Duke University Alumni Magazine

Poised to Fulfill a Promise
Karla Holloway
by Bridget Booher

Sam Gray Photography

Learning to navigate the sometimes conflicting spheres of outside expectations and internal aspirations has served the English professor well. Now, as the new director of African and Afro-American Studies, the private leader is guiding an overlooked program to its potential.
s a young girl growing up in a prominent Buffalo, New York, family, Karla Holloway was always aware of appearances. She and her two sisters were expected to keep their sneakers immaculate by rubbing them with white Kiwi shoe polish. Wearing red was out of the question, as it would reflect poorly on the girls' moral character (or so their grandmother warned). And with parents who worked in education, words and ideas were expected to be as lustrous as hair and skin.

     "We were in the public eye, and our conduct was always under close scrutiny," recalls Holloway. "The word that my mother used to describe our behavior was 'careful.' We were always careful."

     Learning to navigate the sometimes conflicting spheres of outside expectations and internal aspirations has served Holloway well, although she admits that it's sometimes an uncomfortable fit. As an English professor whose research focuses on linguistics, literary theory, cultural studies, and American and Third World literature, Holloway explores, among other things, the complexities of self-identity and individual expression. As an award-winning author, she is equally adept at writing academic analyses and conversational reflections. Now, as the new director of Duke's African and Afro-American Studies (AAAS) program, she again finds herself in a highly visible position.

     "There's a part of one's professional life that is controlled and a part that's at the behest of whomever is looking at it," says Holloway. "But I realize that it is important for me to be out there, talking about what a wonderful program we have in place and how we are building on it."

     During its fitful twenty-six year history, AAAS has been an academic orphan of sorts. When students took over the Allen Building in 1969 calling for better treatment of blacks at Duke, their demands included the establishment of a black studies program. Launched in 1970 with a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the program, like many around the country, suffered growing pains along the way. By nature a multi- and interdisciplinary endeavor, it offers courses taught by faculty whose primary affiliation is through the departments that hire them. Funding has been inconsistent. Furthermore, the program has been hindered by the lack of a dynamic, dedicated leader for any length of time. A series of acting directors, interim appointments, and directors who departed before their contracts were up has left some observers wondering if the university was truly committed to AAAS' survival.

     Enter Karla Holloway. Named acting director when George Wright Ph.D. '77 resigned last summer, she has overseen the near-doubling both of courses offered in the AAAS curriculum and in the number of affiliated faculty; the creation of a graduate certificate program for doctoral students, to be launched this fall; and the successful recruitment of Paula Giddings, one of the nation's leading scholars of black women's studies. In characteristic fashion, Holloway had undertaken these initiatives with quiet purpose, expecting to resume to her normal routine when a new director was found. But her accomplishments had not gone unnoticed.

     "Until February, I was fully focused on returning to the English department," she says. "But before I knew it, I was having conversations with [Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences] Bill Chafe and [Provost] John Strohbehn about what it would mean for me to stay. And more than anything else--more than any specific promises or commitments--we were all interested in the same thing: the stability of the program and its disciplinary integrity."

     At the press conference to announce her appointment this spring, Chafe acknowledged the university's historical lack of sustained support for the program. "Too often in the past, we have failed to realize the potential that the AAAS has for becoming a bright and shining star in the firmament of our academic enterprises. Today, we are here to rededicate ourselves to realizing that potential." When it was Holloway's turn to speak, she smiled at colleagues, staff, family, and members of the media in attendance, graciously thanked Chafe and Strohbehn for their vote of confidence, and took a deep, relaxing breath. "Welcome to exhaling at Duke," she said.

Chris Hildreth
     Although a relative newcomer to Duke, Holloway is aware of the history of the program she is inheriting, but prefers to look forward. "I have a good overview of what's happened here and interestingly enough, it's not unlike the history of many black studies programs. I was part of the Sixties movement that resulted in black studies programs being established, so I'm not unfamiliar with the conflicts and upheavals that take place. But I don't feel burdened by this program's history. I feel encouraged by the stability that I do see here, and the interest from faculty in identifying and affiliating with the program."

     That interest extends beyond Duke's walls as well. In the weeks and months following her appointment, Holloway received phone calls and letters from scholars around the country wishing her well, inquiring about Duke's program, and, occasionally, sending resumes. Houston Baker, past president of the Modern Language Association and director of the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that with Holloway's leadership, and with the addition of Paula Giddings, Duke "joins the very first rank of American institutions that have put stated commitments into brilliant action."

