De Veaux, Alexis 1948–
Alexis De Veaux 1948–
Author, scholar, artist
One of America’s leading black lesbian authors, Alexis De Veaux’s fiction, lyrics, prose poetry, feature articles, biographies, plays, and performance pieces have impressed readers and critics for more than 30 years. Focused on political, economic, and psychological issues confronting black Americans and third world peoples, particularly women, De Veaux writes passionately about racial and economic inequalities, class oppression, and sexism. Yet her optimistic tone reinforces the courage and moral values of her characters and subjects. Dr. De Veaux chairs the Department of Women’s Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo.
Born on September 24, 1948, in Harlem—the backdrop for much of her creative writing—De Veaux was the second of eight children. She was raised in Harlem and the South Bronx by her mother and extended family. De Veaux’s father was incarcerated during much of her childhood, and her Uncle Frank was an important childhood influence. She told Jewelle L. Gomez in Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: “He used to come by our house and entertain us with stories for hours…. From him I realized that the stories were important because they showed you how to resist and survive. You could be smart even if you had nothing material.”
In “Remember Him a Outlaw,” De Veaux’s first published story, the main character Lex is escaping the drug-, violence-, and poverty-ridden streets of Harlem for the idyllic beauty of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The story drew from De Veaux’s own experience, for while she attended Cornell, De Veaux was involved in a black and Latino takeover of a university building. On the twentieth anniversary of the takeover, De Veaux was invited back to the campus and found that she had become a “historic elder.”
Returning to Harlem after her part in the revolt at Cornell, De Veaux taught English and creative writing and attended various colleges. At SUNY’s Empire State College De Veaux finally found a university program where she could write and study with more independence.
De Veaux wrote and illustrated her first children’s book, Na-Ni, in 1973. On “welfare day” in Harlem, Na-Ni and her friend Lollipop wait for the mailman. Na-Ni’s mother has promised to buy her a bike with the money and Na-Ni is going to “fly.” When the welfare check is stolen, Na-Ni goes to her room and writes: “my bike is gone / the sun cries on the street today / my bike is broken one thousand bikes is broken / dont that man know / I am his sister he steal from?”
De Veaux’s A Little Play and Whip Cream was produced by the Young People’s Workshop in Harlem in 1973. That same year her one-act play, Circles, was produced in New York. Circles, and her full-length play The Tapestry, were broadcast nationally in 1979 on
At a Glance…
Born Alexis De Veaux on September 24, 1948, in Harlem, NY; daughter of Richard Hill and Mae (Gould) De Veaux. Education: Attended Cornell University, 1967-69; SUNY Empire State College, New York, BA, 1976; SUNY Buffalo, MA, 1989; SUNY Buffalo, PhD, 1992.
Career: Writer and illustrator, 1974-; Roundabout Theater/Stage One, intern, 1974; New Haven Board of Education, master artist, 1974-75; Black Coalition of Greater New Haven, Black Expo cultural coordinator, 1975; Coeur de L’Unicorne Gallery, founder and exhibitor; Flamboyant Ladies Theater Company, co-founder, 1977-84; Essence magazine, poetry editor, contributing editor, editor-at-large, 1978-91; Sarah Lawrence College, adjunct lecturer, 1979-80; Vermont College, 1984-85; Norwich University, associate faculty, 1984-85; Wabash College, Owen Dutson visiting scholar, 1986-87; SUNY Buffalo, visiting assistant professor, 1991-92, Department of American Studies, assistant professor, 1992-99, Department of Women’s Studies, associate professor, 2000-, Department of Women’s Studies, chair, 2001-.
Selected memberships: Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County; Just Buffalo Literary Center; Organization of Women Writers of Africa; Pen American West; Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa.
Selected awards: Institute for Afro-American Affairs, New York University, National Fiction Contest, first prize, for “Remember Him a Outlaw,” 1972; Brooklyn Museum, Art Books for Children Awards, for Na-Ni, 1974, 1975; National Endowment for the Arts, fellowship, 1980-81; American Library Association, Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award, for Don’t Explain, 1981; American Library Association, Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award, for An Enchanted Hair Tale, 1988; Lorraine Hansberry Award for Excellence in African American Children’s Literature, for An Enchanted Hair Tale, 1991.
Addresses: Office —Department of Women’s Studies, 712 Clemens Hall, College of Arts and Sciences, Buffalo, NY 14260.
the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series Visions. The Tapestry continues to be produced regionally.
