84.1 F
Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, July 14, 2024


On Sunday June 25, I lost a sister, a friend, a colleague and a confidante – Dr. Barbara Christian.
My Mother and my Father lost a daughter. My brothers Alphonso and Delano lost a sister. My sisters, Reubina Gomez and Alicia Wells, lost a sister and my niece Najuma lost a mother.
The academic community lost a friend, scholar and someone who was known as a premier scholar in the area of Black Feminist Criticism and Black Women Novelists.
My parents told me that my aunt Josie, now 93 and mother to Dr. Alfred Heath, when Barbara was a few days old, exulted with words: "What a beautiful child!"
Barbara was born on Dec. 12, 1943. Her beauty was not limited to her physical appearance. Her beauty was the gift of her mind. She was always at the top of her class, graduating from Sts. Peter and Paul at age 15 as Valedictorian. The year before at age 14, she won the Virgin Islands-wide High School Oratorical Contest and was invited to skip 12th grade and enter Howard University at age 14. She declined, preferring to graduate with her high school classmates.
My sister was a giant to me. I remember her from our days growing up in St. Thomas when we were first at Nye Gade or Garden Street, as it was known by all, and later when we moved up to Solberg. I remembered when she went off to Marquette. She graduated with honors and was selected as the keynote speaker for the student body of the entire University, which included all doctors of philosophy. Note she was only in undergraduate school at the time.
Subsequently, she continued her studies at Columbia University, earning her masters and doctorate, with distinction, where she was the first woman in the contemporary British and American literature program.
Following brief stints as a teacher at the College of the Virgin Islands in its first year of operation and at Hunter College in Manhattan, in the fall of 1965, she joined the faculty of the City College of the City University of New York as a member of the English Department. She was also appointed as an instructor in the pioneering SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge), which offered opportunities to promising but underprivileged students to attend college.
In September 1971, after six years at City College, Barbara headed west to join the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley.
We have always been in contact over the years. Time never was a distance between us. For me, whenever I got an opportunity to travel to the west coast of the U.S. I made it a point of fraternal duty to visit with Barbara, Babsie, as I affectionately called her. My sister, Reubina, used every opportunity to travel to visit her and to take my children along to better know their famous aunt.
At Berkeley, faculty and friends will remember my sister Barbara as the first African American woman to receive tenure at the university in 1978. She was the first Black to be promoted to full professor in 1986. Between 1978 and 1983, she served as chairperson for the Department of African American Studies at Berkeley. Throughout her years as a professor she was probably its most important leader, as well as its most accomplished member.
In addition, between 1986 and 1989, she was chair of the recently formed Ethnic Studies doctoral program at the university. From 1971 to 1976, she also served as a founding member and teacher with the University Without Walls, a community based alternative college committed to providing education to people of color.
Respected as an administrator, Barbara was nevertheless much better known throughout the university, among undergraduates and graduate students alike, as a teacher of extraordinary knowledge, warmth, generosity, and effectiveness. Her courses, especially those in women's writing and African American literature in general, attracted a large number of students of virtually all-ethnic backgrounds, who typically responded with superlatives in their formal evaluations of their professor.
Accordingly, in 1991, Barbara won the university's Distinguished Teaching Award, becoming the first African American to do so. In 1995, she was honored with the Phi Beta Kappa Award for Distinguished Teaching from the Northern California chapter of the society. And earlier this year the university chancellor awarded her the Berkeley Citation, "for distinguished achievement and for notable service to the university," the highest honor one can receive from the school.
In a letter supporting her nomination for the citation, Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University wrote that Professor Christian "has emerged as the senior figure among African-American feminists." Professor Arnold Rampersad of Stanford University states unequivocally that Professor Christian was "a major shaper and guide in the general area where the subjects of literature, race, and feminism meet."
The author or editor of several books and almost a hundred published articles and reviews, Barbara was perhaps best known for her landmark study "Black Women Novelists, The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976" (Greenwood Press). Appearing in 1980, following the general rediscovery of the work of important women writers from the past, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larson, and with the rise to prominence of several younger authors, notably Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, "Black Women Writers" stimulated as never before the embryonic field of African American feminist literary criticism.
