Christian, Barbara T. 1943–2000
Barbara T. Christian 1943–2000
Feminist literary critic, scholar, educator
Barbara T. Christian was an influential feminist literary scholar and critic, acclaimed for her landmark critical works, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition and Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. She was also highly respected as a scholar, administrator, and teacher at the University of California, Berkeley, where she taught for more than 25 years. A champion of the work of contemporary black writers, including Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, and Toni Morrison, Christian also spearheaded the rediscovery of earlier writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen.
Barbara Theresa Christian was born on December 12, 1943, in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, one of six children of Alphonso Christian, a judge, and his wife, Ruth. A voracious reader and brilliant student, she was admitted to Marquette University in Wisconsin at the age of 15 and graduated cum laude in 1963. Although her family wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, Christian chose instead to study her growing passion, literature, at Columbia University—a location chosen, she later said, because of its proximity to Harlem. In 1970 she was awarded a doctorate, with distinction, in contemporary British and American writing.
At Columbia, Christian developed an interest in the work of black writers, few of whom had been embraced at that time by the American literary canon. Christian was already aware of the apparent absence of a black tradition. In the introduction to Black Feminist Criticism, she recalled her life “as a young girl in the Caribbean, gobbling up Nancy Drew books… [aware of] the privileges of Nancy’s world…. What black girl protagonist competed with her?” Christian’s doctoral thesis, “Spirit Bloom in Harlem: The Search for a Black Aesthetic during the Harlem Renaissance: The Poetry of Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer,” reflected her growing interest in uncovering and defining an ongoing literary tradition.
Harlem was a fertile center for the political activists of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Christian found herself part of a confident new black intellectual elite, their activities centered around the bookstore run by Lewis Micheaux, brother of pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. She was also a visitor to the home of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and Hughes’ personal secretary introduced her to Zora Neale Hurston’s forgotten masterpiece, Her Eyes Were Watching God.
While still a graduate student, Christian taught briefly at the College of the Virgin Islands and at Hunter College in New York City. She worked at the City College of the City University of New York while completing her doctoral thesis, becoming assistant professor of English in 1970. At the City College, Christian was also an instructor in the SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge), which gave access to higher education to promising but underprivileged students. Her participation in this groundbreaking program possibly informed her lifelong support for affirmative action, and helped establish her reputation as a dedicated and resourceful teacher.
At a Glance…
Born on December 12, 1943, in St Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; died on June 25, 2000, in Berkeley, CA; divorced; children: Najuma. Education: Marquette University, AB, 1963; Columbia University, MA, 1964, PhD, with honors, 1970.
Career: College of the Virgin Islands, instructor in English, 1963; Hunter College, New York City, instructor in English, 1963-64; City College of the City University of New York, New York City, lecturer, 1965-70, assistant professor of English, 1971-72; University of California, Berkeley, lecturer, 1971-72, assistant professor, 1972-78, associate professor and chairperson of Afro-American studies, 1978-86, professor of African-American studies and president of Women’s Studies Board, 1986-2000.
Memberships: Modern Language Association of America; National Women’s Studies Association; National Council for Black Studies; Women’s Studies Board.
Selected Awards: Afro-American Society Hall of Fame award, 1980; American Women’s Educators Association award, 1982; Before Columbus American Book Award, for Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976, 1983; University of California, Berkeley, Distinguished Teaching Award, 1991; Louise Patterson African-American Studies Award, 1992, 1995; Modern Language Association MELUS award for contribution to ethnic studies and African-American scholarship, 1994; Gwendolyn Brooks Center award, 1995; University of California, Berkeley, Citation for Distinguished Achievement, 2000.
In September of 1971 Christian joined the faculty of the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley. The young academic was by no means typical of the faculty. “Not only was I a woman and black, but I was also pregnant when I first arrived,” she was quoted as saying in her obituary in the St. Croix Source. In 1972, Christian received a request from students to teach a course on black women writers. Developing the curriculum for the course, her professional interests found their focus, and she was instrumental in the establishment that year of Berkeley’s Department of Afro-American Studies. Christian was to teach in this department for the rest of her life, serving as chair of the department from 1978 to 1983, and as chair of Berkeley’s new Ethnic Studies doctoral program from 1986 to 1989. A dedicated activist with a strong commitment to community education, she also served as founding member and teacher of the University without Walls, an alternative college for people of color, from 1971 to 1976.
In 1978, Christian taught a seminar at Berkeley on the work of Alice Walker, “a course that had not been taught there before, or possibly anywhere else,” she noted in an essay introduction in Black Feminist Criticism. In that same year, she became the first African-American woman to be granted tenure at Berkeley.
Christian was a prolific scholar and writer. The author of several books, she contributed almost 100 articles and reviews to numerous books and journals, and was asked to serve as editor of the contemporary section of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay.
Her groundbreaking first book, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, was published in 1980, a time when, as Christian later remarked in Black Feminist Criticism, many writers and scholars were only just “becoming aware of the literary explosion of Afro-American women writers that had occurred during the 1970s.” Comprising an historical survey of images of black women in black fiction, and critical evaluations of key contemporary black writers Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, Black Women Novelists was the first comprehensive study of black women as literary subjects and creators. Hailed as an important contribution to American literary history, it became an essential text for readers and scholars interested in the new wave of black women writers and helped launch a burgeoning area of academic study.
