"I think," David Levering Lewis has written, "that I came to an appreciation of the concept of social class in my earliest years." Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the age of Jim Crow, Lewis was the child of educators. His father, a high school principal, was, at one point, called to testify for the NAACP in a case against segregated education. He characteristically decided to stand on principle in a major civil rights case, Lewis recalled last year in the New York Times. He testified as an authority for the NAACP and against the discriminatory policies of the city public school system. The NAACP prevailed. In less than a year, as I remember it, our family went from the top of the social heap to pariah status in the dominant community and to an awkward presence as unemployables among its own racial group. From this profoundly instructive trauma, I learned to assume the permanent possibility that, however solid the middle-class reinforcements, race could trump class in my life experience.
For much of his life, David Levering Lewis expanded upon this insight into the dynamics of race and class in the United States. He began his academic career in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement as a young African American historian teaching at historically black colleges and universities and in Africa. Now, forty years later, Professor Lewis has the widest reach of any historian alive, and has spent many years chronicling African, American, and European history. His book King (1970) was the very first critical biography of Martin Luther King Jr., and was followed by books on the Dreyfus Affair in France, the scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century, the explosion of arts and culture we know as the Harlem Renaissance, and the pioneering activist and intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois.
In each of these works, Lewis brought together original, often stunning and iconoclastic interpretations and careful archival research. His 1979 classic, When Harlem Was in Vogue, revised decades of work on the New Negro Movement of the 1920s, and suggested a more subtle and nuanced understanding of that decade, wherein the original civil rights intent of the Harlem Renaissance degenerated into counterproductive and sensationalist excess and eroded the material chance for black uplift and middle-class growth. His two-volume biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1918 (1993); W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 191-1963 (2000)humanized an impossibly complex subject and, in the process, offered a sweeping reinterpretation of American history from Reconstruction through the March on Washington. For all of this work, David Levering Lewis has won considerable public praise: his two volumes on Du Bois each won the Pulitzer Prize and the Anisfield Wolf Book Award.
Lewis was president of the Society of American Historians in 2002, and is a board member of The Crisis magazine, published by the NAACP. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. David Levering Lewis will be Ellen Maria Gorrissen Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, Germany, for Spring 2008.
David Levering Lewis
Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History, New York University