by Herman Beavers, University of Pennsylvania
At the moment of her untimely passing, Cheryl Ann Wall was a mere month from retirement after a distinguished 45-year career at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, where she served as the Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Professor in the Department of English. A native of Manhattan, New York, where she graduated from Rhodes Preparatory School and later went on to complete a Bachelor’s degree in English from Howard University and a doctoral degree in American Civilization from Harvard University, Professor Wall began her career at Rutgers as an Instructor, while completing her requirements for her doctorate. Though she would hold a series of visiting professorships at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, she would spend the bulk of her career working on the Rutgers, New Brunswick campus. Looking at the date of her appointment as an Assistant Professor, 1976, the year she finished at Harvard, we can conclude that she was among that first group of Black faculty members appointed to positions at predominantly-white institutions and tasked with expanding the parameters of American literature by championing the work of African American writers whose work, though in many instances long in print, was largely unrecognized by mainstream scholars and critics.
Professor Wall was one of the first Black women to serve as Department Chair in an English department at a major research university. Her commitment to expanding diversity, not only in the department’s curriculum, but the classroom as well, earned her the respect of her colleagues and students at Rutgers alike. She was the recipient of The Warren I. Susman Award for Excellence in Teaching (1997) as well as the Rutgers Faculty of Arts and Sciences Award for Undergraduate Teaching (1995-96). Further, her work as an editor continues to shape American letters. She was editor of several volumes of the works of Zora Neale Hurston, including Novels and Short Stories (1995), Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings (1995), and two volumes of criticism of Hurston’s fiction: “Sweat”: Texts and Contexts (1997) and Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Casebook (2000). Though her earliest work covered the Harlem Renaissance, as evidenced by her first scholarly monograph, Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995), she would go on to study the works of Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, and Lucille Clifton, among others. Her book Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition was a pathbreaking study of literary influence and canon formation in which Professor Wall argued that writers ranging from Gayl Jones, Audre Lorde and Paule Marshall to Morrison, Naylor, and Alice Walker worked to “construct family genealogies, filling in the gaps with dreams, rituals, music, or images that forge a connection to family lost through slavery.” The act of extending and revising existing tropes, Wall insisted, meant that Black women writers embodied a commitment to creating space for themselves as opposed to having space allotted to them or diminishing the work of their predecessors. The book would become a Nominee for the 2006 Huston/Wright Legacy Award, a 2005 Choice Outstanding Academic Title, and an Honor Book of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.
But Cheryl Wall was not content to be a change-agent in the academy alone. She was the founding Chairwoman of the Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, the 2007 Tony-Award winner for Best Regional Theater, which featured works by some of America’s most important Black playwrights including August Wilson, Rita Dove, Lynn Nottage, James Baldwin, and Pearl Cleage. She was a leader in the Rutgers University Institute for Women’s Leadership, which sought to encourage gender diversity in U.S. higher education. She was also the founder of the Rutgers English Diversity Institute, one of the few programs aimed at encouraging greater diversity among graduate students in English by providing participants with the necessary tools to succeed in graduate school. These, and so many of her other accomplishments, are evidence of the work Professor Wall’s generation of Black female scholars were called to perform, often while teaching a full course load and being tasked with a variety of committee assignments in their institutions. To call her tireless is to engage in the most egregious act of understatement. She was accorded several important postdoctoral fellowships, along with a number of important honors commemorating her service, among them the Presidential Award for Distinguished Public Service (1986), the Human Dignity Award from the Committee to Advance Our Common Purposes (2007), and the Policy Makers Award from Executive Women of New Jersey.
Professor Wall’s career coincided with a moment when, as Ann duCille observed, “One [could] be black or a woman, but claiming both identities place[d] one on shaky familial ground, outside the black family romance.” At a moment when it was necessary to engender acts of reading, for reasons that were both political and cultural, Cheryl Wall brought the essential Changing Our Own Words: Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women (1989) into print to provide us with the necessary tools to move beyond this state of affairs. In so doing, she challenged the assumptions of not only whites in the academy, but also Black male critics like Addison Gayle and Ishmael Reed, who would accuse Black female writers of writing libelously about Black men and who also questioned the critical authority of Black female critics. Though the propensity to situate the labor involved in recovering and re-establishing the importance of Black women writers whose work had been erased from literary history (if it had been acknowledged at all) was commonplace, insisting that such work existed on a lower plane than the work of theorizing Black literary subjects and literary production against the backdrop of the postmodern landscape, it would require a scholar of Cheryl Wall’s magnitude to render such distinctions moot, revealing the specious thinking at their root. Hers was a holistic endeavor, whether it was meeting with a student outside of office hours, encouraging the work of younger colleagues, pushing for institution-wide commitments to diversity, inclusion, and equity, editing a volume of essays that would provide us with the intellectual foundations on which to reimagine the American literary canon, or producing criticism that highlighted a theory of literary practice where, true to Shange’s argument, Black women sought to create space for themselves without pushing their sisters’ work aside. In ways large and small, Cheryl Wall embodied the combined influence of her pastor father, the Reverend Monroe Wall and her English teacher mother, Rennie Strayhorn Wall. At a time when there were those who questioned Black women’s very right to claim a place in the hallowed halls of the academy, Cheryl Wall’s evangelistic zeal left its gleam over all she encountered and, in the process, made it possible for all to sit at the welcome table of intellectual pursuit. For so many of us following in her footsteps, she modeled a sharply honed professionalism, tempered with compassion, empathy, and unconditional respect. On behalf of the American Literature Society, it is a moment of sheer delight for us to award the Hubbell Prize, the highest honor conferred by our profession on scholars of American literature, to Cheryl A. Wall.
duCille, Ann. “Phallus(ies) of Interpretation: Toward Engendering the Black Critical ‘I’”. African American Literary Theory. Winston Napier, ed. New York :NYU Press, 1993. pp. 443-459.
2020 Hubbell Medal Committee:
Jay Watson, University of Mississippi (Chair)
Elizabeth Dillon, Northeastern University (Chair for 2021)
Rodrigo Lazo, University of California, Irvine
Herman Beavers, University of Pennsylvania
Leslie Bow, University of Wisconsin, Madison