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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.”

BIO Honors Award Winners at Conference

As it does every year, BIO recognized the winners of several awards on the first day of its 2021 virtual conference. The presentations and winners’ remarks were prerecorded; winners of all but two of the awards had already been announced. You can see a video of the award presentations here.

Sonja D. Williams

Shepard Service Award
On the video, attendees learned that Sonja D. Williams was the winner of the Ray A. Shepard Service Award, given to honor BIO volunteers whose work goes above and beyond the call of duty. It comes with a statuette and a lifetime membership. The award is named for its initial winner, Ray A. Shepard, who almost single-handedly organized the first BIO Conference in 2010. The award was last given in 2018.

Williams has worked as a broadcast journalist and has won three consecutive George Foster Peabody Awards for Significant and Meritorious Achievement, for writing and producing program segments for groundbreaking documentary series distributed by National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and the Smithsonian Institution. Williams won the Shepard Service Award for her work, along with Lisa Napoli, in producing podcasts for BIO featuring interviews with biographers. Williams said she especially appreciated the award “since it’s named for a fellow biographer and longtime BIO member Ray Shepard.” Williams noted that she served on BIO’s board with Shepard and that he was an early supporter of the podcast.

Jeff Flannery

Biblio Award
The other award winner publicly announced for the first time was Jeff Flannery, who was honored with the Biblio Award. This award recognizes a librarian or archivist who has made an exceptional contribution to the craft of biography. Flannery was the head of the Reference and Reader Services Section in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress (LOC) until his retirement at the end of 2020.

Tim Duggan, a member of BIO’s Awards Committee, introduced biographer A. Scott Berg, whose subjects include Woodrow Wilson and Max Perkins, who recounted his experiences relying on Flannery’s expertise. Berg said that while researching at the LOC, Flannery was “more than an overseer, he became an integral part of my research process.” Flannery assisted several other honored biographers, including BIO Award-winners Candice Millard, James McGrath Morris, and Ron Chernow.

The previously announced winners were Humera Afridi and Iris Jamahl Dunkle for the Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship; Tanya Paperny for the Hazel Rowley Prize; and Rachel L. Swarns for the Frances “Frank” Rollins Fellowship.

Four Win Chip Bishop Fellowships

Gabriella Marie Kelly-Davies, Paula Broussard, Trina Young, and Helen Bain are the winners of this year’s Chip Bishop Fellowships. Each will have the fee waived for the upcoming BIO Conference, held online May 14-16. Kelly-Davies is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sydney. Broussard is a freelance writer from Los Angeles. Young, from Maryland, writes about popular music. Bain is a Ph.D. candidate at
King’s College, London.

The Chip Bishop Fellowship was established by BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris to honor former BIO member Chip Bishop Fellowship and to help biographers in need.

Rachel L. Swarns Wins Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship

Rachel L. Swarns is the winner of the 2021 Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship for her proposal of an as yet untitled, multigenerational biography of an enslaved Black family torn apart by the 1838 slave sale that saved Georgetown University from financial ruin. The committee was impressed by Swarns’s lucid, engaging narrative as she highlighted slavery’s devastating impact on a family fatefully separated when “the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests sold 272 enslaved men, women and children.” Her compelling biography-in-progress is projected for publication by Random House in 2023. “My biography of this African American family will fill critical gaps in our understanding of American history and the legacy of American slavery,” Swarns wrote. She is the fellowship’s inaugural recipient.

Swarns is a journalist, author, and professor, who writes about race and race relations as a contributing writer for The New York Times. She is an associate professor of journalism at New York University, and the author of American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, published by Amistad/Harper Collins in 2012. The Leon Levy Center for Biography also just awarded Swarns one of  its 2021-2022 Biography Fellowships to work on her same forthcoming book.

The Rollin Fellowship awards $2,000 to an author working on a biographical work about an African American figure or figures whose story provides a significant contribution to our understanding of the Black experience. This fellowship also includes a year’s membership in BIO, registration to the annual BIO conference, and publicity through BIO’s marketing channels. The fellowship advances BIO’s commitment to remediate the disproportionate reflection of Black lives and voices in published biography, and to encouraging diversity in the field.

The fellowship commemorates 19th century author and activist Frances Anne Rollin Whipper—who wrote under her nickname-turned-pen name “Frank A. Rollin”—whose 1868 biography, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany, about a Black abolitionist journalist, physician, and Union Army officer, positioned her among the first recorded African American biographers. The Black press particularly underscored the significance of her precedent and called for more biographies of African Americans, a call which this fellowship, in her honor, seeks to carry on.

Afridi, Dunkle Win 2021 Caro Fellowships

Humera Afridi and Iris Jamahl Dunkle are the 2021 winners of BIO’s Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship.

