Aptheker, Herbert, 1915-2003.prolific Marxist historian
Herbert Aptheker, 87, Prolific Marxist Historian, Is Dead
By CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT
New York Times, March 20, 2003
Herbert Aptheker, the prolific Marxist historian best known for his three-volume "Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States" and for editing the correspondence and writing of his mentor, W. E. B. DuBois, died on Monday in Mountain View, Calif. He was 87.
Along with his work on black history and his outspoken defense of civil rights, he was known as a dominant voice on the American left in the 1950's and 60's and as one of the first scholars to denounce American military involvement in Vietnam. His political views, and particularly a fact-finding trip to Hanoi and Beijing in 1966, resulted in threats by Washington to revoke his passport, a move that provoked a high-profile debate about the legality of State Department travel restrictions.
In another public feud, Mr. Aptheker took on the author William Styron, after the publication of his best-selling 1967 novel "The Confessions of Nat Turner," a re-creation of the 1831 Virginia slave insurrection. Mr. Aptheker, as well as some black writers and historians, accused Mr. Styron of distorting the record and promoting racial stereotypes. Mr. Styron, who called his book a "meditation on history," hotly rejected Mr. Aptheker's view, saying it was tainted by politics.
Although he wrote, taught and lectured widely on his political views, his only major attempt at elective office was an unsuccessful campaign for the House of Representatives from Brooklyn in 1966 on the Peace and Freedom ticket.
Among his lasting contributions was the editing of the DuBois letters. Writing in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, the historian Eric Foner called "The Correspondence of W. E. B. DuBois" (Massachusetts, 1973-1978) "a landmark in Afro-American history." Yet when DuBois appointed Mr. Aptheker (pronounced AP-tek-er) his literary executor in 1946 and subsequently turned over to him his vast correspondence shortly before his death in 1963, the move was vocally criticized in the black intellectual community.
Some felt that as a white man Mr. Aptheker could not truly identify with the black American experience. Others thought that for DuBois to have chosen an avowed Marxist to edit his papers was to make him vulnerable to the accusation, often voiced in the McCarthy era, that he himself was opposed to the American way of life.
Yet Mr. Aptheker's editing was greeted with wide praise. Reviewers said that his own extensive writing on African-American history had clearly prepared him for the task. Jay Saunders Redding, the black author and teacher, wrote in Phylon, a journal founded by DuBois, that "what gives a special importance to the letters it contains is the light they shed on the why and how of this history and on the men and women who made it."
Herbert Aptheker was born on July 31, 1915, in Brooklyn, the youngest of five children of Benjamin Aptheker, a successful manufacturer of women's underwear, and Rebecca Komar Aptheker. He graduated from Columbia University in 1936, completed a master's degree there in 1937 and a doctorate in history in 1943. His dissertation was published under the title "Black Slave Revolts" (Columbia, 1942).
In September 1939, just after he began working toward his doctorate, he joined the Communist Party, because, he said, he saw it as an anti-fascist force and a progressive voice for race relations. He was a hostile witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951, and throughout the 1950's he remained on the defensive for his radical views, experiencing violent threats and close federal surveillance.
In 1942, he married Fay Philippa Aptheker, his first cousin. She died in 1999. They had one child, a daughter, Bettina, a leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement who is a professor and the chairwoman of Women's Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He is also survived by two grandchildren.
From 1942 until 1946, Mr. Aptheker served in the Army, seeing action as an artillery officer in Europe and rising to the rank of major.
His first published work was a pamphlet, "The Negro in the Civil War" (1938), later compiled with other pamphlets under the title "To Be Free: Studies in American Negro History" (International Publishers, 1948). After the publication of his dissertation in 1942, he produced books almost yearly. Among his more notable works, in addition to his "Documentary History" (Citadel, 1951-1975) were his multivolume "History of the American People" (International, 1959-1976) and "Anti-Racism in U.S. History" (Greenwood, 1992). In "Anti-Racism," he traced the thread of opposition to black racism that he saw running throughout American history.
After he returned to New York after World War II, he applied for a teaching position at Columbia and was advised that because of his politics he would never be hired. In fact he was excluded from academic life until 1969, when student demands for a course on black history led to an invitation to teach at Bryn Mawr College, where he remained until 1973.
Yet throughout his long career he lectured informally on black history. He was also DuBois lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst from 1971 to 1972, as a professor at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York from 1971 to 1977 and as a visiting lecturer at Yale, the University of California at Berkeley Law School and Humboldt University in Berlin.
He was an associate editor at Masses and Mainstream from 1948 to 1953 and an editor at Political Affairs from 1953 to 1963. In 1964, he founded the American Institute of Marxist Studies in New York.
Mr. Aptheker's trip to Hanoi and Beijing in January 1966 stirred a whirlwind of debate over Washington's travel restrictions to certain countries. Mr. Aptheker made the trip with Staughton Lynd, then a history professor at Yale, and Tom Hayden, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society.
The widely publicized visit was billed as a mission to sound out the government of North Vietnam about the possibility of a negotiated end to the Vietnam War. Federal law on the broadly drawn State Department rules was unsettled. In one case that seemed to put Mr. Aptheker in the clear, the Supreme Court had held unconstitutionally broad a regulation that barred all Communists from traveling in all countries where passports are required.
But when the three men returned, the State Department, which viewed their trip as meddlesome, took steps to restrict their travel, though it eventually backed down.
To the end of his life, Mr. Aptheker saw his friendship with DuBois as formative. He recalled how in the late 40's they shared an office on 40th Street in Manhattan when DuBois was director of publicity and research for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One day, Mr. Aptheker recalled, DuBois "said to me, `Herbert, any time you have a problem, don't hesitate, just ask me." This meant, he said, having access to one of America's most dynamic minds. "Imagine what that meant to me. I had it right here, and I had the New York Public Library across the street."