The Soul of David Levering Lewis

By Roach, Ronald | Black Issues in Higher Education, December 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Soul of David Levering Lewis

Roach, Ronald, Black Issues in Higher Education


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 worldclass 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. …

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