Introduction: Claudia Tate and the Protocols of Black Literature and Scholarship
Painter, Nell Irvin, The Journal of African American History
A brilliant scholar of American, women's, and African American literature, Claudia Tate (1946-2002) succumbed to small cell lung cancer in Fair Haven, New Jersey, on 29 July 2002. She was fifty-five years old and in the midst of a new research project. Claudia Tate always exceeded the normative "protocols," as she termed them, of literature, scholarship, and race. Against prevailing assumptions that prized only writing in the political protest vein, she insisted that the work of nineteenth- and twentieth-century black women writers was important and fully worthy of the sustained, thoughtful, Freudian criticism she provided. Tate's iconoclasm immeasurably enriched criticism of African American authors, especially, but not exclusively women. Tate's legacies are several: to her scholarly field, a far more capacious literary criticism; to her students and colleagues, friendship and professional advancement; to her family and friends, an unforgettable personality and the warmth of permanent commitment.
Claudia Tate was born in Long Branch, on the New Jersey shore, on 14 December 1946. Her parents, an engineer and a mathematician, had received their degrees from North Carolina Central University in Durham. They came to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, during World War II, where Harold Tate served as an engineer in the Army and Mary Austin Tate was a mathematician at the U.S. Department of Defense. Harold and Mary Austin Tate endowed their children with a love of higher learning as well as a tie to the South. Throughout Claudia's life, her mother continued in mathematics, and her parents maintained homes in both New Jersey and North Carolina. Claudia Tate pre-deceased her parents.
Harold and Mary Austin Tate's intellectual self-assurance surely encouraged Claudia's original, fearless thought and scholarly excellence, which showed from the very beginning. Claudia was an honor student at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School and went directly to college. In 1968 she received her bachelor's degree in English and American Literature from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. As one of a small handful of black women entering the graduate program in the Harvard English Department in 1969, she joined a pioneering cohort of scholars at Harvard who laid the groundwork for the field of African American studies. In English they included Nellie Y. McKay, Amold Rampersad, Cheryl Wall. Tate received a Ph.D. in English and American literature and language from Harvard University in 1977. She taught in Howard University's English Department for twelve years before joining George Washington University in 1989. She had been a professor at Princeton since January 1997.
Claudia Tate realized early on that her class background surprised many Americans, who assumed that all African Americans come from poor families lacking formal education. Her middle-class origins may well have influenced her scholarly interest in black cultural production beyond the predictable. She was known for the power of her unexpected approaches to black literature. Venturing off beaten paths of scholarship, she turned a piercing gaze on non-canonical writers and themes. The persuasive employment of a methodology rarely encountered in African American literary criticism became the hallmark of her thought.
From the very beginning of her scholarly career, Claudia Tate thought in innovative ways. Her first book took seriously the work of black women writers at a time when such writers had not yet received sustained scholarly attention. Her mid-career work specialized in psychoanalytic literary criticism and cultural studies. In addition, she had retrained herself in visual criticism and film studies for the book she was working on at the time of her death. At every point, she questioned the verities of American and African American literary criticism. She transcended what she called the "racial protocols" that made black women's thought invisible and decreed political struggle against whiteness the only theme worth investigation. …