Julius Lester, an intellectual explorer who in volume after noted volume chronicled African American life as well as his personal journey from the Black Power movement through a conversion to the Jewish faith, died Jan. 18 at a hospital in Palmer, Mass. He was 78.
The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to his family. Mr. Lester had taught for more than three decades at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst — first in the Afro-American studies department, then in the Judaic studies department — and resided in Belchertown, Mass.
Mr. Lester’s life took him on a winding path from his adolescence in segregated Nashville to a folk music and later scholarly career in the North, from the civil rights movement to emotional conflicts with other prominent black intellectuals, and from his upbringing as the son of a Methodist minister to a home in Conservative Judaism.
He wrote nearly 50 books, including works of nonfiction, fiction, memoir and folklore as well as literature for young readers. His output, wrote the late Roger W. Wilkins, one of the first black editorial board members of The Washington Post, “gives us a slice of America strained through a deeply sensitive and an enormously talented black spirit.”
Mr. Lester first established himself as a folk musician in New York, co-writing with Pete Seeger the book “The Folksinger’s Guide to the 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly” (1965). He ventured back to the South as a civil rights worker.
“Going to Mississippi in ’64, you knew you could be arrested, you knew you could be killed, you knew you could be injured,” he once told PBS. “But there was this feeling inside of me that it was just something I had to do.”
He worked as a photographer and spokesman for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was a speechwriter for Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael, and in 1968 published the book “Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!”
In the book, he argued that “the world of the black American is different from that of the white American” and that “the difference comes not only from the segregation imposed on the black man, but from the very nature of blackness and its evolution under segregation.”
He waded into high-profile controversy as the host of a New York radio program in 1968, when a largely Jewish teachers union went on strike during a racially charged dispute involving community control of local public schools. A guest on Mr. Lester’s show read aloud a poem by a black student that included the line, “Hey, Jewboy, with that yarmulke on your head/ You pale-faced Jew boy — I wish you were dead.”
Mr. Lester later wrote that “naively, I thought that airing the poem would facilitate contact between Jews and blacks.”
He faced angry charges of anti-Semitism — but some of his critics would later become his defenders as Mr. Lester increasingly denounced other black leaders for what he perceived as their anti-Jewish sentiment.
In the background was Mr. Lester’s conversion to Judaism, which he completed in 1982 and recounted in his 1988 memoir “Lovesong: Becoming a Jew.” One of his great-grandfathers, he had discovered, was Adolph Altschul, a German-born Jew who had married a former slave.
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Source: Washington Post