He was The cause was complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his daughter Lian Amaris said. A prolific author, Mr. Lester had more than four dozen books for adults and children to his credit. He was also variously a literary and cultural critic, folklorist, photographer, civil rights worker and professional musician. A resident of Belchertown, Mass.
Reviewers often praised his work for its vibrant immediacy, political urgency and deep rootedness in both black oral tradition and historical documents, including the narratives of former slaves. From the time he entered public life in the s, Mr. Lester was periodically a lightning rod for controversies centering on race and religion. Image Among Mr. Lester criticized the novelist James Baldwin for what he felt were anti-Semitic remarks, he was removed from the Afro-American studies department at the University of Massachusetts.
The move engendered a national debate on censorship, political correctness and academic freedom. Ultimately, Mr. His odyssey had taken him a long way from his early life in the Jim Crow South — an upbringing in which, Mr.
Louis on Jan. When he was a child, the family moved to Kansas City, Kan. Lester, writing in , recalled telling his incredulous young son.
Lester wanted only to become a folk singer. There, he performed on the coffeehouse circuit as a singer and guitarist. In the s, Mr. Lester was closely involved as a writer and photographer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, becoming the head of its photography department. In that capacity, he traveled to the South to document the civil rights movement and to North Vietnam to photograph the effects of American bombardment.
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. Lester became the host of a weekly show about political issues, broadcast on WBAI. Late that year, Leslie R. The broadcast came on the heels of the racially charged controversy over local control of public schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood whose schools were staffed by a predominantly white cadre of teachers.
Amid the crisis, the United Federation of Teachers, many of whose members were Jewish, went on strike throughout the city, affecting hundreds of thousands of students and resulting in dozens of lost school days. On Mr. Campbell read a poem written by one of his black teenage students. WBAI stood by Mr. Friction With Blacks In what was widely viewed as an ideological about-face, Mr.
This is the only book I've done where the illustrations came first. Whereas in To Be a Slave, I had concentrated much more on the historical aspects of slavery, From Slave Ship to Freedom Road gave me the opportunity to talk about slavery in a much more personal, emotional way. I have no idea. That book went through several titles, none of which I remember. Sometimes it takes me just as long to come up with a title as it does to write the book.
The title seemed to cover the time span of what the book dealt with, but I have no recollection of what made me come up with it. How are you able to understand so profoundly the feelings of a slave? I feel that one of the things I've been sent here to do is to give voice to those who are dead. I say sometimes, only half-jokingly, that I feel much closer to the dead than I do to the living.
Which of your closest ancestors was a slave? Three of my four great-grandparents were slaves, including my great-grandmother, who died in or so, before I was born. What made you want to write To Be a Slave? My initial impulse was to find out about my own slave ancestors, particularly my great-grandparents. I've always been interested in my family history, so part of the reason was very personal.
The other reason was that once I started doing the research and finding all these documents where ex-slaves talked about what slavery was like, I wanted others to know that those we called slaves were really human beings. So the book comes out of my need and desire to communicate the humanity of those whom history calls slaves.
The book To Be a Slave is so powerful. Will you publish other books dealing with slave narratives? I will. I'm in the process of negotiating a contract with a publisher to do some more books about slavery. To Be a Slave was nonfiction. I'm going to be doing a lot more. What gave you the idea to write This Strange New Feeling? I am really fascinated by what it was like to have been a slave. Slavery is my favorite part of American history. There are all these stories - adventure stories, love stories - that I want people to know and to understand.
How do you feel about your ancestors being slaves? There are mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'm sorry that they had to go through something like that. But on the other hand, if they hadn't been, I wouldn't be here now. I wouldn't exist. So, there are mixed feelings about it. What was it like growing up in the South during the 40s and 50s? I grew up in a time of segregation, in a system where blacks and whites were kept separate and blacks were discriminated against.
It was certainly difficult. But at the same time, I grew up inside a southern black culture where there were a lot of stories and traditions. Much of my interest in and feelings about the past come from the fact that I grew up very close to all this. It was difficult, but I would certainly not change any of it. I got a lot from it that I wouldn't have gotten from living in a city in the North.
