Thoughts on Lawrence Levine

Submitted January 24, 2007, 5:10 PM

Jacob Dorman
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Jacob Dorman Wesleyan University Although I never studied with Larry in a formal fashion, he had a big impact on me. When people ask me why I got a Ph.D. in African American history, one of the first things I tell them is that when I was five years old Lawrence Levine was the president of my synagogue in Berkeley, and I remember him telling jokes and stories drawn from his scholarship from the synagogue rostrum. The second thing I talk about is jazz music. The more I’ve read of Larry’s books, the more I’ve come to appreciate that my upbringing in the racially diverse public schools of Berkeley and my love of jazz music gave me a point of entry to understanding the interests and political commitments of Larry’s generation of Jewish first-generation New Yorkers. At the age of eleven in 1985, my family visited Washington DC. Larry had won the McArthur and used the prize money to buy the condo by then, and he was kind enough to show the Dorman family around the Library of Congress. His new book, Hibrow/Lowbrow, had just won recognition from the librarians for being the most difficult book to keep from disappearing off the shelves. Larry said it must have been because the book was stored at the perfect height to grab, but even at eleven I recognized that there must have been more to it than that. Soon thereafter I was exposed to the great American film comedians through Larry’s generosity with his film collection, and so my brother and I grew up laughing till our sides split at the antics of Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers. In graduate school Larry was kind enough to meet me at Inn Kensington and talk to me about my project, giving me encouragement that was heartening and very much needed at that stage when I was facing the uncertainty and ennui of grad school. When I was old enough to read Larry’s books I came to appreciate why they disappeared off shelves. Black Culture and Black Consciousness was truly revolutionary in light of what had come before and what would come after. I have returned to it many times, sometimes to argue with it, sometimes to think with it, but I have always learned from it. Highbrow/Lowbrow is one of the great well-argued and stimulating works of U.S. cultural history. The Opening of the American mind is a trenchant, combative, and convincing intervention against the poisonous obscurantism of the far right. In the superficial ways that children know adults I always knew and liked Larry, but through his books I came to admire and respect who he was as a person, a humanist, and a scholar. Larry had a mischievous, humorous, and iconoclastic streak that came out in his twinkle, in his love of jokes and folklore, and in the audaciousness of his assertion that jokes and folklore could be made into history. I have a tremendous respect for what Larry was able to accomplish and how committed he was to a vision of cultural pluralism, democracy, and racial egalitarianism. I was disappointed in the newspaper obituaries because they did such a poor job of describing his work and the magnitude of his contribution to the field of African American history, a field that has become my own. But I am also sure that the coming memorial at the AHA will begin start to place Larry’s contributions in their proper, exalted context. That project that I discussed with Larry during graduate school is turning into my second book project; my first will be published by Oxford University Press. The reason I am most proud of being included in that list is that its crown jewel is a book by Lawrence Levine called Black Culture and Black Consciousness. It is not bad company to keep. In fact, there is none better, in my opinion. I’m grateful for everything that I have learned from Larry, and am looking forward to introducing future generations of students to him and his work. I at least had the benefit of knowing him a little, but in the beautiful endeavor of teaching, writing, and learning, sometimes transmission does not require actual attendance in seminar classes. I’m pretty sure I speak for everyone who has ever studied African American history in the last thirty years in saying how grateful I am that Larry Levine was the person he was and did the work he did in the time he had on this earth. As they say in shul, "May the memory of the righteous be as an everlasting blessing." Jake Dorman

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