Julius Lester Author Biography Essay

Julius Lester
Born(1939-01-27)January 27, 1939
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
DiedJanuary 18, 2018(2018-01-18) (aged 78)
Palmer, Massachusetts, U.S.
Occupationauthor, musician, photographer, professor
Spouse(s)Joan Steinau

Julius Bernard Lester (January 27, 1939 – January 18, 2018) was an American writer of books for children and adults[1] and an academic who taught for 32 years (1971–2003) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He was also a photographer,[2] as well as a musician who recorded two albums of folk music and original songs.[3]


Early life and family[edit]

Born on January 27, 1939, in St. Louis, Missouri, Julius Lester was the son of Rev. W. D. Lester, a Methodist minister, and Julia (Smith) Lester. The family moved to Kansas City, Kansas, in 1941, and to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1952. In 1960 he received his BA from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, with a major in English and minors in Art and Spanish.[4]

In 1961 he moved to New York City where he married Joan Steinau. They had two children, Jody Simone (1965) and Malcolm Coltrane (1967). The couple divorced in 1970. In 1979 he married Alida Carolyn Fechner, who had a daughter, Elena Milad. Fechner and Lester had a son, David Julius. They divorced in 1991. He married Milan Sabatini in 1995. His stepdaughter from this marriage is Lián Amaris.[5]

Lester was African-American and a convert to Judaism.[6][7] He has said that his conversion journey began when he was seven and learned that his maternal grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Germany, who married a freed slave.[8] He adopted the Hebrew name Yaakov Daniel ben Avraham v’Sarah.[9]

During his New York years, Lester hosted "Uncle Tom's Cabin", a radio show on WBAI-FM (1968–75); co-hosted (with Jonathan Black) Free Time, a television show on WNET-NY (Channel 13), for two years; and recorded two albums of traditional and original songs for Vanguard Records: Julius Lester (1966) and Departures (1967). A compilation of songs from both albums was released on a CD, Dressed Like Freedom, on Ace Records in 2007.[10]

Academic career[edit]

From 1968 to 1970, alongside his activities as a radio host in New York, Lester taught Afro-American history at the New School for Social Research.[11] In 1971 he began teaching at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as a visiting lecturer in the Afro-American Studies department; he became an associate professor in the department in 1975 and a full professor in 1977.[12]

Lester came into conflict with his colleagues in the Afro-American Studies department upon the publication, in 1988, of his book Lovesong, which chronicles his conversion to Judaism; in the book he refers to a lecture at the university by the renowned author James Baldwin several years earlier, and characterizes certain remarks that Baldwin made as anti-Semitic.[6][13][14] In March 1988, in a unanimous step, the Afro-American Studies faculty wrote a letter to the university administration recommending that Lester be reassigned to a different department.[15][16] Following negotiations that involved the chancellor of the university, the dean of the faculty, and Lester himself,[16] Lester transferred to the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies department (where he had held a joint appointment since 1982),[12] and remained there for the rest of his university career, until his retirement at the end of 2003.[13][14]

During his 32 years at the university, Lester taught courses in five departments: Comparative Literature ("Black and White Southern Fiction"), English ("Religion in Western Literature"), Afro-American Studies ("The Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois"), ("Writings of James Baldwin"), ("Literature of the Harlem Renaissance"), ("Blacks and Jews: A Comparative Study"), and Judaic Studies ("Biblical Tales and Legends") and ("The Writings of Elie Wiesel"), History ("Social Change and the 1960s"), one of the university's largest and most popular courses.

Lester was awarded all three of the university's most prestigious faculty awards: the Distinguished Teacher's Award, the Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, and the Chancellor's Medal, the university's highest honor.[11] The Council for Advancement and Support of Education selected him as the Massachusetts State Professor of the Year 1986.[11]

Creative endeavors[edit]

Since 1968 Lester has written 44 books: eight nonfiction, 31 children's books, one book of poetry and photographs (with David Gahr), and three adult novels. His very first book was an instructional book on how to play the 12-string guitar, co-authored with Pete Seeger.[17] Among the awards his books have received are the Newbery Honor, Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award, National Book Award finalist, ALA Notable Book, National Jewish Book Award finalist, National Book Critics Circle Honor Book, and the New York Times Outstanding Book Award. His books have been translated into eight languages.[11][18]

He has published more than 200 essays and book and film reviews for such publications as The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Op-Ed page, The Boston Globe, Village Voice, The New Republic, Moment, Forward and Dissent.[11]

His photographs have been included in an exhibit of images from the civil rights movement at the Smithsonian Institution. He has had solo shows at the University of Massachusetts Student Union Gallery, the Forbes Library, Northampton, Mass., Valley Photo Center, Springfield, Mass., and the Robert Floyd Photography Gallery, Southampton, Mass.[19]


Lester died of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) on January 18, 2018 after a brief hospitalization.[8][13][20]

Written works[edit]

