- 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
teacher, her courses attracted large numbers of students of
virtually all ethnic backgrounds.
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.
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.
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.
be greatly missed by her many graduate students and a family
of dear friends.
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.