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An African American writer best known for his children’s stories focusing on positive presentations of African American folklore and heritage, Lester has published numerous stories, novels, and nonfiction books. His works have received both the Caldecott Honor and the Newbery Honor, among many other awards for children’s literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Racism Clouds Childhood
Lester’s early years were spent in the segregated South of the 1940s and 1950s. He was born in 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of a Methodist minister. At the age of two he moved with his family to Kansas City, Kansas, and as a teenager lived in Nashville, Tennessee, spending summers at his grandmother’s farm in rural Arkansas. While Lester’s memories of the South were not entirely bad, he was profoundly influenced by the segregated South.
The South, prior to the 1960s, was a segregated and harsh culture for African Americans. Thanks to policies known as Jim Crow laws, the structure of the South during the first half of the twentieth century separated most aspects of society by race, from restaurants and stores to schools and hotels. Black Americans were prohibited from entering any establishment dubbed ”Whites Only,” and the culture was generally aggressive towards them, with groups such as the Ku Klux Klan responsible for many hate crimes or acts of violence against blacks. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s finally initiated federal government intervention to eliminate institutional segregation.
Lester’s early artistic interests were with music, yet he also had aspirations to become a writer. In books he found an escape from the daily realities of racism, and at a young age became an avid reader. Lester became especially fond of Westerns and mysteries, which he would read into the early hours of the morning.
Political Involvement Inspires Writing
Lester graduated in 1960 from Nashville’s Fisk University with a degree in English and became politically active in the struggle to desegregate the South and bring about social change. He became part of political movements in the 1960s in which young people protested traditional cultural attitudes about issues ranging from racial and gender politics to the U.S. involvement, and mandatory drafting of soldiers, for the Vietnam War. In the mid-1960s Lester joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), at a time when the group advocated that blacks assume a more militant stance to fight racism. He became head of the SNCC’s photo department and traveled to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War to document the effects of U.S. bombing missions. During the same period, he pursued his music interests and played the guitar and banjo at civil rights rallies. Lester went on to record two albums and performed with folksingers Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Judy Collins. His interests in black folk music led to the writing of his first book, The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly: An Instructional Manual, which he coauthored with Seeger in 1965. He then wrote a number of adult books on political themes, including The Angry Children of Malcolm X (1966), Look Out Whitey, Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! (1968), and a book of photographs and poems entitled The Mud of Vietnam (1967).
In the late 1960s Lester moved to New York City, where he was the only African American announcer at WBAI-Radio, a noncommercial station featuring alternative programming. He hosted an evening show that featured diverse music styles, including jazz, rock, classical, and experimental, and a morning show entitled ”Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (a reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 bestseller popularizing anti-slavery sentiment prior to the Civil War).
Continuing his varied involvement in black politics, Lester followed the advice of an editor at Dial Press who suggested he branch out into writing children’s books. In 1969, he published two books that came to mark his future success as a writer for young people, To Be a Slave and Black Folktales.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Lester followed with a number of similarly acclaimed books that showed his overlapping interests in African American history, folklore, and political themes, including The Knee-High Man and Other Tales (1972) and The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History (1972).
Reclaiming and Retelling African American Stories
A number of Lester’s retellings of traditional tales have been collaborations with the illustrator Jerry Pinckney. Both Lester and Pinckney have sought out projects that allow them to reclaim traditional stories, redrawing rich, memorable characters while eliminating taints of racism that may have been part of the original tellings. In 1987, the two produced the first of four volumes of retellings of the ”Uncle Remus” tales of nineteenth-century humor writer Joel Chandler Harris. Critics praised the way that Lester reinvented the narrative voice of Uncle Remus to make the storyteller a stronger, livelier presence. Pinckney was the impetus behind the 1994 book John Henry, based on a folk legend of an ex-slave whose strength was so great that he beat a steam drill in a contest to dig through a mountain, only to collapse and die afterward.
In 1996, the author-illustrator team also published Sam and the Tigers, a new version of the turn-of-the-century tale The Story of Little Black Sambo.
Lester is also the author of a 1995 novelization of the William Shakespeare play Othello. Reviewers generally found Lester’s interpretation to be an accessible story that could serve as an introduction to the play for young readers.