  • The Folksinger's Guide to the 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly, Lester and Pete Seeger (1965)
  • Look Out, Whitey! Black Power Gon' Get Your Mama (1968)
  • To Be a Slave (1968)
  • Search for the New Land (1969)
  • Revolutionary Notes (1969)
  • Black Folktales (1969)
  • The Seventh Son: The Thoughts and Writings of W. E. B. DuBois (1971)
  • Two Love Stories (1972)
  • Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History (1972)
  • The Knee-High Man and Other Tales, illustrations by Ralph Pinto (1972)
  • Who I Am, photographs by David Gahr (1974)
  • All is Well (1976)
  • This Strange New Feeling (1982)
  • Do Lord Remember Me (1984)
  • The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1987)
  • Lovesong: Becoming a Jew (1988)
  • More Tales of Uncle Remus: Further Adventures of Brer Rabbit, His Friends, Enemies, and Others, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1988)
  • How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have and other Tales, illus. David Shannon (1989)
  • Further Tales of Uncle Remus: The Misadventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, the Doodang, and Other Creatures, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1990)
  • Falling Pieces of the Broken Sky (1990)
  • The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1994)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much, illus. Leonard Jenkins (1994)
  • And All Our Wounds Forgiven (1994)
  • John Henry, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1994)
  • Othello: A Novel (1995)
  • Sam and the Tigers, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1996)
  • From Slaveship to Freedom Road, paintings by Rod Brown (1998)
  • Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1998)
  • What a Truly Cool World, illus. Joe Cepeda (1999)
  • When the Beginning Began, illus. Emily Lisker (1999)
  • Albidaro and the Mischievous Dream, illus. Jerry Pinkney (2000)
  • Pharaoh's Daughter: A Novel (2000)
  • The Blues Singers: Ten Who Rocker the World, illus. Lisa Cohen (2001)
  • When Dad Killed Mom (2001)
  • Ackamarackus: Julius Lester's Sumptuously Silly Fantastically Funny Fables, illus. Emilie Chollat (2001)
  • Why Heaven is Far Away, illus. Joe Cependa (2002)
  • Shining, illus. John Clapp (2003)
  • The Autobiography of God (2004)
  • Let's Talk About Race, illus. Karen Barbour (2005)
  • On Writing for Children and Other People (2005)
  • Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue (2005)
  • The Old African, illus. Jerry Pinkney (2005)
  • Time's Memory (2006)
  • Cupid: A Novel (2007)
  • Guardian (2008)
  • The Hungry Ghosts (2009)
  • The Girl Who Saved Yesterday' (2016)[21]


Book awards[edit]

  • Newbery Honor, 1969, and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1971, both for To Be a Slave
  • Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1972, and National Book Award finalist, 1973, both for The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History
  • Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1973, for The Knee-high Man and Other Tales
  • Coretta Scott King honor, 1983, for This Strange New Feeling, and 1988, for Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit
  • Parents' Choice Story Book award, 1987, for The Tales of Uncle Remus, and 1990, for Further Tales of Uncle Remus
  • Reading Magic Award, 1988, for More Tales of Uncle Remus
  • Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, American Library Association Notable Book, and Caldecott Honor, all 1995, all for John Henry
  • ALA Notable Book, 1996, for Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney – runner-up for the 2016 Phoenix Picture Book Award[22]
  • Coretta Scott King Award, 2006, for his novel Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue[23]

Other awards[edit]

  • Distinguished Teacher's Award, 1983–84
  • Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, 1985
  • National Professor of the Year Silver Medal Award, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, 1985
  • Massachusetts State Professor of the Year and Gold Medal Award for National Professor of the Year, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, both 1986
  • Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, 1986–87.


