994), Sam and the Tigers: A New Retelling of Little Black Sambo (1996), From Slave Ship to Freedom Road (1998), Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story (1998), The Blues Singers: Ten Who Rocked the World (2001), The Autobiography of God (2003), and Let's Talk about Race (2003).

See also Baldwin, James; Folk Heroes and Characters, U.S.; Judaism; Literature of the United States


"Julius Lester." Authors and Artists for Young Adults, vol. 51. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2003.

Lehman, David. "A Conversion." Partisan Review (spring 1990): 321325.

Lester, Julius. "Black and WhiteTogether." Salgamundi (winter 1989): 174181.

amritjit singh (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005