Barbara Christian (1943-2000): "A Fierce Scholar"

By a writing group at Revolution Books, Berkeley

Revolutionary Worker #1082, December 10, 2000, posted at

Barbara Christian, professor of African American Studies at UC Berkeley, died of cancer this summer. She was a vital, honest, insightful and energetic warrior on the side of the people. A scholar, teacher, and activist, Professor Christian was a good friend of Revolution Books: we feel her loss deeply and want to share some thoughts about this strong woman's full life.

Barbara Christian was a trail-blazer who analyzed, taught, wrote and lectured about the roots and development of Black women writers from slavery days to the present. In so doing she helped make this important and liberating literature of the oppressed known, respected and loved world-wide. If you have read the novels Color Purple, Beloved or Their Eyes Were Watching God, the work of Barbara Christian played a part in getting these books into your hands.

Barbara Christian encouraged students to come to Revolution Books by ordering her texts through our store. She was generous with her time both to her students and to us. Through the years, when people from our staff met with her she would give her full attention: The impeachment scandal? The capture of Chairman Gonzalo? Police brutality? These were outrages she wanted to hear about--and she wanted to take a stand. When Barbara Christian looked at you, you knew she saw you, and wanted to hear what you had to say.

Black Feminist Criticism and the Battle for Black Women Writers

Barbara was originally from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, a colony of the U.S. She attended college in the U.S. during the '60s at the height of the Black Liberation movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam. At Columbia University, where Christian received her doctorate in 1970, students were taking over the university to protest the war, and linking up with radicals in the Black community of Harlem. During this time she was an activist and teacher at New York's City College. The struggles of this period provided the soil for a new generation of radical Black women writers. Barbara wrote about how these new works changed her life.

"I remember the first time I held a Toni Morrison novel in my hand. In 1970, I had read the review of a book called The Bluest Eye, by an African American woman writer. It ran in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, so unusual an occurrence that I immediately bought the book.

"Stunned by this lyric tale of a Black girl who desires the bluest eye, and by the author's choice of African American women's voices, I instinctively knew that a previous--heretofore unknown--tradition of Black women writing existed.... For the next decade I would work on a book about the tradition of African American women's writing while everybody in the academy and the publishing world, and I mean everybody, told me no such thing existed."1

Christian, appointed to teach at U.C. Berkeley in 1971, jumped into the battle shaping up as to whether these works would be published, distributed and celebrated or whether they would be suppressed by the white supremacist and male-chauvinist literary establishment. As her comment on Toni Morrison, above, illustrates, this process was a battle. "She was a path-breaking scholar," Percy Hintzen, Chair of the Department of African American Studies at UC Berkeley said of Barbara Christian. "Nobody did more to bring black women writers into academic and popular recognition."

Barbara Christian wrote that the new writers are a product of a tradition, but also "in keeping with the character of that tradition, they are transforming it, for they are not only expressing their own creativity, they are also telling the stories their mothers and grandmothers, aunts and great-aunts, were not allowed to write."(from Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976)

In the late '60s and early '70s, young Black women writers started to create a new body of work that brought Black women--their deeds, thoughts and feelings--to the center of the literary stage, in 3-D and in living color. They stood on the shoulders of the great body of artistic work created by Black people: the "folk art" from the oral literature dating back to slavery, the lyrics of people like blues great Bessie Smith, and the stories of Harlem Renaissance era author Zora Neale Hurston. They brought the radical spirit and politics of the '60s and '70s to their creations, and new characters emerged to be heard for the first time.

These new works, mostly novels, were rebellious in both form and content. They shattered the stereotypical images of Black women and dealt with "forbidden" subjects like slavery and the way Black women were shaped by, and survived in spite of, its bitter legacy. Christian wrote:

"By the mid-seventies, Afro-American women fiction writers, like Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones, had not only defined their cultural context as a distinctly Afro-American one, but they had also probed many of the facts of the interrelationship of sexism and racism in their society. Not only had they demonstrated the fact that sexism existed in black communities, but they had also challenged the prevailing definition of woman in American society, especially in relation to motherhood and sexuality. And they had insisted not only on the centrality of black women to Afro-American history, but also on their pivotal significance to present-day social political developments in America."2

The novels by Black women writers gained a huge audience among all sections of society and, in opposition to the mainstream critiques which at first downplayed the artistic contribution of these writers, Christian, along with a few others, forged a new genre of literary criticism, Black Feminist Criticism which helped to put the writings of Black women in an honored place among the greats of world literature.

Some African American intellectuals argued that their works weakened the struggle of Black people by presenting a negative image of Black men. This controversy exploded after the publication of Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple. Taking this on, Christian argued that the experiences of Black women--suffering dual oppression--were crucial subjects for literature. In addition, Christian pointed out that the patriarchal actions of men in these novels are not portrayed as inherent male evils but as rooted in the oppressive structure of society.

