Skip to contents
SunLit

SunLit interview: David A. Varel sought to close “gaping chasm” between history and public

In producing his biography of Lawrence Reddick, the author encountered the professional and financial hurdles that many historians face to bring their work into the public eye

David A. Varel is an affiliate faculty member of history at Metropolitan State University-Denver and the author of two books: “The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power” and “The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought.” He earned his PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2015 and has held appointments at universities across the country, including Case Western and the University of Mississippi. In 2020, he published an article in The American Historian that prompted the Organization of American Historians to remove the name of a “Lost Cause” scholar from its book award in Civil War and Reconstruction history.


Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

This book is a scholarly one that I’ve written to appeal to a larger general audience as well. As a work of scholarship, the book’s backstory is a familiar one: it needed to advance research into professional history by offering something novel to the discipline. 

I specialize in African American intellectual history, and particularly in the generation of Black scholars who challenged Jim Crow in the first half of the twentieth century. So I knew vaguely of Reddick, but that knowledge was limited by the very little that’s been written about him. The more I began researching, the clearer it became that he was deserving of a full-length biography. 

As someone who was a close confidant to Carter G. Woodson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many other towering figures of the twentieth century, this was clearly essential to advancing historical scholarship on the civil rights movement and other areas. 

But the other part of the backstory is that I hoped to help bridge the often gaping chasm between professional history and the general public, and I thought Reddick’s story offered a unique opportunity to do that. For 50 years, from the 1930s through the 1970s, he took part in all the major struggles for civil rights in the U.S. and even abroad. And he did so as both a public intellectual and a behind-the-scenes activist, thus offering windows into various facets of the complex movement. And not least, he had a captivating personality that could help pull readers through the larger evolving story of the global freedom struggle. 

This book, then, by chronicling Reddick’s unique story, offers a way for general readers to better understand the civil rights movement in a broader and deeper way. In short, it provides a look into how historians have revolutionized the field over the last half century.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

The excerpt comes from the book’s Conclusion, where I step back from Reddick’s story to make direct connections to today and explain why it matters. As I learned early on in my history training, the “So What?” question is integral to doing history. Why should we care about the past? Well, in the Introduction I lay out the ways that Reddick helps us better understand how the civil rights movement was a much longer and broader struggle than has been popularly understood. So I wanted to conclude the book by linking that history to the present moment. Doing so, I think, further illustrates the essential truth of the discipline: We can’t understand what’s happening today (much less act productively in responses to our myriad crises), without knowing how we got here. 

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

Well, first of all, as a non-fiction history book, I couldn’t write a thing until I had spent countless hours doing the laborious research for it. Besides reading widely through local library materials, I also had to visit archival repositories across the country. This is why writing history is so difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. 

But it is also rewarding, because it’s in the archives where you encounter materials that have been rarely consulted and comprise the lifeblood of doing original historical work. For this book, I spent the most time at Boston University, Fisk University, Atlanta University, the King Center, and the New York Public Library. When in the archives, you try not to be overwhelmed by the endless materials and work to locate the sources that relate to your subject. This often involves some creativity. It really is the work of a detective pulling the pieces together (always incomplete and fragmentary) to try to understand what happened. Without doing that, we would never know Reddick’s story, or that of so many others.

Archival research, as I say, is the basis of new historical work, and because it is so laborious, it’s crucial that we as a society support it. In many ways, we are failing.

That’s the other side of this, which I think is important to touch upon here. My support for this project was very minimal. Aside from the limited funds and time I had while serving as a one-year postdoc at Case Western, I had to use my own resources to research and write this book. As an adjunct professor, I have zero support for research and writing—indeed, I don’t even have health insurance or wages that place me above the poverty line most of the time. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

This matters. It makes it impossible for most scholars to continue researching and writing. As tenure-track jobs decline as a share of the academic labor force (because of state disinvestment in academia—a long-term trend in which Colorado is one of the worst culprits), there becomes no incentive to publish books with university presses, which are non-profit organizations. When they say non-profit, they mean it; this book is essentially the product of two years of highly specialized yet unpaid labor. The only tangible incentive for such books is to win promotion and tenure, but that’s not even relevant for the vast majority of professors who aren’t on the tenure track. 

All of this pertains not just to this book but to most scholarly writing these days. I had to rely on my wife, who is a librarian, to subsidize my year spent writing this book full-time, and I even needed her to access research library resources—a basic obstacle not often considered. The point is that this book was a herculean task, and it shouldn’t have to be. We need to fundamentally transform how we invest in higher education and in organizations like the Colorado Humanities & Center for the Book. 

When you were researching for this book, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? 

Yes—although not completely unexpected, because I had read shorter synopses of Reddick’s career and had a sense of its general outline. But the details themselves are often surprising. 

