Bertram Austin Lewis

Radio essay: 

Like W.E.B. DuBois, Bertram Austin Lewis believed that "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”[1] Lewis spent his life urging his fellow black writers to tackle this problem head-on.

In the thesis Lewis wrote for his 1937 master’s degree, he intersperses scholarly notes on African American poets with rousing exhortations. “If a poet spends a great deal of his time trying to escape ‘race,’” he writes, “one can depend on it that his finest poetry will come when in a time of exasperation he gives up, and writes of the subject that the forces of nature have written upon his face.”

Lewis was intimately familiar with the pressures from white and black intellectuals alike to “escape race.” Coming to Nebraska from undergraduate years at historically black Wiley College in Texas and a stint teaching high school in the majority black city of Shreveport, Louisiana, Lewis would have been acutely aware of both his own presence as a black man on the nearly all-white Nebraska campus and the differences in priorities he shared with his new colleagues.[2]

Lewis lamented the dearth of black writers represented in his literature courses; his professors, though sometimes sympathetic, pleaded that the matter was out of their hands. One told him that, “in all the anthologies of modern verse that he has seen prepared for college students, not a single Negro poet has ever been represented,” though the professor added—perhaps in an attempt at magnanimity—that “at least three or four deserve a place in our literature.” Even Nebraska English professor Wilbur Gaffney, whose thesis An Enquiry into the Value of American Negro Poetry Lewis consulted for his own research, represented for Lewis the particularly condescending attitude of white scholars who thought they knew everything about the “so-called ‘Negroid temperament.’”[3]

At Nebraska Lewis began the daunting task of remedying the paucity of scholarship on black writers. His thesis focused on “Four Negro Poets”: Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen. In addition to giving biographical information on the writers and analysis of their major poems, Lewis grapples with a central conundrum in contemporary critical response to African American literature. On the one hand, white critics expected black writers to “transcend race” and imitate the white poetic tradition. Some black writers—even those, like Countee Cullen, whose work included racial themes—fed into this imperative by emphasizing the essential racelessness of poetry and their role as writers, not black writers.[4]

On the other hand, black writers of Lewis’ day increasingly faced pressure to perform a version of their blackness that white readers could deem “authentic.” This is the subject of Lewis’ essay “The Envied Ones,” a section of his thesis that was published in Prairie Schooner. Lewis begins by paraphrasing a white critic who “envies” his black poet friend for having access to both the vibrancy of his African heritage and the wellspring of suffering occasioned by the legacy of slavery. Lewis attributes this attitude to the reigning cultural idea that poets must have suffered for their work to be considered valuable: “the popular association of genius with disaster.” This mark of the white literary establishment’s approval has led to an odd progression, in Lewis’ formulation: “The first generation of Negro poets protested injustice; the second generation reveled in it,” producing “literary hacks who [feel] themselves lucky in having a rich deposit of misery and a vast pay-dirt of sorrow that they [can] exploit.”

Though Lewis occasionally faults the poets in his study for capitulating to one or the other of these extremes, he generally celebrates them for transcending the paradoxical imperatives placed on them by the white literary establishment. Lewis writes that Claude McCay’s poetry “reveals him as one of those simple-hearted souls who accept themselves and believe in themselves for what they are.”

Four years earlier Lewis had tried his own hand at creative prose. “Winship and the Gleam: A Story of Elegance and Dirt” was published in the NAACP’s literary journal The Crisis in 1933.[5] The story alludes to one of the New Testament parables of Jesus healing the blind. Emanuel Winship is a charismatic, “delicate” college professor who believes in only one form of “Literature”—presumably that written by whites. Napping on a campus bench, he is accosted by a dreamlike vision of a poor black man in rags. Like Jesus in the New Testament account, Emanuel Winship finds himself rubbing spittle-moistened dirt onto the blind man’s eyes, endowing him with sight. “‘God is in men like me, black and dirty as I am!’” the formerly blind dream man cries on leaving.

Though somewhat didactic, the story is a powerful critique of the misplaced prerogatives of the black bourgeoisie responsible for educating a new generation of African American youth. Historically black colleges like Wiley were primarily concerned with racial uplift: the idea that educated, middle-class black people had the responsibility to improve conditions for the entire race.[6] Lewis’ story is a reminder that such a project shouldn’t be synonymous with whitewashing the curriculum.