In 1985 Christian published Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, a collection of 17 essays written between 1975 and 1984, including studies of the work of Walker, Morrison, Marshall, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Audre Lorde. In her essay on Christian in Feminist Writers, Nancy Raye Tarcher notes the scope of the essays: “Christian examines, from a black feminist perspective, such issues as the importance of motherhood and the mother-child relationship within the works of both African American and Native African writers; nineteenth-century black women novelists’ efforts to transcend the prevailing racial and sexual stereotypes of their age; and the attempts by such writers as Paule Marshall to destroy the image of the domineering black matriarch… in modern African American literature.”
In the introduction to Black Feminist Criticism, Christian argued against then-current trends in literary criticism, in which the critic uses the text simply as “an occasion for espousing his or her philosophical point of view—revolutionary, black, feminist, or socialist program.” As she remarked in her introduction to an essay on Paule Marshall, few black writers had yet been the subject of biographies and literary studies. The black critic’s role, she asserted, was to “call attention to the form, show how it comes out of a history, a tradition, how the writer uses it.”
In a paper presented at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in 1983, reprinted in Black Feminist Criticism, Christian admitted that her belief in “the need to establish the historical origins and context of a literature” was unfashionable compared with many of the more abstract theoretical trends of the 1980s. But to Christian, emphasis on theory distracted critics and readers of black writing from the more urgent task of discovering and assessing a black literary tradition. This was essential, she believed, so “the cultural reproduction of the powerful” could be challenged.
It was an argument she was to present again in her influential and often reprinted 1987 essay, “Race for Theory: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1990s.” Throughout her career, Christian’s focus remained on black writers and their work, rather than on political or literary theory. “I know, from literary history,” she wrote in “Race for Theory,” “that writing disappears unless there is a response to it… I hope to help ensure that their tradition has continuity and survives.”
Christian was a sought-after speaker at international conferences, a highly respected teacher, and an important mentor to hundreds of students. “One cannot exaggerate the importance of Professor Christian to the Department of African American Studies,” wrote Percy Hintzen, Elizabeth Abel, and Suzette Spencer in an obituary on the University of California: In Memoriam Web site. “She became one of its most senior scholars and one of its most important in terms of national and international reputation.”
Her contributions to the university were recognized a number of times. In 1986, she became the first African-American woman at Berkeley to be promoted to full professor. In 1991, she was the first African American to win the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award. In the statement she wrote for this award, Christian expressed the pride she took in her academic focus. “I love the subject I study,” she wrote. “…I find African-American literature to be beautiful, vital.”
Aware that much “of African-Americans’ literary practice occurs outside of the academy,” she placed strong emphasis on communicating knowledge to students they could use within academia and beyond: “I try to share with students what I do outside the classroom: the joys and difficulties of doing research, the papers I write, the institution-building necessary to the preservation and development of this field.”
Christian died of lung cancer on June 25, 2000, at her home in Berkeley. Her marriage to poet David Henderson, author of De Mayor of Harlem and biographer of Jimi Hendrix, ended in divorce; she was survived by her only daughter, Najuma.
Remembered as a generous host, avid gardener, and collector of African and Caribbean art, she was still receiving professional accolades in the last year of her life, including Berkeley’s highest honor, a citation “for distinguished achievement and for notable service to the university.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard University, in a letter supporting her nomination quoted in her New York Times obituary, described Christian as “the senior figure among African-American feminists.”
Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976, Greenwood Press, 1980.
Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, Pergamon Press, 1985.
From the Inside Out: Afro-American Women’s Literary Tradition and the State, Center for Humanistic Studies, University of Minnesota, 1987.
(Editor and author of introduction) Walker, Alice, Everyday Use, Rutgers University Press, 1994.
(Editor, with Elizabeth Abel and Helene Moglen) Female Subjects in Black and White, University of California Press, 1997.
(Contributor) Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie McKay, eds., The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
“Race for Theory: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1990s,” Cultural Critique Vol. 6, Spring 1987.
Christian is the author of nearly 100 articles and reviews in periodicals.
Christian, Barbara T., Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, Pergamon Press, 1985, pp. x, 31, 81, 103.
Kester-Shelton, Pamela, Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1996, pp. 100-101.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 30, 2000, sec 1, p. 4.
New York Times, July 9, 2000, Section 1, p. 38.
“Barbara Christian,” 2001, University of California: In Memoriam, http://dynaweb.oac.cdlib.org:8088/dynaweb/uchist/public/inmemoriam/inmemoriam2001/%40Generic_BookTextView/484 (February 19, 2004).
“Barbara Christian Bibliography,” Black Cultural Studies, www.blackculturalstudies.org/christian/christian_biblio.html (February 17, 2004).
“Barbara T. Christian,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (February 16, 2004).
“Barbara T. Christian,” University of California, Berkeley: What Good Teachers Say About Teaching, http://teaching.berkeley.edu/goodteachers/christian.html (February 16, 2004).
“Barbara Theresa Christian: An Obituary,” The Diaspora, http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~africam/f00.pdf (February 16, 2004).
“Black History Spotlight: Barbara T. Christian,” St. Croix Source, www.onepaper.com/stcroixvi/?v=d&i=&s=News:Local&p=1075612122 (February 18, 2004)
—Paula J. K. Morris
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