April 7, 2006 – "I love this place," Professor Barbara T. Christian often said of University of California at Berkeley, and UC Berkeley apparently shares the same sentiment for the immensely popular teacher, author and activist who succumbed to cancer in June 2000 at the age of 56. (See Black History Spotlight: Barbara T. Christian).
UC has a Barbara T. Christian Conference Hall, a BTC lounge and a lecture series in her name. Yet her devoted students and colleagues have pressed for a more tangible memorial to the brilliant scholarship, indomitable spirit and personal warmth she brought to her 30 year career as an "intellectual trailblazer" at the top-ranked university. On April 6 the newly completed Barbara T. Christian building was dedicated in her memory on the Berkeley campus.
A two-day academic symposium on her work preceded the ceremony. Some of the nation's most esteemed professors paid tribute to Christian, revealing themselves as former students she mentored into academic careers. More than one said "She saved my life."
In a touching film clip, Christian claimed it was her struggle as a single parent that gave her the patience, tolerance and understanding to become an outstanding teacher.
Many of those present spoke of her tireless devotion to feminism, human rights and affirmative action, and her concern, at the end of her life, that "we have lost ground…there have been many reversals."
In the sunlit reception room of the Barbara T. Christian building, a round of heartfelt speeches and accolades by UC faculty, students, community leaders and artists completed the second day of tribute to Christian's tireless efforts for social justice and equality as well as her charismatic zest for life, exuberant style and love of "good food, good jazz and good people."
Old friends Alice Walker and novelist Ishmael Reed joined several hundred celebrants in the lovely, spacious building with its cheerful, eclectic colors and newly-planted courtyards. "Barbara would have loved it," Dr. Cora Christian declared, recalling her older sister's passion for beauty, especially flowers and gardening, as she placed a lei of orchids around a commemorative bust of the late professor.
"And this will please our mother. She is 91, and she is very proud of Barbara." She was accompanied to the dedication ceremony by Dr. Alfred O. Heath of St. Thomas.
Barbara Christian was born on St. Thomas on Dec. 12, 1943, and left the island to begin her college career at Marquette University in Illinois when she was just 15. She received her PhD from Columbia University in 1970, and taught at the University of the Virgin Islands and New York's City College before her appointment to UC Berkeley in 1971.
Her career at UC was characterized by unprecedented success: She was the first black woman professor to be granted tenure (1978), the first black winner of the Distinguished Teaching Award (1991), as well as the Berkeley Citation for Excellence, the university's highest honor (2000).
Author and editor of numerous books addressing issues and intersections of race, class, feminism and literature, she won the National Book Award for Black Women Novelists (1983) and published over 100 scholarly articles, which are widely cited in academic discourse. She is recognized as a primary force in bringing black women writers and their works into greater academic and public awareness.
"She was a path-breaking scholar," said Percy Hintzen, former chairman of the department of African American studies. "Nobody did more to bring black women writers into academic and popular recognition."
Christian herself said, "What I write and how I write is done in order to save my life…Literature is a way of knowing that I am not hallucinating, that whatever I feel is. It is an affirmation that sensuality is intelligence, that sensual language is language that makes sense."