1950 letter from Lewis to Tolson

Lewis’ model for the ideal form of black intellectual activism was his mentor, modernist poet, Harlem Renaissance scholar and famous educator Melvin Tolson. Tolson taught English at Wiley College for over two decades that coincided with both of Lewis’ periods there. Scholar David Gold describes Tolson as a “self-professed socialist” who “blended conservative language instruction with race pride and racial politics.”[7] In Tolson, Lewis found a teacher committed to rigorous literary study who didn’t balk at confronting race.

Tolson founded Wiley College’s debate team, famous for taking part in the first college interracial debate and immortalized in the 2007 biopic The Great Debaters. Lewis arrived too early to take part in that particular debate, but he did profit from Tolson’s instruction in crafting compelling arguments delivered with fluid oratory.

Tolson continued to play a role in Lewis’ intellectual life, even as the latter moved around the country to different teaching positions, first as head of the English department at a high school in Oklahoma, then as a professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical School and then to graduate school in Berkeley and New York. Lewis sought Tolson’s help on his dissertation, an extension of his work for the past two decades he called “A Critical Anthology of Negro Literature.” Lewis may not have been getting much other help from his graduate professors, since he wrote to Tolson that his mentor’s suggestions were “one of the oases in the intellectual desert. Of great help. If you have more water to sprinkle, rain down, brother, rain down.”

Lewis didn’t achieve his dream of converting the anthology from a dissertation to a book.[8] He taught at several more institutions, including the City College of San Francisco, Southern University in Baton Rouge and Eastern Washington University. It is likely that high teaching loads and other demands of academia kept him from pursuing his scholarly interests to the degree he would have wished. Though his surviving literary output is small, the force of its conclusions is potent. Bertram Lewis was committed to writing frankly about the past and present of black intellectuals at a time when few others were. In sharing his strong opinions, he paved the way for African American intellectuals and writers to come.



[1] W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903) vii, available at Documenting the American South. DuBois visited Lincoln in 1939, at the invitation of a group of “colored students.” The Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois, ed. Herbert Aptheker, Vol. 2. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976) 183.

[2] Although black students at the University of Nebraska in the first half of the 20th century would have found themselves relatively isolated, their situation was nonetheless better than if they had attended a Southern university. Many Southern universities in Lewis’ time weren’t integrated yet (the University of Missouri, for example, didn’t begin integration until 1938); even in those cases where African American students were permitted to matriculate, they were treated with hostility. According to historian Richard Breaux, Midwestern universities evinced more tolerance for African American students. A few notable black luminaries emerged from Nebraska during this time, including Aaron Douglas (class of 1922), the modernist painter known as the “father of African American art.”

[3] Bertram Austin Lewis, "Four American Negro Poets," M.A. thesis, University of Nebraska, 1937.

[4] Darryl Pinckney, “Countee Cullen: The Reluctant Lamb,” New York Review of Books, March 21, 2013. Lewis would not have been alone in Lincoln in wrestling with these issues; Jennifer Hildebrand, “The New Negro Movement in Lincoln, Nebraska,” Nebraska History 91 (2010): 166-189. . 

[5] Bertam Austin Lewis, “Winship and the Gleam: A Story of Elegance and Dirt.” The Crisis (June 1933): 133-135. The Crisis, founded and at this point still edited by W.E.B DuBois, saw as its core mission the duty to confront "the great problem of inter-racial relations." History of The Crisis, November 1970.

[6] Kevin K. Gaines, “Racial Uplift Ideology in the Era of ‘the Negro Problem,’” National Humanities Center.

[7]David Gold, Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) 15.

[8] When Lewis was first starting out as a scholar, one of the few anthologies of African American literature available would have been Alain Locke’s seminal compendium, The New Negro (1925). Though this anthology was and remains extraordinarily influential, it was not taught in predominantly-white collegiate institutions until many years later. Now, there are dozens of anthologies of African American literature published by mainstream presses, many of them included in standard college and high school curricula.