Tufts University Professor and author Kerri Greenidge holds the microphone for two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian David Levering Lewis at The Du Bois Forum panel discussion on Friday, July 7. Lewis was honored at this year’s event, which was held at Jacob’s Pillow. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Du Bois Forum celebrates teachings and legacy of author David Levering Lewis

This year's Du Bois Forum, at Jacob's Pillow on Friday, July 7, honored two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian David Levering Lewis.

Becket — Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian David Levering Lewis was honored at this year’s Du Bois Forum panel discussion, held at Jacob’s Pillow on Friday, July 7.

The Du Bois Forum is an annual multi-day retreat for writers, scholars, and artists of color, and also comprises several public events, including this year’s panel discussion. The events were organized by the Du Bois Forum, Du Bois Center for Freedom and Democracy, Jacob’s Pillow, and the African American Trail Project, with support from the Mellon Foundation.

Lewis is the author of two biographies on W. E. B. Du Bois: “W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race,” which was published in 1994, and “W. E. B. Du Bois, 1919-1963: The Fight for Equality and the American Century,” which was published in 2001. Lewis won Pulitzer Prizes for both books, which were subsequently published in one volume in 2009 as “W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography 1868-1963.” He has authored a total of eight books, including “When Harlem Was in Vogue” in 1997, and “King: A Biography,” which was originally published in 1970, with a third edition published in 2012. In the course of his academic career, Lewis served as a professor at Harvard, New York University, Rutgers University, University of California at San Diego, Howard University, and other universities across the country.

Jacob’s Pillow Executive and Artistic Director Pamela Tatge introducing the Du Bois Forum on July 7. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

“[Jacob’s Pillow] has a deep commitment to justice, liberation, and all of the values that you hold dear at the Du Bois Forum and the Center for Freedom and Democracy,” Jacob’s Pillow Executive and Artistic Director Pamela Tatge said at the beginning of the event. “To name some of the connections that we have to Du Bois: In 1902, Black businessman Warren Davis moved to Great Barrington. He is the one who hewn the timbers in the Ted Shawn Theater, and we named our welcome center for Warren Davis two years ago. Another connection is through the amazing artist Joanna Haigood, a choreographer based in San Francisco. She came here to research art history at the site of the Underground Railroad. She created this amazing work entitled ‘Invisible Wings.’ While she was here, she discovered the Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and she became engaged in his writings and work. We have a history and commitment to continue this partnership that we have.”

From left: Acting Director of the Du Bois Freedom Center Frances Jones-Sneed, event moderator and Tufts University Professor Kendra Field, Boston College Associate Professor Martin Summers, and Brown University Professor Matthew Guterl. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

At the panel discussion, former students of Lewis, along with admirers of his work, discussed his influence on their work and their careers. “David has been the most important guiding light of my own academic career,” event moderator and Tufts University Professor Kendra Field said. “I am grateful every day for his mentorship, scholarship, and example. David’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Du Bois was the last book my father gave me before he died. The significance of this fact has only grown in my mind and heart over the years. About 16 years ago, I was given the incredible opportunity to edit the two volume Du Bois biography [Lewis wrote] down into one volume, and I had a chance to work with David. I met Du Bois first driving down these Berkshire roads with my father, which connected us. But to meet him again and see him through David’s eyes has been such a gift, and is one that does not stop giving.”

Martin Summers, an associate professor of history and African and African diaspora studies at Boston College, was one of Lewis’ former students who spoke at the event. “David was invested in cultivating historians of color because he saw a need for diversity by diverse historians,” Summers said. “He continued to do that throughout his life as a teacher. I know there is going to be a lot of talk about his Du Bois biographies today, but ‘When Harlem Was in Vogue’ is a classic. The book pays close attention to historical detail, but the writing not only reflects the urgency and complexity of the movement, but also the glamor and the whimsy. It’s one of those books that reminds you that, as historians, we are supposed to marshall evidence and make these incredibly strong analytical arguments. But at the end of the day, historical scholarship is also about storytelling. That is something that has always stuck with me and why it takes me so long to write a book because I’m just so invested in writing as much detail as I can, and that is something that David taught which stuck with me.”

