Controversy is not new to Julius Lester.
In the late ‘60s, the former Black Power spokesman once aired an anti-Semitic poem on a New York radio program. In the late ‘70s, he raised eyebrows when he called for the resignation of U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young from the United Nations. In the ‘80s, he publicly criticized the Rev. Jesse Jackson and equally publicly converted to Judaism.
Yet, the prominent black professor was not fully prepared for the uproar resulting from his charges that the late black novelist James Baldwin had made anti-Semitic remarks in a lecture four years ago at the University of Massachusetts here.
The dispute has raised accusations of racism, ideological manipulation, political intolerance and personal harassment and has spiraled into a fierce test of that most sacred of university concerns, academic freedom. It has also attracted widespread attention nationally and led New Republic magazine to worry that the case presents “a terrible lesson about the cost of true freedom of thought for black students and black intellectuals.”
One colleague of Lester’s at this campus in western Massachusetts has described his behavior as “adolescent exhibitionism.” Another rushed to defend his spirit of constant and “fearless” inquiry.
For writing those two pages on Baldwin--who died last November--in his latest book, “Lovesong,” Lester has been removed from the university’s W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies, where he has taught since 1971. When classes resume in September, he will be a member of the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies.
Colleagues in his former department say the transfer is acknowledgment of Lester’s “complete and long-standing estrangement” from the black studies faculty. Lester, however, contends he was “herded out,” and that his associates in the black studies department have made him the object of persecution. All 15 of them signed the letter urging his transfer.
“And that hurt,” the 49-year-old slender professor said, chain-smoking through an interview. “Not one person dissented. If there were four or five people who said this is wrong, I would have stayed and fought.
“No question about it,” he added, “They are saying, ‘You did something we do not approve of, therefore, you are not part of the community.’ ”
The communities Lester has lived in have been many, varied and never free of dispute.
A spokesman for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early days of the civil rights movement, Lester also served as a speechwriter for the Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael, today known as Kwame Toure. Lester’s 20 books include children’s stories, erotic poetry and a volume from the 1960s titled “Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Moma.”
In 1968, as host of a radio talk show in New York, Lester aired a “Jew Boy” poem by a 15-year-old girl that exploded into a major New York political event and caused many to call him an anti-Semite as a result.
Surprised at Poem’s Reaction
In “Lovesong,” he expresses surprise at that reaction. “Naively, I thought that airing the poem would facilitate contact between Jews and blacks,” he writes.
At the time, Lester was not yet Jewish. The son of a Methodist minister and the great-grandson of a Jewish immigrant, Lester converted to Judaism in 1982. “Lovesong” (Henry Holt & Co.), the story of his spiritual and philosophical odyssey through Maoism, mysticism, a sojourn at a Roman Catholic retreat and studies of the teachings of Nietzsche, is subtitled “Becoming a Jew.”
His problems with the Afro-American studies department began, he said, when he wrote an article for the Village Voice in 1979 urging that Young resign as head of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and denouncing certain black leaders as “being anti-Semitic.” So angry were his colleagues then, Lester said, that “they stopped talking to me for about a year.”
Five years later, Lester wrote a piece in Dissent magazine criticizing Jackson’s presidential campaign. Again, said Lester of his departmental colleagues, “they stopped speaking to me for about a year.” At the time, he recalls and one department professor confirmed, one fellow faculty member went so far as to brand him “an anti-Negro Negro.”
Meanwhile, he said, he steadily withdrew from departmental concerns. The winner of the university’s three most prestigious teaching awards, he continued to be ranked by students as one of the school’s most popular professors.
Arguing that departmental meetings “interfered” with teaching, his primary mission, Lester stopped attending them and chose to have almost nothing to do with the administrative end of academic life. “For me, the university is my students,” Lester said. “The other stuff you put up with.”
One university official who asked not to be identified said it was clear that Lester had always “been a thorn in the department’s side.” Lester prefers to say of what seems to be his congenital streak of outspokenness, “It seems that I challenge people.”
And he insists that the lack of affection has been mutual. His conversion to Judaism was the coup de grace, Lester said. After that, he claims that along with anti-Lesterism, the antagonism from his colleagues took on the strains of anti-Semitism.
He said that articles critical of Israel began appearing anonymously in his campus mailbox, and that some colleagues in the black studies department started injecting their conversations with him with Yiddish phrases. One member of the temple where Lester worships called it overreaction, saying Lester displayed the hypersensitivity of the convert. But Lester said he found the practice condescending and offensive.
The publication of “Lovesong” in February, with its passages about Baldwin and the members of the Afro-American studies department, removed any chance of rapprochement.
In the section dealing with Baldwin’s lecture at the university, given in the charged atmosphere following Jackson’s “Hymietown” remarks during his unsuccessful 1984 presidential bid, Lester writes, “I was shocked when Jimmy referred to Jews as being nothing more than white Christians who to go something called a synagogue on Saturday rather than a church on Sunday.”
Lester also wrote, however, that Baldwin was not an anti-Semite, but that his remarks were anti-Semitic. He added that he did confront the novelist later and that Baldwin was shocked by the accusations but never offered an apology.