The Negro Ensemble Company produced De Veaux’s A Season to Unravel at St. Mark’s Playhouse in New York in 1979. That same year De Veaux and actress Gwendolen Hardwick founded the Flamboyant Ladies Theater Company, a performance collective in Brooklyn. In 1980 De Veaux founded the Gap Tooth Girlfriends Writing Workshop. The group published two volumes of poetry and prose.
De Veaux’s choreo-poem No ignited a controversy in Harlem’s black press when it was produced in 1981. A collection of poems, scenes, and woman-centered stories, No confronts the conflicts facing black lesbian political activists. “The Riddles of Egypt Brownstone,” from No, became one of De Veaux’s best-known stories.
De Veaux’s interests in ancient Egyptian culture, and on languages based in African, Haitian, black American, and “neo-sexual” sources, are reflected in her writings. She told Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work: “I’m very interested in how words work. I try to write each piece in the language of the piece, so that I’m not using the same language from piece to piece. I may be using ten or twenty languages. That multiplicity of language and the use of words is African in tradition.”
Music is also integral to De Veaux’s work. She told Tate, “In ‘The Sisters’ I hear the blues of Taj Mahal and Big Mama Thornton. Spirits in the Street is much more like the popular music of the sixties. ‘Egypt Brownstone’ is like jazz, each instrument/character playing variations on the melody so that the story is told not as a linear experience but as a holistic one.”
De Veaux worked at Essence for twelve years, from 1979 to 1991, as an editor, feature writer, and political commentator. She reported on women—in traditionally male dominated Zimbabwe, in South Africa under apartheid, and as Haitian refugees. A high point of her career was her exclusive interview with Nelson and Winnie Mandela upon Mandela’s release after more than 27 years in a South-African prison. De Veaux wrote profiles of black American women and covered women’s health issues, including her personal experiences with fibroid tumors and vegetarianism.
De Veaux’s fictionalized biography of singer Billie Holiday, a prose poem, became one of her most popular works. Don’t Explain emphasized the artistic legacy of the assertive black singer, rather than the sorrow and degradation that plagued her life. De Veaux’s children’s book, An Enchanted Hair Tale, won several awards and was featured on PBS’s Reading Rainbow.
“Bird of Paradise” is a moving, lyrical story of a young lesbian archeologist coming out to her mother, a Harlem barmaid. Deveaux told Richard Morris in Gay and Lesbian Literature: “The fact that I am a woman who loves women informs all of my work… Part of what I try to do in my writing about women loving women is to counter traditional and stereotypic images of what that means. Even if that means being at odds with the African-American literary ‘canon.’ Even if that means being at odds with ‘acceptable’ or ‘popular’ notions of lesbian literature, which tend to privilege issues of sexuality over other issues of difference.”
Throughout the 1980s De Veaux taught black women’s literature and creative writing at various colleges. Craving the time and space for intellectual study—and the prospect of financial stability—De Veaux began graduate studies at SUNY Buffalo.
In the January 1990 issue of Essence, De Veaux reflected upon turning 40 and leaving her Brooklyn home: “At last I’d become the age I had looked forward to ever since my twenties. For I had always wanted to be ‘forty fine.’ Full of the ripeness of life.” After having made her way in the world as a writer, De Veaux described the difficulties of returning to the classroom as a “mature adult”—the long hours of study and the prestigious fellowship that provided just enough to live in poverty.
In the April 1995 issue of Essence, De Veaux recalled feeling like “an outsider within the halls of academe.” She “remembered the tears of frustration and bouts of self-doubt…. And the anger I felt as a writer, having to prove that I could indeed write in ‘scholarly’ language… the pressure of teaching while writing… the tightrope between the solitude I needed and the academic isolation I so often felt.” However, De Veaux believes “that the pursuit of knowledge is not selfish but self-determining. Knowledge is critical to our personal survival and to our survival as a people… research of black women scholars is so critical: It records our true history and affirms our commitment to social change, justice, and self-determination. As teachers, thinkers, artists, and activists, we have always used education to help liberate our communities.” After earning master’s and doctoral degrees in American Studies, with a dissertation on short stories by black women, De Veaux joined the SUNY Buffalo faculty.
De Veaux’s poems, short stories, and excerpts from longer works have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals, and numerous anthologies and have been translated into several languages. Her unpublished work includes The Woolu Hat, a children’s book. She has traveled widely as an artist and lecturer and has appeared on radio and television.
