Pamela Newkirk

David Levering Lewis Looks at Two Black American Leaders in BIO Conference Keynote

David Levering Lewis accepts the 2021 BIO Award from Pamela Newkirk.

After receiving the 2021 BIO Award from Pamela Newkirk, David Levering Lewis spoke on “Black Biography Matters: A Prophet and A President.” The prophet was W. E. B. Du Bois, the subject of Levering’s two-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. The president was Barack Obama.

Levering started his talk by giving a mini-bio of an unnamed figure: A biracial American who did not face the extreme discrimination other Blacks did, thanks in part to having one white parent and living in a relatively tolerant state. This figure, though, came to embrace his Black roots as well as the culture and aspirations of Black Americans.

Levering said that if his audience assumed he was talking about the first Black president of the United States, they were correct. But Levering pointed out that many of the details of Obama’s life as a biracial American applied to Du Bois as well, another man who embraced his Blackness and achieved greatness. The two, Levering said, shared “strikingly similar biographical profiles,” and his introduction featured the “interweaving of like-minded quotations” from Obama’s and Du Bois’s autobiographical writings.

Levering’s goal with this introduction was to illustrate “the significance of a largely unsuspected parallelism in the racial coming of age of two of the most influential American men of the last 100 years.” But as Levering went on to show, Obama’s career as president ultimately diverged from the path Du Bois took as a scholar and activist, though he also noted that there would have been “no Obama presidency without the Du Bois civil rights legacy.”

After adding a few more details to each man’s biography (noting that in Du Bois’s hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, “black families were rarer than Democrats”), Levering turned to Obama’s idea of the “audacity of hope,” the title of the book Obama wrote before announcing his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Levering called that expression an example of political optimism—an optimism reflected in candidate Obama’s belief that racism was an old problem that the country had transcended. Levering said he “had seemed to resolve those dilemmas of nationality and color unforgettably proposed by Du Bois in his foundational text The Souls of Black Folk.” And Americans seemed eager to embrace the idea of a “post-racial” future.

But then, in not so few words, Levering said, “Not so fast.” He explained Du Bois would not have accepted that the country had transcended race. “Rather, he could remind us that he predicted that race still would remain the predicate of our American experience long after the formal dismantling of segregation.”

Levering recounted how, as a presidential candidate, Obama tried to generate universal appeal by not being threatening to white voters, while winking reassuredly at Black ones. And he might have been “just progressive enough to intrigue old troublemaker Du Bois.” But Obama didn’t live up to the promise of the “audacity of hope” and become a transformational president. And Black scholars who pointed out that John McCain won the white vote in 2008 by 10 points over Obama had their op-eds dismissed as being out of sync with the supposed post-racial era the country had entered.

Levering said that Obama didn’t seize the opportunity the Great Recession presented when he took office in 2009. Obama was economically timid and pursued a “futile strategy” of conciliation with his Republican critics. Though there were critics on the left, too, who berated Obama’s timidity. Still, Levering said Obama had notable first-term successes, such as saving the auto industry and signing legislation that created the first federal consumer protection bureau. And Levering called passage of the Affordable Care Act the signature accomplishment of Obama’s presidency (while noting it was a bonanza for the insurance industry).

Turning back to Du Bois, Levering said he should avoid speculating on what his subject might have made of the Obama presidency. But he said he would any way, given that Du Bois had “spoken rather presciently to our times” in the 1950s about what he saw as a lingering American problem: too many people were willing to live in comfort “even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellow men.” Du Bois, Levering said, moved from seeing racism as the central American problem to a broader economic emphasis on class discrimination, while still recognizing that race was a “component of America’s DNA.” Obama, on the other hand, saw race “as of limited value in formulating an economics of redress.”

In the end, Levering suggested, Obama and DuBois stood at opposite poles. “For Du Bois, racism defined the American social contract.” For Obama, “the less said about race relations, the better.”  Levering admitted that the Obama presidency ended “with much to its credit.” But the idea of a post-racial reset for the nation “had already been fatally belied by worsening disparities now become irrevocably color coded,” by a Supreme Court decision that hamstrung the voting rights of Black and Latinx voters, and by criminal justice misdeeds and police violence that fueled protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of these problems were only exacerbated during the Trump presidency.

