"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
A brilliant scholar of American, womens, 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.
Tates 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
Claudias 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 Tates intellectual self-assurance
surely encouraged Claudias 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 bachelors 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 Universitys
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
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 womens thought invisible and decreed political struggle
against whiteness the only theme worth investigation.
Claudia Tates 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. 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.
Tates 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 Tates 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 Womens 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 Larsens Quicksand, Freud and psychoanalysis, Ralph
Ellisons Invisible Man, Gwendolyn Brooks Annie Allen,
Pauline Hopkins, and canon formation.
Tates second book, Domestic Allegories of Political
Desire: The Black Heroines 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.
Tates 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. Tates 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 Tates 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 Tates
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 Wrights 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 Tates own generation faced many of
the same intellectual and occupational challenges as Tate in the 1970s
and 1980s. Maurice Wallace, born in 1967, read Tates work as an
undergraduate and was influenced by her books, especially Psychoanalysis
and Black Novels. Johnson and Wallaces essays express their
indebtedness to Tate by thinking along psychoanalytic lines, sometimes
according to Tates own lights. Carby says she is doubly indebted
to Tate: first, for her work, and, second, for her generous reading
of Carbys writing when she was an assistant professor. Carbys
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 Tates 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 Wrights 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 battlesfor
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 Wrights Tragic
Sense of Life, Black American Literature Forum 10 (1976),
Corregidora: Ursas Blues Medly, Black American
Literature Forum 13 (1979), and Nella Larsens
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 Ellisons Invisible Man, in speaking
for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, Kimberly W. Benston, ed.
(Washington, 1987), Anger So Flat: Gwendolyn Brookss
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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