The book offered virtually the first comprehensive analysis of its subject, as well as a source of inspiration to younger scholars in approaching what eventually became a major area of American literary study.
Her other works include "Teaching Guide to Black Foremothers" in 1980, "Black Feminist Criticism," "Perspectives on Black Women Writers, 1985"; editor of "Everyday Use" a case book on the story by Alice Walker, as well as numerous essays, articles and literary criticism.
In 1997, in her role as professor of African-American Studies and scholar at Berkeley, Barbara was one of the significant editors of the massive "Norton Anthology of African-American Literature" under the general editorship of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. Mckay.
Several of her essays, because of their astuteness as well as their timely intervention in the growing debates over the relationship between race, class, and gender, continue to be widely cited by other scholars and critics. Among the most noteworthy of these is Barbara's "The Race for Theory," which challenged the increasing domination of African American literary study by critics mainly interested in theory, especially poststructuralism.
Reprinted several times in the United States, this article was also published in an anthology in England and, in translation, in Italy.
A generous host — and having never learned to drive a car — Barbara kept what often seemed like open house at her residence on Benvenue Avenue in Berkeley. A wide array of visiting colleagues, admirers, and friends – many of whom shared a commitment to progressive politics – found her a patient and sympathetic listener. She received them in a comfortable home casually decorated with paintings, lithographs, sculptures, and woodcarvings, usually of African or African-American origin.
Music of all kinds was also an important part of her life. And on display in every room was a variety of healthy houseplants, many of them exotic, that reflected Barbara’s love of gardening.
Barbara received her accolades because of her depth of scholarship, her drive, her hard work and her dedication to the upliftment of the Black woman novelists.
But Barbara was more than that. She was a devoted mother to her only child, Najuma, who chose the profession of her grandfather and uncle – law.
She was a mother to many a persons in her extended family. Barbara was extensively involved in programs that sought to level the pl
aying field for disadvantaged and so-called uneducable Black and Puerto Rican students. Her goal at Columbia and subsequently at Berkeley was to put a human face on those persons who society wanted to discard because they were not of the so-called dominant race.
But it must be remembered that Barbara was not a person who was concerned with only race. My sister was a scholar, as has been acclaimed to me so many times by the numerous persons who meet and greet me in the academic and social world.
I think of my Caribbean Studies Association colleagues and Barbara's friends, Percy Hintzen, Opal Palmer, Gilbert Sprauve, and my husband, Simon, who first encountered Barbara when she taught in the summer of 1965 at the then College of the Virgin Islands, and when they all acted in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," alongside another Virgin Islander, John deJongh.
My sister was an engaging person. When you talked with her she would wax in depth on some of the most profound issues that you could imagine. She was brilliant to a fault. When she read, as she notes in her own words, she was visceral. She got excited. She made notes and she engaged the readers.
She understood world politics equally as she understood all of the nuances of literature and literary criticism. But above all Barbara, my sister, was a person's person, a people person, a friend.
Barbara Christian is survived by her daughter Najuma, a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz and Georgetown University Law Center; by her parents, Judge Alphonso A. Christian and Ruth Christian of St. Thomas; her sisters, Reubina Gomez of St. Thomas, and Alicia Wells of Philadelphia and me; her brothers Alphonso Christian II of Washington D.C. and Delano Christian of San Francisco; a stepchild, Imetai Malik Henderson of New York; many graduate students; and a family of dear friends.
I have lost a sister. The academia world has lost a scholar. My parents have lost a daughter. My brothers and sisters have lost a sister. Najuma has lost a mother.
We grieve, for death is finite, remembering that passing does not have the power to remove or eliminate what we shared because our bodies are just coverings that we wear. But, by the same token, we celebrate her life for the contribution she made while she was here. We celebrate her life for touching our lives in ways too numerous to mention.
On behalf of my parents, my brothers and sisters, we want to say thank you to those of you who have expressed your well wishes in this our time of grief. Thank you all.

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