In addition to writing for young readers, Lester has also continued with books for adults, including his novel Do Lord Remember Me (1985) and his two-volume compilation The Seventh Son (1971), which brings together the writings of the early black political activist W. E. B. Du Bois. He has also authored two autobiographies, All Is Well (1976) and Lovesong (1988), the latter of which recounts his conversion in the 1980s to Judaism. In addition to his writing career, Lester has served as professor since the early 1970s at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, first as a professor of Afro-American studies, and then as a professor Near Eastern and Judaic studies.
Works in Literary Context
Refashioning traditional stories into contemporary forms allows a story to have a longer life within a community. Updates often change or eliminate outdated content and rework themes to be relevant to modern audiences. Lester retells the ”Uncle Remus” stories as a way to place the focus on the storyteller in the tales rather than on unpalatable racial stereotypes. Kay McPherson found Lester’s Uncle Remus to be ”a forceful, witty, and cunning storyteller rather than the subservient character of Harris’s creation.” Little Black Sambo is another example of Lester reclaiming stories with a positive focus on African American heritage. Lester changed the names of all the human characters in the story to Sam, eliminating the original names of Sambo, Mumbo, and Jumbo that many modern readers find offensive. Pinckney, the illustrator, further replaced the original minstrel-like images of the characters in the book with colorful, animated pictures. Lester’s work allows traditional stories to retain a place in the culture but with a modern sensibility.
Much of Lester’s writing is aimed at children. Generally, children’s literature focuses on child characters who must overcome some challenge in their life, often learning important lessons along the way. Lester’s work often takes a different angle by presenting historical information and stories to children in a form that entertains them. For Lester, writing for children has been a particularly rewarding area to explore aspects of his African American heritage. Lester explains:
Children’s literature is the one place where you can tell a story. Just, straight, tell a story, and have it received as a narrative without any literary garbage. I’ve done a fair amount of historically based fiction that would be derided as adult literature because it’s not ”sophisticated.” I’m just telling a story about people’s lives. In children’s literature, I can do that.
Works in Critical Context
Like most juvenile fiction, Lester’s work has not received a great deal of critical attention beyond reviews in a few periodicals. However, his work has received many awards, including the Caldecott Honor, the Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award. The Long Journey Home was also a finalist for the National Book Award.
To Be a Slave and Black Folktales
To Be a Slave, a collection of six stories based on historical fact, evolved from an oral history of slaves Lester was compiling. Runner-up for the Newbery Medal, To Be a Slave was acclaimed for its contributions to African American history. ”Aside from the fact that these are tremendously moving documents in themselves,” writes Black Like Me author John Howard Griffin in the New York Times Book Review, ”they help to destroy the delusion that black men did not suffer as another man would in similar circumstances, a delusion that lies at the base of much racism today.” Also in 1969, Lester published his widely praised Black Folktales, recasting various human and animal characters from African legends and slave narratives. ”Although these tales have been told before, in most of them Lester brings a fresh street-talk language …and thus breathes new life into them,” writes John A. Williams in the New York Times Book Review. ”It is a tribute to the universality of these tales—and Lester’s ability to see it—that we are thus presented with old truths dressed for today.”
- MacCann, Donnarae. ”Julius Lester.” Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers, 3rd edition. Edited by Tracy Chevalier. Farmington Hills, Mich.: St. James Press, 1989, 575-76.
- Foner, Eric and Naomi Lewis. Review of Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History. New York Times Review of Books (April 20, 1972): 41-42.
- Griffin, John Howard. Review of To Be a Slave. New York Times Book Review (November 3, 1968): 7.
- List, Barry. ”Julius Lester.” Publisher’s Weekly (February 12, 1988): 67-68.
- McPherson, Kay. Review of The Last Tales of Uncle Remus. School Library Journal (January 1994): 124.
- Pingel, Carol Jean. Review of Othello: A Novel. Book Report (Mar-Apr 1995): 38-39.
- Williams, John A. Review of Black Folktales. New York Times Book Review (November 9, 1969): 10, 12.
- Julius Lester on Author’s Guild. Retrieved October 20, 2008, from http://members.authorsguild.net/ juliuslester.
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