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Julius Lester, whose literature explored African American life, dies at 78


An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized the 1968 teachers strike in New York City. The strike, while racially charged, did not disproportionately affect African American students. It affected students across the city.

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."

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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.

Mr. Lester sided with detractors of Andrew Young when the civil rights leader was forced to resign as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1979 after he conducted an unauthorized meeting with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In "Lovesong," Mr. Lester criticized black novelist James Baldwin, who had spoken disapprovingly of media coverage of the Rev. Jesse Jackson when Jackson referred to Jews as "Hymies" and to New York City as "Hymietown" while running for president in 1984.

"I know he is not an anti-Semite," Mr. Lester wrote of Baldwin, "but his remarks in class were anti-Semitic, and he does not realize it."

For Mr. Lester's colleagues in the Afro-American studies department, that commentary was the final straw. "He's fundamentally a black critic," one colleague said during the contretemps, according to the Chicago Tribune. "It's like having Yasser Arafat teaching Jewish studies."

Amid feverish debate about academic liberties, Mr. Lester was reassigned to the Judaic studies department. He would later remark that being black had become a "form of social fascism."

"Is black identity so problematic that one is to be judged as 'anti-Negro Negro' for being critical of Baldwin or Jesse Jackson?" he told the New York Times in 1991. "Having been involved in the civil rights movement, I didn't fight against whites trying to limit and define me to turn around and have blacks try to limit and define me."

Defining himself was, by his admission, an exceedingly difficult task.

"There are not enough words to describe who am I, who any of us are, because we all carry within us traces of lives going back 10,000 years and more," Mr. Lester once wrote. "What a shame that there are those who would reduce the wonder of being human to such a narrow and restrictive a concept as race."

Julius Bernard Lester was born in St. Louis on Jan. 27, 1939. He grew up in Kansas City, Kan., before moving to Nashville, where he graduated from the historically black Fisk University with an English degree in 1960.

He once wrote that "the need to know more about my individual past led me to begin studying slavery." Among his numerous books for young readers was "To Be a Slave" (1968), a Newbery Honor book.

With the illustrator Jerry Pinkney, he produced "Sam and the Tigers" (1996), a modern reworking of "The Story of Little Black Sambo," the 1899 children's book that trafficked heavily in racial stereotypes. He also documented and retold African American folklore, including the stories of Uncle Remus.

Mr. Lester's marriages to Joan Steinau and Alida Carolyn Fechner ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 22 years, Milan Sabatini; two children from his first marriage, Malcolm Lester and Jody Lester; a son from his second marriage, David Lester; a stepdaughter from his second marriage, Elena Ritter; a daughter from his third marriage, Lian Amaris; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Lester retired as a university professor in 2003. In the controversies that marked his career, he once said, according to the Los Angeles Times, that "I stand where I think the truth is." He added, "That keeps me from feeling divided."

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