Humera Afridi

Afridi, a New York-based writer of Pakistani origin, is working on The Book of Secrets: The Extraordinary Life of Noor Inayat Khan, a biography of a World War II heroine, mystic, poet, author, and musician. Khan was an Indian American woman who posthumously became a renowned and decorated war hero for her role in guerrilla tactics in occupied France. She defied the conventions of her upbringing, as the daughter of an Indian Muslim mystic and American mother, in a community of predominantly white European theosophist disciples. Afridi will travel to Karlsruhe and Pforzheim prisons in Germany to see where Noor was imprisoned for 10 months in isolation. She will also visit the Imperial War Museum in London to listen to sound files bearing testimonies of Noor’s colleagues in the field. In addition, she will visit the Fondation de la Résistance in Suresnes, France, for archival research on the role of women in the resistance. Afridi holds an M.A. in Literary and Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New York University.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle

Dunkle is working on the first biography of the author Sanora Babb, a largely forgotten female writer of the American West. Dunkle aims to understand the unique historical moment in which Babb lived through the telling of her life story: from her poverty-stricken upbringing in the Oklahoma Territory to living in a one-room dugout in southeastern Colorado with her broomcorn-farming family; to her time working in the Farm Administration camps in California assisting Dust Bowl migrants to her years traveling with her husband, cinematographer James Wong Howe, in Europe and the Soviet Union. Babb was a prolific short story writer and the author of several novels evoking the lives of Americans struggling to survive in the Depression years of the 1930s. Dunkle will travel to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin, Texas, where she will examine a large archive of Babb’s papers. Dunkle holds an M.F.A. in poetry from New York University and a Ph.D. from Case Western University.

The Caro Research/Travel Fellowship honors the work of Robert and Ina Caro, who have stressed the crucial importance of depicting a sense of place in delineating character. BIO members with a work in progress can apply to receive funding for research trips to archives or to important settings in their subjects’ lives. This fellowship is a reflection of BIO’s ongoing commitment to support authors in writing beautifully contextualized and tenaciously researched biographies. You can read more about the fellowship and past winners here.

The selection committee for the award this year was Deirdre David, chair, Carla Kaplan, and Marc Leepson.

BIO Announces Finalists for Plutarch Award

Biographies of Malcolm X, Jimmy Carter, and Charles Dickens are in the running for the 2021 Plutarch Award, which will go to the best biography of 2020, as chosen by  a distinguished panel of BIO members. The winner will be announced on May 16 during the 11th BIO Conference. You can see the five finalists as well as the other five books that made the longlist for the award, here.

BIO Hosts Online Event with Peniel E. Joseph

Peniel E. Joseph discussed his The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. in a conversation with author and poet Ed Pavlic. You can see a video of the conversation here.

Members of the Biographers’ Circle generously donated to this fundraising event. Gayfryd Steinberg, a member of BIO’s Advisory Council, and her husband Michael Shnayerson organized this philanthropic group in 2019 to support BIO’s fellowships and awards. Once the pandemic ends, Biographers’ Circle events will again take place in private homes.

Peniel Joseph, another member of BIO’s Advisory Council, is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin, where he directs the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. He is the author of Stokely: A Life as well as other books about the Civil Rights Movement. Ed Pavlic is a professor of English, African American Studies, and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. His most recent publication is a book of poems focusing on racial dynamics in contemporary life, Let It Be Broke.

 

Tanya Paperny Wins Hazel Rowley Prize

Photo by Fid Thompson

Tanya Paperny is the 2021 winner of BIO’s Hazel Rowley Prize for her proposal for Tender/Fierce: The Life and Death of My Revolutionary Prababushka. The committee was impressed by Paperny’s gripping prose about an important story of political tyranny that has been little told from a biographical perspective. “In 1938, my great-grandmother Tatiana Ivanovna Shatalova-Rabinovich was executed by the Soviet secret police and dumped in a mass grave where hundreds would soon lie,” Paperny writes. “In her too-short life, she organized the release of political prisoners, co-edited radical pamphlets, and intersected with the famed Leon Trotsky, a man also killed by a Stalinist agent. This biography will be among the first English-language works written by a descendent of Stalin’s victims.”

Paperny is a writer and artist based in Washington, D.C.  She earned an MFA in nonfiction and literary translation from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and numerous other publications.

The Rowley Prize, worth $2,000, goes to a first-time biographer and also includes a careful reading from an established agent; a year’s membership in BIO and registration to the annual conference; and publicity for the author and project. The prize is a way for BIO—an organization of biographers, agents, editors, and biography devotees—to advance its mission and extend its reach to talented new practitioners. You can see a list of past winners here.

BIO gives the prize in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951–2011), born in London, educated in England and Australia, and a long-time resident of the United States. A BIO enthusiast from its inception, Rowley understood the need for biographers to help and support one another. Before her untimely death, she had written four acclaimed biographies. Rowley was a passionate advocate for the art and craft of biography, a writer of exacting standards, and a generous friend to fellow biographers.