  1. ^"Search results for 'Julius Lester'". WorldCat (worldcat.org). Retrieved 2010-03-30. 
  2. ^Julius Lester at Profotos.com.
  3. ^"Julius Lester, Beloved Author, Activist And Scholar, Dies At 78". Forward. Retrieved 25 January 2018. 
  4. ^"Biography: Julius Lester". Scholastic Teachers (scholastic.com/teachers). Retrieved 2010-03-30. 
  5. ^"Julius Lester - Biography". Jew Age. Retrieved 25 January 2018. 
  6. ^ ab"Julius Lester: There's 'no magic formula' for blacks and Jews". J (jweekly.com). February 16, 1996. San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc. Retrieved 2015-09-11.
  7. ^Brad Pilcher. "Not the Face in the Mirror: An Interview with Julius Lester". American Jewish Life (ajlmagazine.com), January/February 2007. Retrieved 2015-09-11.
  8. ^ ab"Julius Lester, professor who embraced his Jewish and African-American identities, is dead". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. jta.org. January 18, 2018. Retrieved 2018-01-20. 
  9. ^"Lester, Julius (1939-2018)". Black Past. Retrieved 25 January 2018. 
  10. ^Maughan, Shannon. "Obituary: Julius Lester". Publisher's Weekly. Retrieved 25 January 2018. 
  11. ^ abcde"Julius Lester, professor emeritus". Judaic and Near Eastern Studies. University of Massachusetts Amherst (umass.edu/judaic). Archived from the original on 2014-12-02. Retrieved 2013-07-29. 
  12. ^ ab"Obituary: Julius Lester, Professor Emeritus of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies". University of Massachusetts Amherst. umass.edu. January 19, 2018. Retrieved 2018-01-21.
  13. ^ abcFox, Margalit (January 19, 2018). "Julius Lester, Chronicler of Black America, Is Dead at 78". New York Times. nytimes.com. Retrieved 2018-01-21. Print edition, January 21, 2018, p. A27.
  14. ^ abMarquard, Bryan (January 20, 2018). "Julius Lester, 78, UMass professor emeritus, writer, and activist". Boston Globe. bostonglobe.com. Retrieved 2018-01-21.
  15. ^Cole, Alyson (Fall 2003). "Trading Places: From Black Power Activist to 'Anti-Negro Negro'". America Studies. 44 (3): pp. 37–76; here: p. 37. JSTOR 4063485. Retrieved 2018-01-21. 
  16. ^ ab"Action at Massachusetts U. Raises Censorship Cry". New York Times. nytimes.com. May 29, 1988. Retrieved 2018-01-21.
  17. ^"My Books". Julius Lester. Authors Guild (authorsguild.net). Retrieved 2015-09-11.
  18. ^"Discover Author Julius Lester". HarperCollins.com. Retrieved 2010-03-30. 
  19. ^Smyth, Jessamyn. "Thinking in Light: the Art of Julius Lester by Jessamyn Smyth". Tupelo Quarterly. Retrieved 25 January 2018. 
  20. ^"Julius Lester". www.facebook.com. Retrieved 2018-01-18. 
  21. ^The Girl Who Saved Yesterday page at Creston Books.
  22. ^"Phoenix Picture Book Award". Children's Literature Association (childlitassn.org). June 2015. Retrieved 2015-09-11.
  23. ^"Coretta Scott King Author Awards". The African American Literature Book Club (aalbc.com). Retrieved 2010-03-30. 

Further reading[edit]

  • "Julius Lester". Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 51. Gale Group, 2003.
  • Lester, Julius. Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, 1988.
  • Oppenheimer, Joel. "The Soul that Wanders". The New York Times. January 31, 1988. Retrieved 2015-09-11.

External links[edit]

Julius Lester, writer born

*Julius Lester was born on this date in 1939. He was a Jewish African American educator, musician and writer.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the son of a Methodist minister. As a teenager, Lester lived in Nashville, Tennessee, spending most summers at his grandmother's farm in Arkansas. Growing up, he wanted to be a musician. In 1960, Lester graduated from Fisk University with a degree in English. Moving to New York City, he recorded two albums, performed with Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Judy Collins, and worked as a radio announcer. His first book was The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly: an Instructional Manual, dealt with Black folk music.

He also was active in the Civil Rights movement, joining the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee as head of their photo department. Since then his photographs from that time have been included in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution and are part of the permanent collection at Howard University. Some of his photographs have been in group shows at Pivot Media, Florence, Mass., and Valley Photographers, Springfield, Mass. In 1969, Lester published two works as a children's author. They were To Be a Slave, and Black Folktales. His subsequent writings continued to show his interest in African American history, folklore, and politics.

Over the years, he has published 35 books; 7 non-fiction, 1 book of poetry, 2 novels, and 25 children's books. Among the awards these books have received are the Newberry Honor Medal, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, National Book Award Finalist, National Jewish Book Award Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, and Boston Globe/Horn Book Award. Numerous titles have also appeared on the New York Times Outstanding Book list and American Library Association Notable Book list. Lester also has published over 200 hundred essays and reviews in such publications as the New York Times Book Review, New York Times Op-Ed Page, Boston Globe, Village Voice, The New Republic, Forward, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Lester joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts in 1971 and is currently a professor in the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies Department, and adjunct professor of History. In 1974, while on retreat at the Trappist monasteryin Spencer, Massachusetts, one of the monks told him, "When you know the name by which God knows you, you will know who you are." Lester searched with the passion of one seeking the Eternal Beloved. He found that his name was Yaakov Daniel Ben Avraham v'Sarah. And that he was a Jew; he converted to Judaism during that time.

Lester has been honored with all three of the university's most prestigious faculty awards: The Distinguished Teacher's Award, the Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, and the Chancellor's Medal, the university's highest honor. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education selected him as the Massachusetts State Professor of the Year in 1988. Also for ten years he was lay religious leader of Beth El Synagogue in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.

Julius Lester died on January 19, 2018.  He had five children and lives with his wife and one cat on a secluded twelve acres in a small town in western Massachusetts.

University Of Massachusetts
140 Hicks Way
Amhersts MA 01003-9272

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