So I'm glad I grew up in the South when I did. How were you involved in the civil rights movement? How did you feel about Malcom X's and Mr. Luther King Jr. During the civil rights movement, I primarily did two things: I was a photographer and I was a musician. I also led singing at mass movements throughout the South. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Both events were very shocking to me. The last line of To Be a Slave reads: "cause the white folks have been and are now and always will be against the Negro.
I personally do not believe that to be true. I think that, certainly in my lifetime, I have seen a lot of change. But, it's important to rem'ember that there are black people who do believe that's true. What do you think we can do to help lessen the racism in this country? A couple of things come to mind. The first is not standing in judgment of people because they are born into a particular race or ethnic group. The second is being aware that every person you encounter is an individual, and that each person wants to be treated just like you want to be treated - with respect.
Each of us wants to be accorded dignity; each of us wants to be liked. Getting rid of racism just means treating other people the way you want to be treated.
It's not that hard. We also need to learn to respect each other's differences. Just because somebody eats a food that's different than the food you eat, or dresses differently, it doesn't mean that your way is better and the other person's way is inferior.
They're just different. I am an African-American girl in an all-Mexican class. I get many good comments about my singing, but sometimes I get offended by what people say. How do you stay so strong when people put you down?
You stay strong by listening to yourself. You stay strong by not believing the negative things that people say about you. People say those kinds of things because they recognize that there is something about you that is different; that you have something that they may not have. So they try to bring you down - they want to bring you down to their level. If you have a gift for singing, you have a responsibility to honor that gift.
The final thing that I would say is that the people who put you down really do not know you. Try not to give their words so much importance because they really don't know what they're talking about.
At what age did you start writing? I was around seventeen when I started writing. That's when I started to write seriously - like it might be something I'd want to do with my life. When was your first book published? In My very, very first book was published in It was an instructional book on how to play the string guitar.
What is Pete Seeger like? What was it like to work with him? He is a very, very nice, soft-spoken man. He's very shy - which you wouldn't think about someone who gets thousands of people to get up and sing. He cares very deeply about people. Working with him was very easy.
How did you decide to start writing books for children instead of for adults? Is it harder or easier to write for kids? The way I got into writing for children was totally by accident. It never occurred to me. After I finished writing my first adult book, my editor commented to me that I had a very simple writing style, and she asked me if I would like to meet the children's book editors.
I did, and she asked me if I had any ideas. I told her I was doing research on slavery and she asked me if I would like to do a children's book about slavery. It was one of the most fortunate accidents in my life! As for the second part of the question, writing for children is in some ways harder. There's probably nothing more difficult than writing a picture book - you have to do so much in so little space.
Writing is difficult, period. The challenges are different in writing for children than they are writing for adults. But writing is hard work. What is your favorite part of the writing process? I'd say rewriting. I love to rewrite.
When you reach the point of rewriting it means you have a good first draft. The basic work of conceptualizing has been done. Now I can get to the detail, finding the right word, the right music to the sentence. If you want to be a writer you have to enjoy the process of writing more than the final product. I think most people are so interested in the final product that they skip the process. And so, writing takes a lot of patience. Have you ever been dissatisfied with one of your books after you finished writing it?
No, generally I do not turn a book in until I'm satisfied it's the best that I can do at this point in my life. Do you base any of your books on your life experiences? Sure, I think there are two ways of looking at that. One is the obvious autobiographical aspect - taking incidents directly from my life. But not so obvious is that everything that I write is based on my life, in that it's coming out of my emotions and feelings. Generally, there's a problem in my life that I need to solve, so everything that I write stems out of my emotional concerns.
Not every black person cares about slavery, for example. But even though I was not a slave, I write about slavery because of a personal need. How do you feel about your books, and what inspires you? It is really very wonderful for me to sit here and look back at all the books that I've written. They're spreading onto the second shelf now; they're next to my desk. I started off as a college student wanting to be a writer. To look back and see that I did indeed accomplish that - to look at all these books with my name on them - it gives me a deep feeling of satisfaction.
Where do I get my inspiration? Well, a lot of my writing comes from the fact that I have a question - there's something I want to know, and the only way I can know it is by writing about it. Some of my writing also comes from a feeling inside that I want to understand or explore more. So I don't know that I get inspired as much as I muse about something, and then one day it crystallizes. But generally, my books come out of my own curiosity, and my desire to share something that I know or that I have experienced.
