Dunbar on Black Books
May 2001    


Spotlight on
David Levering Lewis

The April 16, 2001, announcement that David Levering Lewis is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography this year gives him a unique place in the history of the prize. He won it in 1994 for his book W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race (1868-1919). By winning it again this year for his W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963, he becomes the first author to win two Pulitzer Prizes in biography for back-to-back volumes. First awarded in biography or autobiography in 1917, other black figures have been subjects of these prize winning books. It was awarded to Louis R. Harlan in 1984 for his Booker T. Washington. In 1987 David J. Garrow won it for his Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

David Levering Lewis, a black professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is probably now the most eminent authority currently at work on Du Bois. We are reminded of a comment made by the above-cited Louis R. Harlan in his preface to the Athenium edition of Elliott M. Rudwick's W.E.B. Du Bois: Propagandist of the Negro Protest, published in 1969. In that preface Harlan says, "When the Du Bois Papers are fully open to scholars, many of the gaps in our knowledge will be filled. We may wait for a long time, however, for a biography as well balanced between detachment and sympathy as this one." David Levering Lewis has brought an end to the long wait.

Selected Bibliography

Lewis, David Levering, ed. W.E.B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. Publishing date not given. ISBN 0313296650.

Lewis, David Levering, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 0805035680. 1994.

Lewis, David Levering, ed. The Du Bois Reader: A Reader. Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 0805032630. 1995.

Lewis, David Levering, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963. Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 0805025340. 2000.

Rudwick, Elliott M., W.E.B. Du Bois: Propagandist of the Negro Protest. Atheneum. 1969.


In the period from December 2000 to April 2001, books, issues and personalities that are the focus of "Dunbar on Black Books" have had a high media profile. Some of these have made the front page of the New York Times, above the fold. Lawsuits are pending on some of these issues. Others are headed for the courts. David Levering Lewis' being awarded a Pulitzer Prize was but one of a number of such occurrences in the first quarter of year 2001 relating to books by or about black people and or those who publish or promote such books. We take note of five of them here.

Zadie Smith, a 24-year-old best-selling black author in England was nominated in January for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Nega Meziekia, an Ethiopian civil engineer living in Toronto, who won Canada's most prestigious literary prize in 2000, became embroiled in a dispute early this year over authorship of his book Notes From the Hyena's Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood. Ann Stone, a Canadian novelist and freelance editor who copy edited the book brought suit against Meziekia contending that she is the author of all but twenty pages of the book.

It was announced in February that the University of Missouri Press has tracked down all of Langston Hughes's works and will publish them as they originally appeared during his career. To be titled The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, they will be published in sixteen volumes. Reportedly, the University of Missouri Press spent twelve years finding first editions of Hughes's works and acquiring rights to publish the collection. It seems fitting that the definitive edition of Missouri native Langston Hughes will be published by the University of Missouri Press and in the bailiwick of the strong Black Studies Program there. Further, Hughesiana was enriched with the publication this spring of Remember Me to Harlem, a collection of the correspondence of Hughes and Carl Van Vechten.

Martin Arnold, who monitors book publishing in his New York Times column "Making Books," made the observation in March of this year that despite the dynamic force that the church and religion are in African-American tradition and culture, until now no mainstream publishing house has devoted an imprint to black Christian fiction and nonfiction. Noting that until fairly recently there were only two major book companies committed to publishing "lines of fiction (not romances) and nonfiction by black writers on black subjects," he says there are now five. One of them is an imprint called Walk Worthy Press which Denise Stinson the black Detroit literary agent created in partnership with Warner Books. Stinson is, Arnold says, the owner and publisher of the imprint, and she acquires the books. Her company wants to eventually expand into Christian nonfiction as well. Destined to target an African-American audience, Arnold observes that there would surely be a crossover, since Christian fiction is popular.

Perhaps the biggest flap to occur with regard to a black book in the first four months of this year has to do with a book that has not been published. That would be The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall. This book is a parody of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. The estate of Margaret Mitchell went into the Federal District Court in Atlanta and sought an injunction against the publication of the book which it claimed violates Mitchell's copyright. The case is intriguing to intellectual property lawyers, literary critics, and historians because of the arguments involved regarding free speech and social justice pitted against those of intellectual property rights and artistic merit.

The arguments that are joined turn on the extent to which Ms. Randall can borrow copyrighted characters, scenes, and dialogue of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind for the purpose of parody. The Federal District Court in Atlanta has ruled that Ms. Randall's book plagiarizes Margaret Mitchell's book and has granted an injunction blocking its imminent publication. Randall's supporters argue that the suppression of The Wind Done Gone violates her First Amendment rights. To revisit the story from a slave's perspective serves a legitimate public interest they insist. This important political parody of a mythic story that many African-Americans find demeaning is protected by the First Amendment in their view. Houghton Mifflin, Ms. Randall's publisher, has filed for an expedited appeal. We are going to have an interesting time as the boundaries between plagiarism and legitimate critical reinterpretation are defined here, all in the context of the black book. Black books and issues are on the front burner in this first year of the twenty-first century. W. E. B. Du Bois would agree that a century after his contrary 1903 observation that blacks no longer are a mass huddled in a valley under a veil of race.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.
--Mark Twain     

Copyright 2001 by Harry B. Dunbar. All rights reserved.
Dunbar on Black Books