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Barbara Christian, UC Berkeley professor and pioneer of contemporary American literary feminism, dies at age 56
27 June 2000

By Patricia McBroom, Media Relations

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Berkeley - Barbara T. Christian, an acclaimed professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a pioneer of contemporary American literary feminism, died Sunday, June 25, at her home in Berkeley from cancer. She was 56.

The author and editor of several books and almost 100 published articles and reviews, Christian was best known for her landmark study, "Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition," which appeared in 1980 following the rediscovery of the work of important women writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen. She was among the first scholars to focus national attention on such major writers as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

"She was a path-breaking scholar," said Percy Hintzen, chair of the department of African American studies at UC Berkeley. "Nobody did more to bring black women writers into academic and popular recognition."

Christian was known for her critical presence in the growing debates over the relationship between race, class and gender. Her widely cited article, "The Race for Theory," challenged the increasing domination of African American literary study by theorists who seemed to displace both writers and their writing.

Christian received a doctorate from Columbia University in 1970. A year later, she was appointed to UC Berkeley as an assistant professor. Previously, she had spent six years as an activist and teacher at New York's City College. At UC Berkeley, Christian soon became central in establishing the African American Studies department, where she taught from 1972 until her death. She served as chair of that department from 1978 until 1983 and went on to chair the campus's new Ethnic Studies doctoral program from 1986 to 1989.

Christian was the first African American woman at UC Berkeley to be granted tenure (1978), the first to receive the campus's Distinguished Teaching Award (1991), and the first to be promoted to full professor (1986). This year, she was awarded UC Berkeley's highest honor, the Berkeley Citation.

A beloved teacher, her courses attracted large numbers of students of virtually all ethnic backgrounds.

"Fighting the backlash against affirmative action, which decreased the presence of students of color in higher education, remained one of her central passions," said Dr. Gabrielle Foreman, one of Christian's former graduate students.

Christian's home was an extension of the intellectual activity, diversity and warmth that had characterized her classroom. She also was committed to community education, helping to found the University Without Walls, a community-based alternative college for people of color. Her work establishing the college is but one example of her dedication to progressive politics and social justice.

Christian, who was born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, is survived by her daughter, Najuma I. Henderson of Berkeley; her parents, Judge Alphonso A. Christian and Ruth Christian of St. Thomas; her siblings, Reubina Gomez of St. Thomas, Alicia Wells of Philadelphia, Delano Christian of San Francisco, Cora Christian of St. Croix, Alphonso Christian II of Washington D.C.; her ex-husband, David Henderson of New York; and by her stepson, Imetai Malik Henderson of New York.

She will be greatly missed by her many graduate students and a family of dear friends.

The African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley will hold memorial services this August. In lieu of flowers, contributions should be sent to the Barbara T. Christian Scholarship Fund, c/o Marvina White, Department of English, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305.

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