For me, writing is a way of sharing and being in touch with people. Do you ever get writer's block? What do you do when this happens? Writer's block is simply not knowing what you want to write. Ernest Hemingway once said that when you stop writing for the day, don't get up until you know where you're going to start the next day.
So, a lot of writing takes place for me away from the computer. There's time spent writing at the computer, and then there's time spent writing in my head. I do a lot of writing sitting in the bathtub every night. I get some of my best ideas while sitting in the bathtub. I'll do in my head actual sentences. Then the next day when I sit down I'll have the first few lines ready to go. A lot of the problems that I may have in a book I will work out while sitting in my bathtub. Do you only write for work?
Do you keep a journal or write letters or anything like that? I used to keep a journal a lot. I haven't kept one for the past ten years or so. But keeping a journal was very important to me.
I learned a lot about writing by writing in a journal. And letters too - copious letters. I don't write letters that much anymore, but I do spend a lot of time on e-mail. E-mail is more immediate, more convenient. What do you think your best book is? Generally my best book is the one that I've just finished. That's like asking a parent who their favorite child is. There's no way to answer that question. I think for now my favorite book is a novel called Pharaoh's Daughter.
It's set in ancient Egypt and it tells the story of the life of Moses from when he was a teenager. I'm working on a trilogy about Moses' life as seen through the eyes of people around him. It's my favorite because there's one character in it - the pharaoh's daughter - whom I really love.
I think she's my favorite character. And I've learned so much about ancient Egypt. It will make readers look at history differently, and think about Moses differently.
I think it's great. Have you ever traveled to Egypt yourself? I have not, but I'm planning to. It's on my list to do in the very near future.
Do you ever write about your life in your books? Oh, sure. I've written an autobiography that is called Lovesong: Becoming a Jew. It's about my conversion to Judaism. I've written a lot of nonfiction autobiographical essays.
I tend to write about myself more in adult books and essays than I do in my children's books. Were you raised Jewish or did you become Jewish later on in life? I converted to Judaism in My great-grandfather on my mother's side was a German Jew.I started off as a college student wanting to be a writer. Do you ever get writer's block? One is the obvious autobiographical aspect - taking incidents directly from my life.
His first published book, which came out of that experience, was an instructional manual co-authored with folk legend Pete Seeger, called The Twelve-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly Oak, What inspired you to "retell" Shakespeare's play Othello? After his essay was published, Mr. Keep on reading!
Lester wanted only to become a folk singer. I've written a lot of nonfiction autobiographical essays.
A couple of things come to mind. I love to rewrite.
In Sam and the Tigers: A New Retelling of Little Black Sambo Lester takes on the now-controversial story of the African lad whose trick caused a group of hungry tigers to turn into butter. Each generation of students I deal with is more visually-oriented than the last one.
The idea started from a book of love stories from western civilization that I was going to do. Not every black person cares about slavery, for example. But I never let them watch by themselves.
Lester and the Afro-American studies department at UMass. A couple of things come to mind.
From to , he served as the lay religious leader of the Beth El Synagogue in St. Do you think it's important for children's books to have a lesson or moral? They're spreading onto the second shelf now; they're next to my desk. Well yeah, but I grew up in the 40s and 50s - pre-television. While several reviewer noted the book's melodramatic quality, Horn Book critic Deborah Z. At the same time, he began to focus on other writing, publishing numerous magazine articles about his activism.
The second is being aware that every person you encounter is an individual, and that each person wants to be treated just like you want to be treated - with respect. Lester's works have been translated into eight languages. Lester joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts in and is currently a professor in the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies Department, and adjunct professor of History.
Lester to the WBAI studios in January through demonstrators protesting the reading of an anti-Semitic poem on his radio show. As his reputation grew, Lester wrote his first book, Look Out, Whitey! What is your opinion of it? A resident of Belchertown, Mass.
Also for ten years he was lay religious leader of Beth El Synagogue in St. Young had resigned his post in August after meeting with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization — a move that many American Jews saw as a profound betrayal. Lester criticized the novelist James Baldwin for what he felt were anti-Semitic remarks, he was removed from the Afro-American studies department at the University of Massachusetts.