Nell Irvin Painter


"Claudia Tate and the Protocols of Black Literature and Scholarship," Journal of African American History, 88:1 (Winter 2003).

By Nell Irvin Painter
Edwards Professor of American History
Princeton University

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 the Second World War, where Harold Tate served as an engineer in the Army and Mary Austin Tate taught high school mathematics. 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 to teach 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 in the Rumson-Fair Haven Region 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, Arnold Rampersad, and Cheryl Wall. Claudia 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. The fact of 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.

Claudia Tate’s death cut short an extremely productive publishing career. Before the publication of her first book in 1983, she had approached the work of three writers, Richard Wright, Gayl Jones, and Nella Larsen in essay form.[1] An examination of Jones and her work reappears in Black Women Writers at Work. Tate spent more time with Wright and Larsen in Psychoanalysis and Black Novels. She also considered the role of white critics in relation to theories of black aesthetics.[2]

Tate’s first book, Black Women Writers at Work (New York, 1983) presents a collection of interviews with a broad range of authors. Black Women Writers at Work introduced authors such as Toni Cade Bambara, Kristin Hunter, Gayl Jones, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Sherley Anne Williams to academic critics. It was subsequently published in Great Britain, Japan, and Mexico. Here Tate’s thoughtful, provocative, and insightful questions set a new standard for the interview as a genre and mapped new directions for critical and theoretical discourse on African-American women writers. In her foreword, Tillie Olsen said: “This collection transcends its genre. It becomes a harbinger book, a book of revelation, of haunting challenge, opening on to central concerns not only of writing, but of life, of living today.”

Alongside writing her books, Tate reviewed the books of other scholars: her reviews appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, American Studies International, American Quarterly, SIGNS, and African American Review. While she often reviewed books on black women writers, she also examined black feminism, race, and drama. Four of her non-review articles break new conceptual ground with examinations of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, Freud and psychoanalysis, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Gwendolyn Brook’s Annie Allen, Pauline Hopkins, and canon formation.[3]

Tate’s second book, Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century (1992), turns to the domestic fiction of African-American women in the post-Reconstruction era. Here Tate focuses on texts that had often been shunted aside because they did not engage in angry rhetoric against white political oppression. Critics had generally dismissed this body of literature by Frances E. W. Harper, Emma Dunam Kelley-Hawkins, Pauline Hopkins, and Katherine Davis Chapman Tillman, for example, as apolitical and excessively preoccupied with the conventional marriage plot and late Victorian proprieties. But in this critically acclaimed, scrupulously researched and persuasively argued book, Tate shows that the domestic plots spoke differently to their first readers than to subsequent generations. She argued that these works validated post-Reconstruction African-American readers’ aspirations to citizenship and public virtue. Through her subtle and illuminating interpretations, we see how these novels’ “ideal family formations” contributed to discussions of equitable power relations and the value of personal integrity, commitment, and hard work.

Tate’s concern with family dynamics reflected her growing engagement with Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalysis. She knew this methodology to be controversial and defended herself eloquently in her third authored book. Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race (New York, 1998) examines five novels from the 1940s and 1950s with non-black protagonists. Critics usually overlooked these texts by African-American authors because they focus upon personal issues rather than adhering to what Tate calls the “racial protocol” of protest against white oppression. Using Lacanian psychoanalysis, she shows that authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright sought means of transcending the racial protocol in order to consider issues of personal desire that normally lie outside the purview of black writers and their critics. Tate’s use of psychoanalysis breaks down barriers between novelists’ black and non-black work and simultaneously endows psychoanalysis with meaning for criticism that concerns itself with matters of race.

While Tate’s work brought new understanding to the living and dead writers whom she examined, ultimately her great methodological innovation is her use of psychoanalysis. She encountered significant opposition from critics hewing to the “racial protocol” but ultimately convinced her readers that the personal was as important as the political: that black writers, as full human beings, express personal desire as well as racial protest. She ultimately succeeded in convincing her colleagues in literary criticism that black writers had psyches as well as racial consciousness. Thanks to her work, books by black authors on non-black themes emerge from the obscurity into which “racial protocol” had cast them.

Her three major books laid the foundations of Claudia Tate’s scholarly reputation. But in addition to her own original scholarship, she edited five books on individual authors that contributed to the body of African-American criticism: The Works of Katherine Davis Chapman Tillman (New York, 1991), Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (New York, 1993), Conversations with Toni Morrison (Jackson, 1994), Dark Princess: A Romance (Jackson, 1995), and Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson Camp (New York, 1997). While scholarly editions do not garner the attention of authored books, such works perform a crucial role in deepening critical scholarship and maturing a field of study.

