Obituaries

Julius Lester, 78, UMass professor emeritus, writer, and activist

Professor Lester (left) collaborated with African-American illustrator Jerry Pinkney (right) on children’s books.
Mark Cardwell for the Boston Globe/File 1996
Professor Lester (left) collaborated with African-American illustrator Jerry Pinkney (right) on children’s books.

In his memoir “Lovesong: Becoming a Jew,” Julius Lester wrote about working with his son on a jigsaw puzzle, and the lesson it offered.

“Only when I stand back do I see what I have been doing,” he said. “The whole is more evident when we stand at the edge of ourselves and see the picture that we are.”

In the 40 or so books he wrote, Professor Lester often stepped back to examine his life and the complicated politics of race and religion in the 20th century. At various points, he was known as a black militant and civil rights activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a musician and photographer, a writer and teacher. A son of a Methodist minister, he was a boy when he learned that one of his great-grandfathers was Jewish, which set him on the long path toward converting to Judaism in midlife.

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A professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he taught for more than 30 years, Professor Lester died Thursday, the university said. He was 78, had lived in Belchertown, and had posted on Facebook about his declining health. “Because I live with severe emphysema, much of my time and energy are devoted to breathing,” he wrote Jan. 3.

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“Last night I was going through one of my reading journals and came across something I’d underlined in one of May Sarton’s journals when her doctor called her and told her that she had done a lot in her life, and it was all right if she rested now,” he added. “And I thought that was true for me.”

During less restful parts of his life, controversies arose when he confronted conventions. In “Lovesong,” which was published in 1988, he took the writer James Baldwin to task for remarks he had made during a visit to UMass, when Baldwin had criticized media coverage of the Rev. Jesse Jackson calling New York City “Hymietown.” Professor Lester wrote that Baldwin was not anti-Semitic, “but his remarks in class were anti-Semitic, and he does not realize it.”

Many Jewish students shared his response, he said in a July 1988 Globe interview. “Anti-Semitism is not always in the words that are said. It’s in what’s not said,” he added. “And it’s what a Jew sitting there is feeling.”

Professor Lester’s colleagues in the UMass Afro-American Studies department responded by publishing a pamphlet that denounced him as an “anti-Negro Negro.” Amid open hostility, he transferred to the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies department, from which he retired in 2003. “You say things that are at variance with the dominant black ideology, and the verdict is, ‘You’re not black,’ ” he told the Globe.

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In a sense, that episode was a reversal of criticism he drew in 1968 while hosting a show on WBAI-FM in New York City. At the time, a strike by the United Federation of Teachers, many of whose members were Jewish, was roiling tensions between schools in black neighborhoods and white teachers. The union’s president was Albert Shanker. On his show, Professor Lester asked an African-American schoolteacher to read a poem written by a black student. The poem began:

Hey, Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head

You pale-faced Jew boy — I wish you were dead.

WBAI rejected calls by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith to fire Professor Lester, who in “Lovesong” recalled the crowds of vocal protesters who were outside the station for his next show the following week. Two decades later, he told the Globe that he broadcast the poem to illuminate the divisions the strike had created.

In 1968, the year of the radio controversy, he also published his first book: “Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!” It was both a serious and “a very funny book, beginning with the title,” he wrote in “Lovesong,” but he added that “it doesn’t seem that white people can laugh at themselves.” An Indiana newspaper headline read: “White Mamas in Danger, says black militant, SNCC leader Lester.”

Julius Bernard Lester was born in St. Louis, a son of the Rev. Woodie Lester and the former Julia Smith. His family moved to Kansas City, Kan., when he was young, and to Nashville when he was an adolescent. He graduated from Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, with a bachelor’s degree in English.

After initially publishing the instruction book “The Folksinger’s Guide to the 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly” with musician Pete Seeger in 1965, Professor Lester went on to write essays, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books. Among the latter was 1968’s “To Be a Slave,” which was named a Newbery Honor Book – a finalist for the prestigious Newbery Medal. He also collaborated with African-American illustrator Jerry Pinkney on children’s books, including a reworking of the Uncle Remus tales and 1996’s “Sam and the Tigers: A Retelling of Little Black Sambo.”

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In the 1960s, Professor Lester was head of the photography department for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. More recently, he used his Facebook page to display his photos.

Research had led Professor Lester to learn that his great-grandfather Adolph Atschul was a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria, though the faith he converted to as an adult had been present in various forms all his life. A musician since childhood, he wrote in his memoir about a song he recalled playing on the piano as a boy that was “happy and sad at the same time.” The Hebrew melody was “Kol Nidre,” and his description of the composition he loved foreshadowed the personal struggles that lay ahead on the road to his conversion to Judaism and beyond.

“At last I know what my voice was meant to sing,” he wrote in the book. “All those years I sang folksongs, spirituals, blues, work songs, and always knew that something was absent, that as much as I loved spirituals, I was not wholly present when I sang them.”

He added: “I know now who I am. I am a Jew.”

UMass said funeral arrangements are pending for Professor Lester, whose first two marriages ended in divorce. His daughter Lian Amaris used his Facebook page to announce his death, and said the family asked for privacy. The New York Times reported that along with his daughter, Professor Lester’s survivors include his wife, Milan Sabatini; two sons, Malcolm and David; two other daughters, Jodie Lester and Elena Ritter; and eight grandchildren.

Although he began his political activism in the civil rights movement, Professor Lester grew wary of “collectives of any kind.” In a 1990 speech and subsequent Globe interview, he criticized “the hit parade of oppression,” and said people of color, women, and Native Americans were “competing to see who’s been the most victimized.” Doing so leads to a “perpetual state of anger, which they think is justified. It gives people an easy, cheap road to identity,” he said.

“Why would I want to identify myself as a victim? That’s to define myself in terms of a relationship to oppression,” he added.

“I identify myself as free. There are people out there who would like to victimize me. But from my position of freedom, I resist their attempts.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.