[James Horton] We were asked to speak today about what Lawrence Levine and his scholarship has meant to the historical profession and to those of us studying African American history in particular. We intend to do that but at the moment our overwhelming feelings are those of personal loss. Larry was not only a wonderful friend of more than a quarter century, but also an adviser and in many ways a mentor. His scholarship was a great contribution to our understanding of American intellectual, and cultural history and to African American history, and it also helped me to understand things my father and my uncles told me many years ago, about their lives in early 20th century North Carolina. Things about how stories and songs could convey feelings better left unstated except in the privacy of trusted company.
[Lois Horton] In the 1970s many of us, inspired by the civil rights movement and the glimpses it gave of a powerful and dignified southern black society, struggled to find ways to uncover more of the history and culture of black people in slavery and in freedom. Most historians said it couldn’t be done–that black communities didn’t exist in the past–that the cultures of Africans had been wiped out in the journey to slavery. Some of us found ways to reconstruct the skeleton of black communities with the bones of social history’s numbers, but Lawrence Levine took that skeleton and give it flesh and blood. In Black Culture and Black Consciousness, he took a more expansive view, enlisting the work of generally separate fields–psychology, anthropology, literature, sociology and history–to analyze black culture.
2 In this endeavor, Larry was following a path trod more lightly by two other great intellects–black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass and black scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. In his Narrative Frederick Douglass told of how the slaves selected to go to Col. Lloyd’s Great House Farm on monthly allotment day made the woods, “reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness,” composing as they went along. They sang “the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. . . .Every tone,” he said, “was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” Simply remembering those songs brought tears to Douglass’s cheeks, and it was those songs, he declared, that gave him his “first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery” (Douglass, 46-47).
[James Horton] In his Black Culture and Black Consciousness Larry said things to our profession, that, at the time, it sorely need to hear. “Historians,” he said, “are prisoners not only of their tracking devises, the scholarly tools of perception that prevail among them at any given time, but also of their sources, or what they perceive to be their sources.” He made historians aware of the historical significance of those stories and songs that my father had spoken of long before their relevance to my own work had occurred to me. At a time when I was still struggling with the notion that historians could not adequately study African American history because there were too few sources available – – a belief that seemed incorrect to me-- Larry’s work and his arguments rang true and crystal clear.
[Lois Horton] Both Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of the sometimes incoherent songs in “unmeaning jargon” that enslaved people sang (Douglass, 47). Larry Levine made sense of those songs for us, showing how the African cultures they encoded were transformed by American experience, and yet how they preserved the kernels of African meanings in America.
3 Larry’s work took us into that pine woods, and through his amazing scholarship, let us hear and feel the suffering, the joy, the heroic humor of everyday black life. Himself a consummate storyteller, he brought us the storytelling traditions of African Americans, their jokes and insults, the humor of survival.
[James Horton] In the early 1980s when I met Larry I told him how his work echoed my father’s philosophy and we agreed that his presentation had done more than simply expand the understanding of African American culture, traditions and relationships among academic historians. It had validated for many of us the life experiences of ancestors passed down through family folklore. It made these experiences not only memorable and real within the context of our family life but real in a more scholarly acceptable way. Larry and I talked about this, and we agreed that it was important to validate these experiences which most in the black community have long accepted. We agreed, and even joked about how he had opened a world of African American life to those who had assumed that no such world existed. He had told them about the real thing. Larry would appreciate my sharing with you the song we joked about and one morning, in the cafeteria of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, we even sang a chorus of the song that expressed these feelings, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real thing.”
[Lois Horton] If this were all Larry Levine did, it would have been more than enough, more than we could have expected. But he did much more. Beyond his impeccable scholarship, Larry also lived his work. He followed his sources rigorously, and listened with his heart to the lessons of justice and community that they taught him. It is for both his scholarly work and the joy and grace of his life that we are grateful.
[James Horton] We have all benefitted from having Larry Levine with us. For in his scholarship, in his understanding of the significance of promoting cultural understanding, in his humanity made ever more impressive by his unforgettable sense of humor, Larry Levine was indeed the real thing.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, edited with an introduction by David W. Blight, Boston, Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk, edited with an introduction by David W. Blight and Robert Gooding-Williams, Boston, Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness, New York, Oxford University Press, 1977.