Chester Davis, the department’s chairman, refused to entertain questions about Lester’s transfer.
“I am tired of the foolishness generated by this episode,” Davis said in a brief, angry telephone conversation. “There is no basis for any of it.”
But in their letter to the dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, the 15 department professors said, “While Prof. Lester certainly has the right to publicly characterize James Baldwin in any way that he might desire, the actual results can only be depicted as capricious, irresponsible and damaging in a most pernicious way.” They also wrote a detailed defense of Baldwin.
One of the 15, Michael Thelwell, followed with another letter to university Chancellor Joseph Duffey that called Lester’s manner of handling the Baldwin matter “self-serving and devious.” Apparently responding to Duffey’s own description of the department’s actions as “an inquisition,” Thelwell captured the contentious mood on campus when he began his letter, “Et tu Duffe?”
Passionate About Ideas
Duffey, who has asked the school’s faculty senate to investigate the dispute, acknowledged in an interview that “personal animosity, quarrels, disagreement, social incompatibility and intellectual discord are no strangers to the academy.
“Academics are human beings, and they care passionately about ideas,” Duffey said, but added that he worried, “there is something rather ominous in the effort in the university to create an atmosphere of intimidation.”
Disagreement is fine, “probably useful behavior,” he noted, but “what is off limits is to even suggest that in official ways, individuals are being examined for the correctness of their writings or their views.”
Because the black studies department based its actions on what Lester wrote in his book, he said, “the department’s views in this case are not simply inappropriate, but ominous.”
“Julius Lester went after a god,” said David Bradley, a black writer and historian based in San Diego. “It’s like saying something unpleasant about John F. Kennedy on Nov. 23. “It has become very fashionable to jump up and down and turn Jimmy Baldwin into a martyr,” Bradley said.
Many of the same people who are defending Baldwin so vehemently in death, Bradley added, “were not very pleased that he was gay” in life.
“Since Jimmy died, there has been a whole attitude of hagiography around Jimmy,” Lester noted, “which I think Jimmy would find ludicrous.”
Bradley said Lester got in trouble by violating another element of cultural etiquette.
“There is an impulse in the black community, which is of long standing, to keep disagreements within the black community and not let the white folk know,” Bradley said.
Thelwell, Lester’s estranged colleague, took a similar position. Spiritual confession, he said, is “best left to St. Augustine,” and Lester’s disclosures in “Lovesong” represent “unprofessional, extremely inappropriate” journalism.
“There is a very subtle, but very clear question of responsibility and professional principle as far as black people are concerned,” Thelwell added. “When I have to be critical of the black community, I find a black journal in which to do it.”
Further, Thelwell branded Lester’s suggestion that the black studies department would not support criticism of James Baldwin “a lie.” He called Lester’s assertions “a real professional besmirchment of the area that we are supposed to be doing, teaching.”
In Thelwell’s view, the reason that the controversy has attracted national attention is because of the prevailing belief that “black studies is some kind of sectarian brain-washing and not academically legitimate.”
There is a “deep-seated feeling,” he said, “that if you have five or six Negroes sitting up in a department, that somehow is inappropriate and we have to check them.”
No Place in Academia
Stressing that “criticism” (in this case, of Baldwin) “is not condemnation,” Lester argues that such a mixture of politics and ideology has no place in an academic environment.
“My own view is that it is my responsibility as an intellectual to be independent of political ideology,” Lester said. He worries, moreover, that “there really has grown up in black America, an attitude that you are either for us or against us.”
As someone who is both black and Jewish, Lester said he is also dismayed by what he sees as “growing anti-Semitism among blacks.” Thelwell dismissed questions of anti-Semitism in this matter, and Bradley contended “there is no such thing as black anti-Semitism; there is only anti-Semitism.”
But at his office in New York, Ira Silverman, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, said that organization’s survey data showed “higher degrees of antipathy to Jews among blacks than among whites.” He also said that among blacks, “anti-Jewish attitudes” seemed to increase with youth and with higher education--the inverse of what the committee has found among whites.
The findings are not new, Silverman emphasized. “But we are anxious about that kind of trend.”
Chancellor Duffey tactfully sidestepped the question of blacks and anti-Semitism.
“The tensions between blacks and Jews are well-known, documented and there are a number of people working to ease them,” he said. “I don’t believe this is an anti-Semitic department.”
First Sought Transfer
“Exhausted” with “what can only be called harassment,” Lester first sought the transfer to the Judaic studies department, with which he had held a joint appointment for some years, Duffey said. He said it remains to be seen if Lester will continue teaching black history classes.
Though some in the black studies department still call the Lester affair “a tempest in a teapot,” Duffey said the matter has forced a re-examination of some of the most basic of university concerns.
“There are issues that have to do with political, intellectual and ideological styles,” Duffey said. There is the “tension between the rights of teachers to think and teach, and the right of departments to define boundaries.” Duffey called it “the right to provoke harassment.”
In the end, however, he added, all these questions merely rub at the central nerve of academic freedom. “Academic freedom is a question beyond the First Amendment,” he said. “A campus must be freer even than that.”
Still, he noted, as the Lester case has clearly demonstrated, “Academic freedom is also socially inconvenient.”