When she fell ill in the summer of 2000, Claudia Tate had just completed a fellowship at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. She was at work on a fourth major book on the usually obfuscated figure of the black lady through the medium of American film. Tate had retrained herself in film criticism and the rhetoric of the image. Sadly for all those interested in race, class, and gender and in visual expression and popular culture, that manuscript was never sufficiently fleshed out for publication.

Throughout her career Claudia steadily won honors and fellowships. In 1979-1980 she was a Fellow of the National endowment for the Humanities; in 1982-1983 and 1983-1984 she received Andrew Mellon Incentive Awards. In 1986 and 1987 she served as a distinguished visiting scholar at the University of Delaware and Rutgers University. She declined a similar position at the College of William and Mary in 1990-1991. The American Council of Learned Societies awarded her a fellowship in 1992-1993. She was a Fellow of the National Humanities Center in 1999-2000. She belonged to the Modern Language Association and the American Studies Association and served on the editorial advisory boards of the African American Review, American Literature, the American Quarterly, and SIGNS. Claudia chaired the board of directors of the Association for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society.

In addition to her dedication to her own scholarship and her family, Claudia Tate was a generous colleague who gladly read drafts of chapters of books and gave extensive notes. Her former students and colleagues requested that this part of her legacy become as well known as the originality and importance of her scholarship.

The originality of Claudia Tate's work inspired the Princeton Program in African-American Studies (PAAS) to hold a conference in honor of Claudia Tate on 7 December 2001. Tate's illness lent urgency to the occasion, which Tate, her parents, her brother, and her younger son attended. The Tate conference was envisioned as part of an undertaking broader than any one thinker. Faculty associated with PAAS had long planned to hold a series of conferences aimed at the rigorous investigation of the thought of black intellectuals. The continuing disregard for the work of scholars who are black consigns much original thought to oblivion or, at best, trivialization. By spending a day focused on the work of one thinker, Claudia Tate, PAAS sought to enrich the intellectual life of the university, the African-American studies community, and the nation. Colleagues attended from all around the United States.

The conference consisted of two panels. The first, “Gender, Culture and Psychoanalysis,” featured papers by Mary Helen Washington of the University of Maryland, Maurice Wallace of Duke University, and Barbara Johnson of Harvard University; Nell Irvin Painter of Princeton University moderated. The second panel, “Narratives of Gender, Race and Nation,” presented papers by Hazel Carby of Yale University and Ann duCille of Wesleyan University; Valerie Smith of Princeton University moderated. Hazel Carby, Barbara Johnson, and Maurice Wallace submitted papers for publication in the Journal of African-American History: Barbara Johnson, “Allegory and Psychoanalysis,” Maurice Wallace, “Richard Wright’s Black Medusa,” and Hazel Carby, “African American Intellectuals Symposium: Claudia Tate.”

These three papers represent two different moments and two different approaches to the life and work of Claudia Tate. Tate was born in 1946; Barbara Johnson was born 1947; Hazel Carby was born in 1948. These two senior scholars of Tate’s own generation faced many of the same intellectual and occupational challenges as Tate in the 1970s and 1980s. Maurice Wallace, born in 1967, read Tate’s work as an undergraduate and was influenced by her books, especially Psychoanalysis and Black Novels. Johnson and Wallace’s essays express their indebtedness to Tate by thinking along psychoanalytic lines, sometimes according to Tate’s own lights. Carby says she is doubly indebted to Tate: first, for her work, and, second, for her generous reading of Carby’s writing when she was an assistant professor. Carby’s essay situates Tate in a generation now often sidelined as “foremothers,” a generation that started in literal basements and that did the domestic service of a scholarly field. Together these three essays illuminate both the theory and the praxis of Claudia Tate’s scholarship.