     In some ways, Holloway might seem an unlikely choice to bear the responsibility for guiding the AAAS program into the next century. Unlike some academic administrators, she is a gifted and sought-after teacher. Students stop her on the quad to ask when she'll offer her autobiography course again, or solicit advice about their schedules or academic careers. She begins each day with silent meditation and retreats to her rocking chairs at home and in her English department office "to spend quiet time with myself." A mother of two, she is proud and protective of her family, of her Friday Night Women book group, and of her many close friendships. These "non-professional" facets of her life bear witness to her loyalty, sensitivity, mindfulness, and concern for others--traits that, observers say, will likely make her the most successful AAAS director yet.

     While the AAAS position might have been an unexpected honor, Holloway's academic destiny was set at an early age. Her father, deputy superintendent of schools in Buffalo, and her mother, an English teacher before going into educational administration, created an environment where books and learning were revered. Holloway still recalls vividly what it was like to be a student visiting her mother's classroom. "I always got very dressed up for her classes," she says. "I would wear one of my velvet dresses and I would sit there in a trance because she had a book in her hand and that was her job! As a child I was always disappearing into the closet with a book. It was dangerous, because I always identified strongly with someone in every book I read, so my family never knew who I'd be when I emerged. My mother, who is an avid reader, could usually tell what book I was reading by the way I was talking and behaving. [Academics] was the only profession I could have and still read books." (Reading is still a passion. In addition to the assorted texts she reads for professional enlightenment, Holloway says she especially loves to indulge in science fiction and biography.)

     After completing her bachelor's degree at Talladega College, where she met her husband, Russell, Holloway attended Michigan State University, where she earned her master's in English and her Ph.D. in English and linguistics. (Her dissertation, "Linguistic and Literary Structures in the Fiction of Zora Neale Hurston," was adapted and expanded into a book, The Character of the Word: The Texts of Zora Neale Hurston.) After teaching stints at Old Dominion University, Western Michigan University, and North Carolina State University, she was hired at Duke in 1993 as a professor of English and African American literature. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in linguistics and literature and theory. Beyond the dozens of articles and essays she's written, she is the author of four books, including New Dimensions of Spirituality: A BiRacial and BiCultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison; Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women's Literature; and Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character.

Published last year by Rutgers University Press, Codes of Conduct combines cultural criticism and autobiographical detail, and is perhaps the most accessible of her books for an educated but non-academic audience. Through a series of essays, the book addresses some of contemporary culture's most wrenching problems and dilemmas, from the growing number of juvenile criminals to the social forces that shape perceptions of race and ethnicity. In a passage dealing with the linguistic biases inherent in everyday interactions, she personalizes the discussion by admitting her own vigilance as she interacts with scholars and other members of her profession.

     "Like many African-Americans," she writes, "I am bi-dialectal--proficient in both standard (acultural) English and in a dialect that identifies my ethnic community. As an academic linguist and an African-American woman, my public (academic) performances about what was essentially my private (community-based) identity were schizophrenic nightmares. Even though my physical appearance--the fact of my dark skin--called forth lurking prejudices, my standard dialect contradicted those prejudices.... I was certain (on one level) that the day I used a nonstandard form in something as black-identified as subject-verb agreement in a public presentation, I would lose control (on the other level) of the carefully constructed public persona that I had nurtured so assiduously and the academic reliability I so carefully controlled."

     For someone who is so protective of her privacy, Codes of Conduct was clearly a risk. In the book's moving and unexpected epilogue, Holloway shares her maternal grief and helplessness over watching her son grapple with legal and emotional troubles. This poignant episode in her family's history continues to shape her view of the world around her. "I think a personal life is exactly that," she says. "But the leak that I made in Codes of Conduct was also to let people know that there might be something else going on in a person's life besides what you see, and to step back before judging and think about our own lives. Without intruding, we can be careful: There but for the grace of God go I. Not many people have asked about the epilogue, which intrigues me. But in a way, I've also been relieved that they haven't."

She is more comfortable when the conversation returns to the future of the AAAS program. Named William R. Kenan Jr. Chair of English and African American Literature on July 1, Holloway will cut back on her teach-ing load to one graduate and undergraduate course during her first year as director. She has already stepped down as chair of the university's appointments, promotions, and tenure committee. This fall, two new faculty come on board: Vonnie McLoyd, a recent recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant; and Wahneema Lubiano, who was recruited from Princeton. (Their joint appointments are in psychology and literature, respectively.) Other faculty appointments are pending, and negotiations are proceeding for a collaborative effort with Africa News Service. Educational initiatives with other universities are under way, and new courses are being considered for the expanding curriculum.

