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Barbara Christian broke the mold; community bids a pioneer professor farewell

By Josh Parr Daily Planet Staff
Saturday September 09, 2000


Barbara Christian was the sum cum laude of soul, a spirit who engendered and colorized the ivory tower of the American academy. At Thursday evening’s memorial in Wheeler Auditorium her spirit was invoked in jazz, text, poetry and play. 

Forging new space for African-American Women’s literature in the syllabus and African-American women in the faculty, Christian was a “pathbreaking scholar” according to Margaret Wilkinson, her colleague in the African-American Studies Department.  

“She brought African American women writers into the ivory tower,” Wilkinson said. “She carved out a physical, mental, and spiritual space for African-American women in the university.” 

Christian died of cancer, on June 25 at her Berkeley home. 

Born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Christian left her home for the frigidity of Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her life was a series of firsts. She graduated from high school at 15, from college at 20. She received her doctorate from Colombia University in 1970, was an assistant professor at UC Berkeley in 1971, and became the first black woman to gain tenure in 1978. She was the first African-American woman to receive the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1991, and the first to gain full professorship in 1986. 

The author of several books and over 100 essays, her landmark study, “Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition,” brought national attention to such writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. 

Ishmael Reed, a pioneer of African American literature himself, spoke before the 400 gathered in Wheeler Auditorium, saying, “She challenged white supremacy. She challenged a bunch of -isms. She was armed and dangerous.” 

Known for her ability to transform literature into living narrative, Christian taught people who thought they knew how to read, to read.  

“I thought I had read Beloved before I went into her class,” said former student Kelley Navies. “But then I realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface.” 

Christian’s theories provided a foundation for black women to assert control over their own image in American literature. Most images of black women were authored by white writers, and were based in stereotype. Without a historical tradition through which they could view themselves, many black women writers never felt themselves to be represented genuinely.  

What they did recognize, however, were stories told them by their mothers, their grandmothers, their neighbors. Those voices, those stories were unrepresented in libraries, curriculums and popular culture.  

“Barbara defined a field,” said Robert Berdahl, university chancellor. “She was a leader, a pathbreaker.” 

To commemorate her memory, a chair in the African American studies department was established in her name. A scholarship bearing her name will also permanently designate space for future African American women to continue to study literature at UC Berkeley.