DeVeaux has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a Humanitarian Award from MADRE, an international women’s organization; the Unity in Media Award for political reporting from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; and Medger Evers College’s Fannie Lou Hamer Award for Excellence in the Arts.
At SUNY Buffalo, De Veaux teaches black women’s history and literature, cross-cultural analyses of work by women of color, and fiction writing. In nonliterary circles she often uses the name Masani Alexis De Veaux. Her biography of the black lesbian poet, Audre Lorde, was published in April of 2004. De Veaux related the sources of her ideas, telling Gomez that “I always think about resistance, community, being empowered, love or the absence of love, the future and its possibilities.”
“Remember Him a Outlaw,” Black Creation, Fall 1972.
Midnight Birds, Doubleday, 1980.
Children of the Night, Little Brown and Co., 1995.
Na-Ni, Harper & Row, 1973.
Spirits in the Street, Doubleday, 1973.
“The Riddles of Egypt Brownstone,” Essence, August 1978.
An Enchanted Hair Tale, Harper and Row, 1987.
“Adventures of the Dread Sisters,” Memory of Kin, Doubleday, 1991.
“Bird of Paradise,” Does Your Mama Know?, Red-Bone Press, 1997 Black Like Us, Cleis Press, 2002.
Don’t Explain: A Song of Billie Holiday, Harper and Row, 1980.
“Zimbabwe: Woman Fire!” Essence, July 1981.
“Loving the Dark in Me,” Essence, July 1982.
“Sister Love,” Essence, October 1983.
“Going South,” Essence, May 1985.
“New Body, New Life,” Essence, June 1988.
“Alice Walker,” Essence, September 1989.
“Forty Fine,” Essence, January 1990.
“Walking into Freedom with Nelson and Winnie Mandela,” Essence, June 1990.
“Old Forms, New Forms: What Works Today?,” “Issues of Race and Class” (Moderator), International Women Playwrights, Scarecrow Press, 1993.
“Indigenous Voice,” Liberating Memory, Rutgers University Press, 1995.
“The Third Degree: Black Women Scholars Storming the Ivory Tower,” Essence, April 1995.
“Searching for Audre Lorde,” Callaloo, Winter 2000.
“A Conversation with June Jordan,” Essence, September 2000.
“Freedom Fighter,” Women’s Review of Books, October 2002.
Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, Norton, 2004.
“Madeline’s Dreads,” Iowa Review, 1981.
“The Woman Who Lives in the Botanical Gardens,” Confirmations, Quill, 1983.
“The Sisters,” Home Girls, Kitchen Table—Women of Color Press, 1983.
Blue Heat: A Portfolio of Poems and Drawings (includes selections from No), Diva, 1985.
“Everyone Is Nicaragua,” Black Scholar, July-October, 1988.
“I am the Creativity,” Soul Looks Back in Wonder, Dial, 1993.
“Cuntery,” Arc of Love, Scribner, 1996.
“Twilight,” Arc of Love, Scribner, 1996.
“Circles,” Visions, PBS, 1976; in Nine Plays by Black Women Playwrights, New American Library, 1986.
“The Tapestry: A Play Woven in Two,” Visions, PBS, 1976; in Nine Plays by Black Women Playwrights, New American Library, 1986.
Davis, Thadious M., and Trudier Harris, eds., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 38, Gale, 1985.
Hull, Akasha Gloria, Soul Talk: The New Spirituality of African American Women, Inner Traditions, 2002.
Pendergast, Tom, and Sara Pendergast, eds., Gay and Lesbian Literature, Vol. 2, St. James Press, 1998.
Pollack, Sandra, and Denise D. Knight, eds., Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States, Greenwood Press, 1993.
Tate, Claudia, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983.
Differences, Spring 1991, pp. 17-19.
Modern Drama, Winter 1997, pp. 514-525.
“Alexis De Veaux,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (January 14, 2004).
“Alexis De Veaux Author,” FemmeNoir, www.femmenoir.net/weblogonlinediary/idl44.html (February 5, 2004).
“Uncrowned Queens: Alexis De Veaux,” African American Women Community Builders of Western New York, www.wings.buffalo.edu/uncrownedqueens/files_2002/deveaux_alexis.htm (January 17, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Alexis De Veaux on February 12, 2004.
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