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Christian, Barbara

Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro–Latin American Biography
Ross Michael NederveltRoss Michael Nedervelt

Christian, Barbara (1943–2000), writer and professor of African American studies, 

was born in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, to Alphonso Christian, a judge, and his wife, Ruth. She was raised in an unconventional family, as her parents held academic learning in high esteem. Her father believed that all six of his children should receive an equal education, regardless of the patriarchal social norms discouraging women from further education. Encouraged by her father, she became an accomplished student and avid reader. Yet, as she read through numerous books, she became quite concerned by the absence of Caribbean and African American women within the stories. At the age of 15, she traveled to the United States for the first time. She enrolled in Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1963. Her parents pressed her to go on to medical school and become a doctor, but Christian decided to pursue her emerging passion for literature, and she enrolled at Columbia University in 1963 to pursue her doctorate in contemporary British and American literature.

Christian sought to understand the works of African American writers, while striving to define the black literary tradition and bring their works into the American literary canon. Already well-versed in classical and nineteenth-century British and American literature, it was not until her first year at Columbia that Christian read any literary work produced by an African American or Caribbean author. While Columbia did not offer a specialized graduate degree in black literature, Christian’s decision to attend was based partly on her desire to bring herself into contact with the African American intellectual and literary community residing in Harlem. She formed a close friendship with the poet Langston Hughes, who opened his Harlem home to the many artists and intellectuals of the area, who frequently dropped by unannounced. During her doctoral studies, she became acquainted with the works of numerous African American writers, principally Zora Neale Hurston’s then overlooked 1937 masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. While in the advanced stages of her doctoral program, she briefly taught English at the College of the Virgin Islands (1963) and Hunter College in New York City (1963–1964). In 1965 she joined the faculty at City College of the City University of New York as a lecturer and instructor for the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) program, which provided promising minority and underprivileged students access to higher education. While teaching at City College she finished writing her dissertation, titled “Spirit Bloom in Harlem: The Search for Black Aesthetic during the Harlem Renaissance: The Poetry of Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer,” which explores African American writers and the black literary tradition. She was awarded her doctoral degree from Columbia in 1970, after which she was promoted to assistant professor of English at City College.

Following an additional year of teaching at City College, Christian joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, where she played an instrumental role in furthering black feminist literary scholarship. Within a year, she assisted in the foundation of the Department of African American Studies, where she taught for twenty-eight years, serving as its chair from 1978 to 1983. In 1978 Christian became the first African American woman to be awarded tenure by the university. Following her term as chair of the Department of African American Studies, she served as chair of the university’s newly established doctoral program in ethnic studies from 1986 to 1989. Christian also continued her commitment to educational outreach targeting minority and disadvantaged students, and served as an instructor and founding member of the University Without Walls program in the early 1970s.

Over her thirty-year career, Christian developed into a prolific scholar and author, publishing five books and nearly one hundred journal articles and reviews. Her first book, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976, provided a groundbreaking analysis of the black feminist literary tradition, beginning with the writer and poet Frances Harper in the late nineteenth century, and continuing through to the contemporary writers of the mid-1970s. Christian’s work constituted the first comprehensive study of African American women as authors and literary themes. The publication of Black Women Novelists in 1980 also came at a critical juncture in literary scholarship. As many academics were taking notice of the surge in literature produced by African American women writers during the 1970s, Christian’s scholarship served as a foundation for literary scholars looking to understand their works. Consequently, Black Women Novelists quickly emerged as an indispensable text for readers and scholars of the new wave of African American women writers in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, and aided in the development of black feminist literature as a field of academic study.

Christian was also a strong critic of the contemporary theoretical approaches to literary criticism. In the introduction to Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, a collection of seventeen essays written by Christian between 1975 and 1984, she criticized the trend among critics and scholars of using literary text as a means of advancing their own philosophical or ideological viewpoints. Furthermore, Christian argued in her seminal article “The Race for Theory” that literary criticism had seemingly abandoned literature as the aim of its endeavors, and instead sought to become an end in itself. Christian contended that the obsession with theory distracted scholars and readers of black feminist literature from ascertaining and understanding its literary tradition.

Christian’s dedication and academic achievement won her numerous acknowledgments from both the university and literary community. The Before Columbus Foundation awarded Christian the American Book Award in 1981 for Black Women Novelists. In 1986 she became the first African American woman to be promoted to the rank of professor by Berkeley, and also the first to be awarded its Distinguished Teaching Award, in 1991. She was presented with the MELUS Award for Distinguished Contribution to Ethnic Studies in 1994. In April 2000 she also received the Berkeley Citation, the university’s highest honor, for her outstanding achievement and university service.

Christian died in Berkeley, California, on 25 June 2000 from complications caused by lung cancer. Her development of black feminist literary criticism laid the groundwork necessary for understanding the contributions of black women writers to the American literary canon.


Batstone, David. “High Profile: Barbara Christian.” Chicago Tribune, 9 June 1996.Find this resource:

    Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon, 1985.Find this resource:

      Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1980.Find this resource:

        Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Cultural Critique 6 (Spring 1987): 51–63.Find this resource:

          Oliver, Myrna. “Barbara T. Christian; Professor Fostered Black Women Writers.” Los Angeles Times, 29 June 2000.Find this resource:

            Ross Michael Nedervelt