Barbara Christian, Black women novelists, and Berkeley

By Elizabeth Cali

Barbara Christian’s scholarly work is perhaps most noted for her 1980 scholarly monograph focused on Black women novelists, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 and her 1987 essay “The Race for Theory.” Her work brought attention to Black women authors such as Frances Harper, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall and Toni Morrison. Importantly, her scholarship did not position Black women writers within white American literary traditions. Rather, she forged a pathway for thinking about Black women writers’ roles in building their own novelistic tradition.

Christian’s scholarly work was a vital building block for increased attention to Black women writers on college campuses. Christian was the first African American woman professor to earn tenure at UC Berkeley, where she founded the African American Studies Program. Christian’s role in African American literary and book history is an important one, as she broke ground in the serious study of Black women writers and made a place for this intellectual work in the academy.