Barbara E. Johnson is the Frederic Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society in the Harvard University Department of Comparative Literature. In “Allegory and Psychoanalysis,” Johnson begins with the protest of psychoanalyst Roy Schafer. Schafer correlates anthropomorphism in Freudian theory with the early nineteenth-century protest of William Wordsworth against the habit of endowing abstract ideas personal characteristics. Johnson comments on the metaphor of "unvarnished truth" as fact and introduces W. E. B. Du Bois's anthropomorphism in the notion of the "veil" in Souls of Black Folk. For Johnson, personification and anthropomorphism form the hallmarks of allegory. Further, allegory's binary structure means that it must encompass separation, which, as segregation, returns to Du Bois's preoccupation. The link is also chronological and ideological: Just as the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was declaring black men citizens, the first Dictionary Act was declaring corporations persons and hence eligible to protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. During Du Bois's lifetime, corporations rather than black people benefited from the amendments constitutional protection. As a Freudian, Johnson concludes that all consciousness is Du Bosian double consciousness. This remark links her paper to that of Maurice Wallace and to Jacques Lacan, a thinker who inspired them both.

Maurice Wallace, an assistant professor of English at Duke University, encountered Claudia Tate as a bold and erudite writer rather than a contemporary. His personal tie is to Hazel Carby, with whom he had worked closely in his first position as an assistant professor at Yale. In “Richard Wright’s Black Medusa,” Wallace explains and embodies his debts to Tate, notably to Psychoanalysis and Black Novel. Like her, he rejects the cramping strictures of the racial protocol, reckoning that the problem of black masculinity cannot be understood without recourse to psychoanalysis. Like Tate, Wallace is concerned with gender and race, but while she concentrated mainly on women and femininity, he examines men and masculinity. As Freudian a thinker as Tate, Wallace sees maternal conflict as a fundamental theme in Richard Wright's work, in this instance, Native Son. Reinterpreting Lacan's mirror phase in racialized contexts, Wallace notes the importance of the gaze in Wright's fiction. In Native Son the castrating gaze of the Medusa is that of a white, but blind character, Mrs. Dalton. Wright's preoccupation with the gaze, with "looking and being seen," reflects the racialized mirror phase, in which the black subject comes to see himself in the white gaze. The white gaze replaces the mother, the mirror, and the No of the father.

Hazel Carby is Charles C. & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of African American Studies at Yale University. “African American Intellectuals Symposium: Claudia Tate” turns not only to Tate's scholarly output, but also to the academic context in which she and her cohort worked. This paper contributed intellectual history to the conference. Carby says that Tate, as a non-conforming, rebellious critic, helped her read more deeply in the works of black women writers living and dead. Like Tate, Carby has sought to increase literary criticism's breath of vision by refusing to narrow her scope or think within cramping conventions. Intellectually, Tate belongs within a psychoanalytic community that includes Frantz Fanon and Richard Wright.

Carby devotes part of her paper to an analysis of the gendered generation of black scholars to which she and Tate belong. As beginning faculty, black women found themselves situated beneath their black male peers, sometimes literally, in basement offices. Women were expected to carry out the housekeeping chores of organizing, mentoring, and teaching, through which men took shortcuts. While black women faculty have done the work of building and maintaining a field of study and forming new generations of scholars, we remain in the shadows of academe. The battles–for the field of African-American studies, for our students, and for ourselves--continues. This unrelenting struggle has wounded and killed some and left all weary. In conclusion, Carby suggests we return to Tate's first book, Black Women Writers at Work, to Tate's investigations of the ways in which work shapes lives. Tate's questions about work and life from the 1970s and 1980s remain important today.


1. “Black Boy: Richard Wright’s ‘Tragic Sense of Life,” Black American Literature Forum 10 (1976), “Corregidora: Ursas Blues Medly,” Black American Literature Forum 13 (1979), and “Nella Larsen’s Passing: a Problem of Interpretation,” Black American Literature Forum 14 (1980).

2. “On White Critics and Black Aestheticians,” College Language Association Journal 22 (1980).

3. “Desire and Death in Quicksand, by Nella Larsen,” American Literary History 7 (1995), “Freud and His ‘Negro’: Psychoanalysis as Ally and enemy of African Americans,” JPCS: Journal For the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 1 (Spring 1996), “Notes on the Invisible Woman in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” in speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, Kimberly W. Benston, ed. (Washington, 1987), “Anger So Flat: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Annie Allen” in A Life distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, Maria Mootry and Gary Smith, eds. (Urbana, 1987), “Laying the Floor; Or, The History of the Formation of the Afro-American Canon,” Book Research Quarterly 3:2 (1987) “Pauline Hopkins: Our Literary Foremother,” in Conjuring: Black women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, Hortense Spillers and Marjorie Pryse, eds., (Bloomington, 1985).

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