RCP Chairman Bob Avakian wrote: "The position of the masses of women, and in particular Black women...on the one hand involves a tremendous burden of oppression that weighs them down but on the other hand gives rise to a no less tremendous, even if often suppressed, outrage and a restless questioning and a desire for a way out, for drastic change from conditions and from a whole world that becomes increasingly unbearable. This is the fury that must be unleashed as a mighty force for revolution--and there is a stronger basis for this today than at any time in the past."3

The flowering of works by Black women writers in the last several decades has helped unleash this fury and built a lasting, complex literature for the joy of generations to come. The work Barbara Christian did helped define this genre and bring forward new writers, as well as a broader readership. In addition to her classes on this subject, she wrote several books, almost a hundred published articles and reviews, participated in major documentary films on African American culture and history, and lectured around the world.

A Fighter on Many Fronts

Barbara was also a political activist who was not afraid to stick her neck out during controversial times. She was impelled into battle when she saw injustice. She was always among the professors at U.C. (and nationally) who stepped out first into important political and ideological battles and extended an urgent hand to their colleagues to join them.

In the midst of the furor around the Clinton scandal Barbara spoke on a panel at Revolution Books. She said that Black people needed to be "against the impeachment and against Bill Clinton at the same time.... I think we have a real opportunity at this very moment when people are really sick and tired of what's going on in Washington. This is a moment in time if we can speak some type of truth that relates to people's lives maybe they will begin to hear us.4

During the struggle to save Ethnic Studies at UC, she was among a handful of professors who put on their coats and left their houses in the wee hours of the morning to stand between hunger-striking students and a rumored police attack.

Barbara was a warrior for affirmative action. When the University regents banned affirmative action programs and threatened faculty with retaliation if they opposed the university's policy, Barbara would not be silenced. She spoke at almost all of the major rallies on campus, denouncing UC for resegregating the university. In her essay, "Camouflaging Race and Gender," Barbara wrote, referring to her own position at UC, that she had "stormed the intellectual barricades of the 1970s." She condemned the Regent's decision:

"I am not an affirmative action beneficiary per se. Yet I am, in the sense that the work I did on such African American women as Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison would not have been heard if it had not been for affirmative action policies. I do not apologize for the atmosphere created by affirmative action. American universities and society at large have gained much from what African American women writers and scholars have written during the last thirty years. In fact, we have produced a golden age of writing--one that this country has yet to acknowledge despite Toni Morrison's winning of the Nobel Prize."

Barbara Christian fought against U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean and against U.S. (and UC) support for apartheid in South Africa. And in 1993 she signed the call to Defend the Life of Abimael Guzman, imprisoned leader of the People's War in Peru and the Communist Party of Peru.

Barbara was beloved as a teacher. More than one student has commented that she "saved my life." She encouraged students to speak up and voice their opinions. Barbara was always there for her students, and her home was a center of discussion and debate even after she was too ill to hold classes at the university. Barbara Christian also sought ways to reach out and bring writing by Black women novelists home to people in the community, especially youth. She helped develop a curriculum for Berkeley High School and led discussions among Black working class women outside the university.

Although she taught at the prestigious UC Berkeley for almost 30 years, Christian never became an ivory tower relic--her bond with oppressed people was deep. She was a warrior who saw the need for constant vigilance. Writing in the '90s, she rebelled against the "literary elite" who "proclaimed that reality does not exist, that everything is relative and that every text is silent about something --which indeed it must be." She warned that this widely published academic elite were using theory, and their own coded language of criticism, as a commodity to push Black women and their works to the side. She wrote an influential call to arms for those who love African American literature:

"My concern, then is a passionate one, for the literature of people who are not in power has always been in danger of extinction or co-optation, not because we do not theorize, but because what we can even imagine, far less who we can reach, is constantly limited by societal structures. For me, literary criticism is promotion as well as understanding, a response to the writer to whom there is often no response, to folk who need the writing as much as they need anything. I know, from literary history, that writing disappears unless there is a response to it. Because I write about writers who are now writing, I hope to ensure that their tradition has continuity and survives."5

Barbara Christian's spirit and legacy lives on, in those she touched. The next time you open a wonderful novel that takes your breath away and makes you think, think of her.


This short article is not an attempt, and does not presume, to thoroughly sum up Barbara Christian's many contributions in her field. For readers who are interested, we recommend her writings, including from this partial listing:

Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976; Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers; From the Inside Out: Afro-American Women's Literary Tradition and the State; Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" and Other Works: A Critical Commentary.


1. "Tony Morrison, Our Saving Grace"

2. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers

3. "Black Women," in Chapter 2: The Final Goal, A Horrible End or An End to the Horror? by Bob Avakian

4. "Stop the Inquisition Panel," Revolution Books, January 1999

5. "The Race for Theory"

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