Levering closed with words from Du Bois, which he believes are relevant for the 2022 elections. Du Bois wrote that the majority of voters had to challenge a political system run by a minority based on their wealth and power. Du Bois said some might call his ideas for change “socialism, communism, reformed capitalism or holy rolling. Call it anything—but get it done.”

Race, Racism, and Biography

Six BIO members shared their views on race and biography for the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft:

Black Lives/Young Readers by Ray Anthony Shepard

Archival Interventions: Reconstructing Life on the Margins of History by Pamela Newkirk

Biography Matters by Patricia Bell-Scott

Before There Was Karen, There Was Miss Anne by Carla Kaplan

The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph

Biography Has Mattered to Black Lives by Eric K. Washington

 

Podcast Episode #38 – Pamela Newkirk

In this week’s episode, we interview Pamela Newkirk, award-winning author of Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (2015). Her latest book, published this year, is Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar BusinessThis interview was recorded in November 2019 in Washington, DC.

Writing a Biography about a Subject Who Left Few Records of His Own

Pamela Newkirk

Newkirk’s 2000 book Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media won the National Press Club Award for Media Criticism.

At the beginning of the last century, Ota Benga, a Congolese member of the Mbuti people known for their diminutive height, was brought to the United States and exhibited to Americans including, for a while, at the Bronx Zoo. Author Pamela Newkirk has published an account of Benga’s life and his horrific ordeal. Her book is calledSpectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. “Here is a gripping and painstaking narrative that breaks new ground,” said the New York Times Book Review. “Now, after a century, Benga has finally been heard.”

(Editor’s note: Morris and Newkirk shared the same editor at Amistad/HarperCollins.)

How does one write a biographical work of someone who left no written records, well, actually almost no self-generated records?
When writing about marginalized people you often have to turn to the papers of powerful people in their lives. I first learned this when working on my epistolary collections. The letters of enslaved African Americans were found with the papers of their masters or government officials who they appealed to. In the case of Ota Benga, letters written by those who had captured or held him in captivity revealed what was going on daily behind the scenes. There were hundreds of letters that offered uncensored snapshots of him. In addition, dozens of newspapers provided first-person accounts of his daily exhibition at the St. Louis World’s Fair and the zoo, and also of his life once he was released. I then found him in census and ship passenger records, in an anthropologist’s field notes while in the Congo, unpublished and published accounts by those who knew him, institutional catalogues and bulletins, photographs, etc. I was able to use teams of documents to piece together his journey from the Congo, through Europe, and across the United States.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in reconstructing Ota Benga’s life?
The biggest challenge was overcoming the absence of his voice. His voice was captured in a handful of accounts, so that’s all I had to work with. However, I was able to highlight his actions that, at times, spoke louder than words. It was clear that he resisted his captivity at the zoo and that he suffered both there and on the fairgrounds in St. Louis where he was taunted, attacked, and displayed, while barely clad, on the frigid fairgrounds. As human beings, we can imagine his humiliation and degradation.

In a sense, he isn’t the story, rather our treatment of him is the tale. Am I right? If so, how did that guide your writing?
In a sense, he was a mirror of us—of society—at the dawn of the twentieth century. Our humanity and his were inextricably linked and as his was diminished, so too was ours. But we can also take heart in the fact that a handful of people defied the conventions of the time and protested the exhibition at the zoo. In them, we can find our humanity.

What did you hope to accomplish with this book?
So many distortions, half-truths, and outright deception had shrouded the truth of Ota Benga’s story. A hundred years later, the man who most exploited him was, in many accounts, depicted as his friend and savior. I wanted to correct the historical record and, in the process, reassert Ota Benga’s soaring humanity. He was so much more than “the man in the monkey house,” as he had been widely characterized. He was a sensitive, intelligent, and beloved person who had suffered a horrific injustice. But that experience alone did not define him.