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The Baldwin Blowup : A Prominent Professor's Criticism of an Icon of Black Literature Sets Off a Major Debate Over Academic Freedom

July 10, 1988|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

AMHERST, Mass. — 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."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday July 18, 1988 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 6 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of a wire service error, a 1968 photo accompanying a July 10 View story was incorrectly identified as that of Julius Lester. The photo actually was of Stanley Wise, former executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

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.

Departmental Transfer

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."

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