For instance, I didn’t know Reddick was so close an associate with W. E. B. Du Bois, who was the most important African American intellectual of the twentieth century. When Reddick was curator of the Schomburg Library in New York City during World War II, he and Du Bois organized conferences in which leaders from across the colonized world convened to plot out how to end European colonialism. 

This was a heady moment in time, and Reddick was at the center of it. He also befriended some younger Africans who studied at Black colleges in the U.S. Two of these—Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe—went on to become the leaders of newly independent Ghana and Nigeria, respectively. 

So it was these many connections to major world players that was striking to me. Reddick always found a way to take part in these struggles, but often in subtle (though nevertheless indispensable) ways, such as providing private counsel and perspective as a professional historian, organizing and documenting the events as they unfolded, and teaching about the struggle to future generations.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

I’ve already discussed some of the labor conditions that made this book a special challenge, both spiritually and materially, so let me focus on some more positive aspects. The book was also challenging in the best sense of the term. It pushed me to learn about topics that I was interested in but had no specific motivation to delve further into otherwise. Reddick changed that. 

To write about him, I had to learn much more about the global struggle against the color line, about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and about the history of the historical discipline, for instance. That research was truly rewarding. 

Also, this is my second book. Unlike my first, “The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought” (Univ. of Chicago, 2018), which was based upon my PhD dissertation and completed in collaboration with my committee, I did this one all on my own. I plotted out, researched, and wrote the book without outside assistance. So as a matter of personal growth, this helped me validate my abilities as a historian. That I was able to do all this in a short period of time and then get it published with another great university press, that has meant a great deal to me personally. I honestly didn’t know I had it in me.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

We’ll see! Academic books take a long time (often 1-2 years) to be reviewed. It’s annoying. That said, the book’s publication has put me in touch with some people who read it and reached out to me privately. That has meant a lot. One such person is Derryn Moten, who chairs the history department at Alabama State University—a position Reddick once held. Derryn knows as much about Reddick as anyone, and it’s clear to me that he is carrying forward Reddick’s mantle in the struggle for a better, more just society. This has been wonderful to see.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

The where part isn’t very interesting: I write at home at my desk, with my ergonomic chair and computer. The “ergonomic” part has become more important over time. I also need it to be quiet, and I struggle to understand how people can write in noisy coffee shops and such.

As for the how part, well, thankfully I’m a very organized person. I think this is more than half the battle in writing histories rooted in so many primary and secondary sources. I start by reading those sources carefully and taking copious notes—often transcribing material word-for-word. 

Once I’ve done that, then I can interact with it by underlining/bolding/highlighting parts, and then organize it by cutting and pasting portions into different Word files I create. The actual writing process involves reviewing the relevant files and then tying it all together through prose. If it’s organized well, then the actual writing isn’t usually so difficult. Of course, I continually re-read and revise it as I go, too. But the writing is probably the most enjoyable part, because you see the progress you’re making, and there’s real creativity and new insights that develop as you try to synthesize it all together. 

Your first book, “The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought,” seems to be a similar type of project. How does your new book relate to that one? 

Yes, Reddick (1910-1995) and Davis (1902-1983) were both Black scholar-activists living in similar worlds. As young men during the Great Depression, they were in fact both professors at Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans. Each earned a PhD at the University of Chicago: Reddick in history in 1939, Davis in social anthropology in 1942. I first learned of Reddick while working on the Davis project. They are also both “lost scholars” in the sense that scholarship has paid very little attention to them despite having been remarkably significant and influential figures. My books aim to remedy that.

The similarities of these figures and their comparable struggles against racism (institutional, scientific, and interpersonal) continue to intrigue me, but it was actually their differences that most interested me. After deep dives into the sociology, anthropology, and psychology that Davis’s work was rooted in, I wanted to explore a humanities field like history, which of course Reddick and I also share as a disciplinary home. 

But it was also much more than that. Davis was first and foremost a scholar. He fought his battles in that arena and hardly participated in other forms of activism. Reddick was the opposite. His life was consumed by activism of all sorts, and he in fact prioritized more direct, political struggle. Their personalities were also markedly different, as were many of the social interactions they had. 

So the contrasts were important in helping me get a better sense of how and why these “Talented Tenth” figures approached their lives in different ways. It’s always worthwhile to explore the richness of human diversity even among figures who operate on a similar social plane. 

Tell us about your next project.

Partly for the reasons described above, I’ve begun working on a larger project that connects the lives and careers of Black Chicago School scholars like Allison Davis and Lawrence Reddick. There are now biographies on many of these figures, but few books that treat them together. This is a missed opportunity, because their lives were so interconnected, and their struggles and accomplishments so parallel. 



We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.