Another of Lewis’ former students, Brown University Professor of American Studies Matthew Guterl, spoke about memories of having Lewis as a professor. “My memories are as precious as jewels,” Guterl said. “These are deeply personal memories, including the purr of the fax machine late at night, with [Lewis] returning chapters of my dissertation replete with comments in French and Latin. One day he read a passage from ‘The Lorax’ to my daughter that said, ‘It’s not what it is, it’s what it can become.’ David had described libraries as a sacred space owned by everyone. It’s a propulsive space as well, generating new ideas.”

Back in 2013, Lewis, along with a group of other scholars and preservationists, filed a lawsuit against the New York Public Library for a renovation plan that would have removed an estimated 3 million non-circulating research books. “One of his greatest and most lasting contributions to scholarship is preservation of the material conditions of public knowledge” Guterl said. “His insistence that our efforts to shore up institutions against the rising tide of first neoliberalism, and now fascism, should be focused not on elite universities, not on social clubs or private networks, but also on venerable libraries. We could take a long time to list out all of the books and celebrate the personal and scholarly impact of David Lewis, and we should. But we might also lose sight of his extraordinary commitment to the very idea of an educated public.”

From left: Harvard University Professor Khalil Muhammad, Columbia Journalism School Dean Jelani Cobb, Brandeis University Professor Chad Williams, and Tufts University professor Kerri Greenidge. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Khalil Muhammad, Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy at Harvard University, recounted his time as Lewis’ student. “For an entire year, we were expected to read more than five books a week, on top of multiple articles, and write a five page essay each week,” Muhammad said. “David always had high expectations for us, and high expectations for himself. I personally always felt that I had to live up to his expectations to make him proud, like a son. These experiences made us all the historians that we all are today. Each one of us became scholars of Du Bois in our own way from David’s schoolwork. We made new melodies and new music to celebrate Du Bois’s life. We saw into Du Bois’s head to voice insights and to make sense of the past. Economists would say that the multiplier effect of [Lewis’s] commitment of the craft of being a historian, and making sure that every student that you took the time to nurture and develop could carry forward not only your own commitment, but the legacy of Du Bois himself, we are all infinitely grateful.”

Columbia Journalism School Dean Jelani Cobb spoke highly of his time as a student of Lewis’, and also of “When Harlem Was in Vogue.” “What that book showed me was that a history of ideas did not have to be arid and remote, it could be vibrant and dynamic and could have narrative propulsion,” Cobb said. “At the end of it, you could have a completely transformed sense not only of the subject matter, but of the possibilities of history itself. Over the course of his graduate seminar on African American History … by the end of it, we had a clear grasp of how historians think and approach the world. We were all kind of apostles trying to decode the enigma of how David was able to do work on the level that he is able to do it. And at one point he said, ‘You know, Jelani, I’m going to tell you something.’ My ears perked up like he’s going to give me the secret [to his work]. He said ‘I want you to go to the library as soon as it opens. Read until it closes. Then do it again, and again.’”

While not a student of Lewis, Chad Williams, the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Brandeis University, is the author of “The Wounded World: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War” and consulted with Lewis in writing the book. “[Lewis] was incredibly supportive, and encouraged me to solve the mystery of why W.E.B. Du Bois didn’t finish his epic book on the Black experience in World War I,” Williams said. “As I was working on my book, I wanted to make sure that it met the high expectations that David would have of me. It was a struggle to write about Du Bois, but it was a journey that was so fulfilling and worthwhile. I truly would not be the historian that I am today without his brilliance and his guidance.”

Tufts University associate professor in Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora Kerri Greenidge spoke about Lewis’s influence in the authorship of her books. “‘When Harlem Was in Vogue’ changed the way I conceptualized what a historian could be,” Greenidge said. “It also changed my approach to how I listened when I went to graduate school to people who told me that I could not do a biography. Me being determined that I could bring the craft of being a historian using historical rigor, going into archives and questioning the archives, then using secondary sources, it brought me into realizing that I could do all of that. I believe that the forum that we just conducted has the power to create a new day in academia in which it’s not about sort of dealing with a surface of success, but the actual success of knowledge, learning, reading, and writing, and looking at Blackness in a completely different way.”

At the end of the forum, Lewis briefly thanked members of the panel and his former students. “I just want to say, I was a great success with these chaps,” Lewis said.