Saturday, January 5, 2019

Lovalerie King in context

I wanted to share just a few short blog entries about my good friend, Lovalerie King, who passed away on December 22, 2018. I was mostly writing some reflections to share with her family. They knew her as a daughter, sister, mom, aunt, cousin, and so forth. I knew her as a colleague, exemplary scholar of African American literary studies, and most important, as a good friend.

Given her quiet and humble ways, I doubt she ever fully articulated to her family how important she was in our field and to so many people. That's what motivates me to offer a little context.

Starting at Penn State
Penn State colleagues Iyun Osagie and Lovalerie King

Lovalerie arrived at Pennsylvania State University in the fall of 2003, just as I was departing after securing a job at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. There was no major buzz about Lovalerie's arrival. Truth be told, I think people underestimated her. They didn't know how productive she'd be or all she'd accomplish.

I was fortunate to meet her as I was just starting out as a junior professor. She generously gave me advice and guidance on a wide range of issues that I was too naive or unaware to know I needed. Whatever the case, my abilities to gain broad views of African American literary studies as a profession and the places of black people in English departments were directly linked to my friendship with Lovalerie.  

She had paid close attention to shifts and developments in the field. She knew who was where. She knew the books, literary artists, and scholars one should prioritize while trying to navigate one's scholarly and professional life. And she had thoughts on what a black person out here should be thinking about while trying to make moves.

Early on, she pointed out to me that those mostly white departments at schools like Penn State rarely hired people like her - an older black woman who doesn't fit a certain, narrow definition of an important African American scholar, one with an impressive publishing record or one with indications of having a promising career. She persisted though,  and did exceptionally well.

She was a professor, yes. A scholar, yes. But above all of that, Lovalerie was, as we say, good people.

Her reputation as good people is what makes losing her so painful. A day after she passed away, scholar Dana Williams sent out a message saying, "We love you and will miss you, Val." I've read and spoken Dana's words aloud so many times at this point. So many of us loved Lovalerie and now miss her deeply.

"'I'm a student of Trudier Harris': Lovalerie King & that generation of exemplary black women lit. scholars
Lovalerie King and Brianna Whiteside, both students of Trudier Harris

One of the major, most productive scholars in the field of African American literary studies is Trudier Harris. In addition to publishing numerous articles and several books, she directed dissertations of an incredible number of students.

One of those students, of course, was Lovalerie. I was always fascinated by how she'd invoke Harris's teachings. It was usually after someone was surprised at Lovalerie pulling off some large-scale project. She'd retell a story to me, and she'd often conclude the stories the same way: "They don't understand that I'm a student of Trudier."

For Lovalerie, being a student of Trudier Harris meant being invested in thorough, high quality works by black folks. It meant she was supposed to acquire and continuously expand knowledge in various areas. It meant carrying one's self as a thoughtful sister-scholar.

It also meant keeping Harris's expectations in mind and imagining conversations with her about major decisions. "I knew what Trudier would say if I didn't," Lovalerie would tell me when I asked about one of her latest accomplishments.

When I first met Lovalerie in 2003, she told me that she wanted to eventually produce a large-scale project on a generation of black women literature scholars. Barbara Christian. Eleanor Traylor. Cheryl A. Wall. Maryemma Graham. Karla F. C. Holloway. Deborah E. McDowell. Trudier Harris, and several others. She thought that these scholars had collectively done groundbreaking work during the 1980s and 1990s, and had not been adequately acknowledged for their contributions.

That generation of black women scholars was an inspiration to Lovalerie. They were a source of her strength. Her strength also came from her own long journeys.

"I used to pick cotton": Lovalerie King and perspective 
"I used to pick cotton," Lovalerie King once told me. I had been asking her how she maintains and keeps perspective in a field, profession, and job where she was constantly receiving slights. She was noting that in some ways her identity and experiences aligned her with a large number of black women scholars. So she was able to draw on the many lessons they had shared.

At the same time, she informed me, her route to and through the academy did not align with many of the black women in her age group and at universities in general. She had decided to pursue a career in the academy much later than almost all of her colleagues.

Many aspiring professors go to college after high school. Well, Lovalerie was initially working to support her younger siblings and then her children and later still her ailing mother. So she first completed her undergrad degree after she retired from decades of work. She pointed those things out to me not as a way of showing she was exceptional. Instead, she wanted me to get a sense of where she was coming from, and why she carried herself as she did, sometimes at a distance.