     Housed on the fourth floor of the Old Chemistry building, the AAAS offices are airy and inviting, and students and faculty from a variety of disciplines drop by. As more and more people come into its space for the first time, Holloway says she wants to make sure that the relaxed and genial atmosphere doesn't convey an inaccurate impression of the program's purpose. "One of my biggest concerns is our identity," she says. "This is an interdisciplinary, academic program, not a cultural center. And that's not always clear, especially since the history of African and African American studies began during a movement that bunched these things together. My interest is in the disciplinary development of the program in terms of its students, faculty, and curriculum."

     Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the program, courses often encompass the historical, cultural, socioeconomic, and political dimensions of a particular subject. This fall, the curriculum includes thirty-five graduate and undergraduate classes, with such diverse topics as "Islamic Mysticism: Arabic Traditions," "Europe's Colonial Encounters," "The Moor in Shakespeare," and "A History of the Working Class in the U.S." It's a long way from 1954, when a proposed course on race relations had to be presented as a religion class to get approved by a comparatively liberal university curriculum committee.

     Although the demands of her new job are keeping Holloway extremely busy, she con-tinues to cultivate her non-administrative and personal interests. A forthcoming book, Passed On: African American Mourning Stories, explores the rituals and ceremonies of death and dying in the African American culture. (Co-written by Yale English professor Maurice Wallace Ph.D. '95, the book has a target publication date of December 31, 1999.) Text will be accompanied by photographs of the dead and burial places of famous African Americans. "It will be a coffee-table book, if you can stand it," she says. "It will look at the business of burial, the ceremonies of death, and the involvement of the African American church."

     Passed On is a scholarly venture, but it also taps into Holloway's own family background. Her father came from a family of morticians, and although he earned a degree in mortuary science, he never used it, "because as soon as he got engaged to my mother, she said no way was this going to be part of her family structure," she says. On trips to visit her cousins, Holloway and her sisters would stay above the funeral home and scare one another by claiming a dead body was coming up the stairs to get them. "It surprised me to see that I was coming to this decision to do a book about death and dying, but I come to it quite honestly. In a way, it's my contribution to the family legacy."

Dressed and impressed: Holloway, in her velvet, Christmas 1953
Holloway jokes that the subject might even give her a little more private time. "I know things that most people just don't want to know about being dead. I think that some people will avoid me while I'm researching this book because my sense of casual conversation is probably not appropriate for a lot of folks."

     Not that she would mind the extra time alone. Even though she occasionally wears red these days, Holloway still retains the deeply ingrained lessons of her youth. "I've been very grateful for the awareness my parents taught me about the differences between one's public and private selves," she says. "After spending a day where I'm expected to be congenial and available, or not to mind conversations or worry about this or that, it's important for me to go back to my rocking chair at home and just let it all kind of leak back out."

     For more information about the African and Afro-American Studies program, call 684-2830, or visit the AAAS home page.


do understand well my grandmother's red reluctance. A few years ago I braided my hair in a moment of needing, remember-ing, and understanding my grandmother. Two thick rope-like braids embrace my head now, holding me all in, I sometimes think, but mostly just reminding me of Celia.

Typical outing with her mother, Ouida, and older sister, Karen Andrea
When my daughter was a child, I braided her hair on the front porch. In twilight hours or warm summer mornings I worked intricately braided patterns into Ayana's hair, trying to capture some of that precious childhood time when my sisters and I could not have been closer to our mother or grandmothers Celia and Marguerite than we were when they were braiding our hair. We sat propped between their strong legs, our shoulders leaning against their soft thighs, feeling touched and safe. Tenderheaded or not, those were times when our bodies and theirs, intimately intertwined and held by the web of their fingers and our hair, were sweetly cared for, and immeasurably valued.

I have taken the long way home, back to my grandmothers' porch and stoop, my mother's kitchen, and my own spiritual space. I have a loving respect for their caution, having gained courage and thoughtful reflection from its example. And I am well aware that my current passion for red could only have been nurtured through the sure touch of their careful love.

-- From Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character (Rutgers University Press, 1995). Used with permission.

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