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Barbara Christian, professor and pioneer of contemporary American literary feminism, dies at age 56

Posted July 12, 2000

Barbara Christian, professor of African American studies, 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, chairman of the department of African American studies. "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 Berkeley as an assistant professor. Previously, she had spent six years as an activist and teacher at New York's City College. At Berkeley, Christian soon became central in establishing the African American Studies department, where she taught from 1972 until her death. She served as chairwoman 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 black woman at 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 Berkeley's highest honor, the Berkeley Citation.

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

Christian, who was born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, is survived by her daughter, Najuma I. Henderson of Berkeley; her parents, Judge Alphonso 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.

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



July 12 - August 16, 2000 (Volume 29, Number 1)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
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Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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