David Levering Lewis had just gotten off a plane in Morocco after a long flight from the U.S. He and his wife registered at their hotel in Rabat. A waitress served them breakfast, then burst into tears and lost her French when she learned they were American. Lewis wondered what her problem was. He then tried to brush off a tour guide when they wanted to go to the Kasbah. The man kept saying, “The towers have been knocked out. Buildings have fallen in New York.” It finally dawned on Lewis what had happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
Lewis was in Morocco to begin research on what he thought would be a modest book. He soon realized the book would get a lot bigger. It would end up as God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, his 2008 study of the first sustained interactions between Europeans and Arabs. He worried from the beginning about how the U.S. would respond to the attack on New York. “I was certain we (the U.S.) wouldn’t be prudent in our response and that we would take advantage and do things that would get us into trouble,” he recalls.
David Levering Lewis is arguably the most decorated African-American historian. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his magisterial two-volume biography of W.E. B. Du Bois, a 15-year project. As Black History Month came to an end, Lewis sat down in his Manhattan apartment for an interview with The Root. A reserved, gentlemanly scholar, Lewis gives the impression of being a throwback to the 19th century, but his concerns are very current.
He doesn’t hesitate to criticize his own profession. Lewis says black historians have not seized an opportunity to “own” the story of slavery and the black struggle in the United States. He cites how Jewish scholars have become the defining experts on the Holocaust. “The other Holocaust is the slave experience,” says Lewis. “The good narratives about that haven’t been written by us. I’m surprised because, at this point in time, we can look at it with a degree of dispassion.”
Lewis is an uncompromising advocate of scholarly research and verifiable facts, as he calls it, “the lonely business of opening boxes. “There’s a lot of writing of psychohistory - a blend where literature and history meet,” he complains. “What you have is stuff that is impressionistic and intriguing; but methodologically it’s a problem.”
And he worries about the trend to gender studies. “I’m all for it,” Lewis assures. “They tend to talk about a problem that is really rather simple: the disparity between men and women professionally and otherwise. It can get in the way of a larger perspective.” But he says a more pertinent historical lens for gender studies could be the politics of power.
Lewis has never been accused of a narrow vision. He wrote the first academic biography of Martin Luther King Jr., a seminal and vastly entertaining history of the Harlem Renaissance, an account of the European scramble for Africa, and even a book on the Dreyfus Affair, the case involving espionage and anti-Semitism that bitterly divided France at the end of the 19th century.
He is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, where his father, a Yale Divinity School graduate, was principal of a high school. He graduated from Fisk University and earned his PhD at the London School of Economics. Lewis is the Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History at New York University.
He has worried about the paucity of young black historian in the pipeline but suspects that is about to change. Bright black students tended to gravitate toward business, law or communications. “That’s about to correct itself because of the recession,” he suggests.
Globalization is broadening the perspective of historians of race. The new buzz word is “diasporic studies,” he says. His model for this approach is Michael Gomez, an African-American historian who has written about the cultural transformation of African captives in the anti-bellum South. Gomez’ Exchanging Our Country Marks, says Lewis a benchmark of this new international scholarship. “He gives great weight to Islamic residues in [the black] experience and that has caused some people to push back at the thesis,” says Lewis. “You can debate that, but the methodology is commendable.” Coming from Lewis, that is the highest compliment.