Her timeline, therefore, was different from many of ours. That may have also explained why she was motivated to be so productive.

Lovalerie King's incredible scholarly productivity 

In terms of publications and editorial work, Lovalerie King was especially productive between 2006 and 2013. During that time, she published two single-authored books, and she co-edited four books of articles by various scholars. Here's a list of her book publications:

       2006: James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays (co-edited with L. Scott)
       2007: Race, Theft, and Ethics: Property Matters in African American Literature
       2008: The Cambridge Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston
       2008: New Essays on the African American Novel (co-edited with Linda Seltzer)
       2009: African American Culture and Legal Discourse (co-edited with Richard Schur)
       2013: Contemporary African American Literature: The Living Canon (co-edited with Shirley Moody-Turner)

Some of us, no, many of us would be pleased to have that record of publication for a full career. Lovalerie did it in just seven years.

During this same period of time, she co-organized four major conferences at Penn State, served as interim director of the Africana Research Center from 2008 - 2016, and in 2012, she directed a summer institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Look, what kind of precious, durable, marvelous elements were used to construct a Lovalerie King?

She was generous, funny, and caring. No doubt. But when the martial songs and dirges are written, let us also note that Lovalerie King was intellectually gifted and tremendously productive.

Lovalerie King, Maryemma Graham, and the effort to get everybody together

I've previously commented that our field has benefited from the efforts of scholar-organizers like Joanne Gabbin, Joycelyn Moody, Brenda M. Greene, Carolyn Denard, Donna Akiba Harper, and others. And as I've also pointed out before, Maryemma Graham and Lovalerie have been noteworthy leading forces with respect to getting everybody together. I've been a witness.

I've lost track of how many times they got all kinds of folks in the same room and on a common project. The range of contributors that Graham and Lovalerie pulled together for projects has been really impressive. They involve people at different stages of their careers. They know the old-school folks. They know the new school folks. They involve people from PWIs and HBCUs.

Conferences and edited collections were two crucial ways that Lovalerie pulled us together. Here's a list of some of the scholarly gatherings that she was instrumental in implementing:

       2005: "Celebrating the African American Novel" - co-organizer
       2009: "Contemporary African American Literature" - co-organizer
       2011: "African American Literature, Race and Sexual Identity" - co-organizer
       2012: "Contemporary African-American Literature" (NEH Summer Institute) - director
       2013: "Celebrating Contemporary African American Literature: U.S. and Afro-Caribbean Poetry" - co-organizer

Consider the variety of those gatherings, which involved hundreds of people.

The four books that Lovalerie co-edited were good contributions to the field, and they also allowed her to provide publishing opportunities for nearly 50 scholars. Those efforts were extraordinary acts of coordination and generosity on Lovalerie's part. It's who she was.

"It works for me": Lovalerie King and Retirement
Lovalerie retired in 2016. She had worked two long careers, and she'd given so much. She felt it was time to step away.

In June 2017, something or another came up, and we spent some time exchanging texts messages. At one point, I asked her about retirement: And so you're really done with the academy just like that? No more articles and ish? That must be nice. Or is it?

She took a brief moment and then responded:
“It works for me, Howard. I’ve been trying to work on a novel, or novels—but truth be told, I was the oldest daughter of eight siblings who took care of the household from a fairly early age, had two kids as a single mom, worked 23 years, nursed my mom as she was dying, retired to finish undergrad, then grad school, then 16 more years working in a racist American institution, and so I figured I had earned a few years of sitting on my ass doing nothing. It’s been one year. If I get the novel done I will send u the manuscript and ask for reading!! 
She certainly did earn it. I was so pleased that she was getting to take it easy and spend time with friends and family. I was excited too to listen as she shared ideas about her novel. That was our Lovalerie.

Lovalerie King, Maryemma Graham, and the states of the field
Lovalerie King, a quiet, leading force in African American Literature
Notes on the field of African American Literary Studies


Unknown said...

She was a gift to Earth for a season.

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this blog about my sister. Our beautiful Angel has her wings and we miss her terribly. We were very proud of her!

Unknown said...

This was well written, although I only knew Val briefly through her cousin Kathy, and her Sister Tiny I had no idea of her literary contributions. She was a woman of tremendous talent and strength! She will be greatly missed! Her legacy lives on.