Martin Duberman’s Radical 85-Year Journey Through White America
‘The older I get, the more radical I get.”
So says Martin Duberman, the strikingly youthful-looking 85-year-old author, activist, CUNY professor emeritus and playwright, whose groundbreaking civil rights drama “In White America” is being remounted — with some revisions — on its 50th anniversary. “Like all political theater, it’s a call to action,” Duberman says.
Running off-Broadway at the Castillo Theatre through November 15, “In White America” is a fact-based drama in which seven performers play an array of roles from Thomas Jefferson to Nat Turner to Sojourner Truth to President Obama, among many others. The text is a montage of letters, speeches, diary snippets and congressional hearings from 1788 to the present and ends with the actors proclaiming, “Black Lives Matter.”
The lives of African Americans have undoubtedly improved, but they still have no parity with white Americans, Duberman told me. In some areas of the country, residential segregation — and by extension school segregation — is worse than it was 50 years ago. Duberman also points to police brutality in black communities and the overrepresentation of African Americans in prison.
Duberman has been a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and has won an Award for Scholarly Distinction from the American Historical Association, and a special award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters. He also earned a Drama Desk Award for “In White America,” his first produced play, which launched the careers of actors Moses Gunn and Gloria Foster.
“I am producing the 50th anniversary production of Martin Duberman’s ‘In White America,’ because it is so timely,” says Woodie King Jr., whose New Federal Theatre is producing the work in association with the Castillo Theatre. “It’s like watching history repeat itself. Duberman’s research was 50 years ahead of its time. The play actually shows that American History and African-American History is really one story.”
I met with Duberman in his Chelsea apartment that evokes a page right out of a home decor magazine promoting midcentury modern. Thoughtful, good-humored and eager to discuss the play (and many other topics), he says that his views may no longer represent those of formerly liberal whites — many of whom were Jews.
He says a political shift began in the late 1960s, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) advocated black self-determination, and some of the Black Panthers voiced offensive views, including anti-Semitism and homophobia. Duberman who is Jewish and gay — though he prefers the term “queer” — supported the Panthers nonetheless and continues to do so in retrospect, especially in connection with their breakfast programs for inner city youngsters.
“But for many whites, the Panthers gave them the excuse for premature civil rights burnout,” he says. “They felt, ‘Look, we’ve done everything we can. There’s the Great Society, the Voting Rights Act. We’ve given you the tools and now it’s up to you.’ You pull yourself up by your bootstraps. If you’re not doing well it’s your fault. That is the great American myth — the major culprit — that has destroyed one movement after another.
“Where do Jews fit in on these views?” he asks rhetorically. “I’m not entirely sure, though there are certainly enough Jews who came from nothing and are success stories. So they too believe the mythology. But what we don’t hear about are those Jews who did not make it. ‘Death of a Salesman’ is the classic example. Willy Loman bought into the mythology, he failed and he blamed himself.”
Unlike the Lomans, Duberman’s family made it. Duberman’s semiliterate Ukrainian-born father, who worked as a cutter and lived in a railroad flat, ultimately owned a very successful clothing business that produced uniforms for soldiers during World War II. The family moved to Mount Vernon, where they joined a local Jewish country club and Duberman played golf. He also attended the posh private high school Horace Mann in Riverdale before matriculating at Yale and finally earning his doctorate in American history from Harvard. His dissertation focused on slavery and abolitionists.
Duberman was a professor at Princeton for nine years, and while he was there, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge in 1968, refusing to pay taxes because of the war in Vietnam. Three years later, he was named a Distinguished Professor of History at CUNY’s Lehman College and evolved into an outspoken LBGT activist. In 1991, he founded an LBGTQ center at CUNY’s Graduate Center, the first university-based research program of its kind.
A social conscience is part of the Jew’s cultural DNA, Duberman says, though growing up gay in the 1950s was his defining experience, paving the way for his identification with and advocacy on behalf of the most marginalized and disenfranchised in the society.
He knew he was gay early on and says he felt horrified by it, spending much of his life in therapy attempting to be “cured” of his homosexuality when no one questioned the received wisdom that homosexuality was pathology.
“In group therapy I was encouraged to date the women in the group and I dutifully did so,” Duberman says. “Another man in the group who was married, but continued to have homosexual affairs on the side, was not only told to maintain his marriage and stop the affairs, he was discouraged from discussing his homosexual affairs in the group and was also told, I later found out, that under no circumstances should he discuss his homosexuality with me.”
Duberman came out in a New York Times book review on gay literature in 1971. Later, he dubbed himself a gay liberationist and argued against assimilation. He is not in favor of gay marriage, though he himself is married. His partner of 30-plus years — a psychotherapist who is 25 years his junior — convinced him it was the right thing to do for economic reasons, starting with estate taxes, he says.
“But we’re not ‘just folks,’” Duberman emphasizes. “We’ve had different historical experiences and different perspectives. I love the James Baldwin line, ‘Why beg to rent a room in a house that’s burning down?’ Why are we denying our differences? We have a lot to say to America and America could learn from us.”
“Gay men generally have a different take on love/sex/friendship,” he says. “Heterosexuals are told look for all three qualities in one person who will be your best friend, hottest sexual partner, and the love of your life for the rest of your life. Gay men accept the idea that you may not find everything in one person. I’ve been watching ‘The Affair’ and enjoy it, though it’s still considered a big deal on the show when one of the characters has sex outside of a marriage that has lasted for only 20 years. Give me a break.”
Duberman’s next book, “Jews/Queers/Germans” combines several of his most pressing concerns and is slated for release in 2016. It explores the interconnected lives of four World War I intellectuals whose contributions in art and psychotherapy where seminal. The central figure, Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jew, a “queer” and a German was a pioneer in the study of sexuality and an early advocate for homosexual and transgender rights.
“He actually believed that homosexuals were a third sex and physiologically different from heterosexuals,” says Duberman. “That was his testimony at a famous trial of that time and he lived to view it as the worst mistake of his life. There was — and is — no evidence to suggest that homosexuals are physiologically different from heterosexuals. But the Nazi extermination of homosexuals was in part based on that idea.”
At the moment, though, Duberman is most focused on “In White America,” and hopes audiences appreciate it even as he’s deeply aware that racism is not the only issue affecting Americans today. A committed Bernie Sanders supporter, he says the plight of poor, underemployed whites is of major concern to him too.
“So if somebody calls me on the carpet because the play does not talk about poor whites, I accept that,” he says. “But this is an anniversary play and it continues to be a history lesson. The white public is still not sufficiently empathic to the black struggle. They still don’t get the depth of suffering blacks have endured for hundreds of years. Until we address injustices of the past, we won’t understand present day grievances.”
Simi Horwitz received the 2015 New York Press Club award for two Forward pieces on the interplay of gender and ethnicity. She also won a 2015 Simon Rockower award for a Forward article on environmental art.