Professor's Legacy Celebrated





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People of all ages talked, laughed and hugged in Wheeler Auditorium last night. They shared stories and remembrances of their teacher, mentor, colleague and friend Barbara Christian, a UC Berkeley African American studies professor and renowned black feminist literature critic.

As the lights dimmed, however, a somber stillness settled over the room. A series of speakers, including Chancellor Robert Berdahl, African American studies department chair Charles Henry, professors and former students shared their experiences with Christian.

At 56, Christian died June 25 at her home of complications from lung cancer.

As one of the senior members of the department, Christian's absence has been strongly felt, even in the first two weeks of fall classes.

"We're all devastated by (her absence)," Henry says. "We have daily reminders of her not being there. She was a pillar, not only of service to the department, but as a teacher. It's a gap we can't fill."

Always willing to lend a hand and very dedicated to the department, Christian served as its chair for several years.

"Her spirit is missed very greatly in the department," Henry says. "To me, she represented the best of the department. She was one of the senior members that everything else was based on."

Christian joined the faculty in 1971, during a time of great social and political unrest on campus. Seven years later, she became the first black woman to receive tenure at UC Berkeley.

Focusing her studies largely on feminist literature by black women, her research opened new doors in modern literary criticism.

Her book "Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition 1892-1976" was one of the first scholarly treatments of black feminist literature. It influenced not only the academic world but society's treatment of black literature.

Henry estimates that almost half the graduate students in the department came to UC Berkeley to work with Christian, and her classes were always overenrolled. He says graduate students, in particular, will feel the gap her death has created.

"She was a huge reason that I came here and a lot of grad students came here," says Carter Mathas, a graduate student in the department. "Aside from all the department duties she filled, she was a wonderful person and really extended herself to all the people who wanted to work with her. She was always challenging how things were traditionally done in the academic world."

Students respected and admired Christian as a teacher of extraordinary knowledge, warmth, generosity and inspiration.

"She was very supportive and was always there to listen, but was also there to push you," Mathas says. "She was obviously a really brilliant scholar, but there are a lot of brilliant scholars. She was different because she combined it with her political commitments and still managed to be a normal person."

One of her students, Cintya Molina, a graduate student in the department, remembers Christian's strong political convictions and her support of student organizations.

Not afraid of the public eye, Christian spoke at the 1998 Affirm with Action walkout in protest of Proposition 209. During the ethnic studies hunger strike the next spring, she appeared late at night to help mediate with the university on behalf of the students.

"A lot of her work went unrecognized because it took place behind the scenes," Molina says. "She made no distinction between politics, the city base and the classroom. She flowed between them."

Molina says Christian not only provided academic counseling to the graduate students she worked with, but also served as a friend and advisor for personal and political issues.

"She made clear to me my personal mission as a Puerto Rican female student engaged in African American studies," she said. "She forced me to ask the hard questions."

Christian was never too busy to talk to a student or listen to a colleague, says Ula Taylor, a friend and fellow African American studies professor.

"I think that she was just an incredibly passionate person," she says. "She was a brilliant thinker and accessible and available in ways that most professors were not, especially senior professors."

The African American studies Department is currently trying to find a replacement for her position. Taylor says visiting faculty are currently teaching some of what would have been Christian's courses.

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