Blog post

In Memoriam: Barbara Harlow, 1948-2017

Toyin Falola30 January 2017

Image for blog post entitled In Memoriam: Barbara Harlow, 1948-2017
Toyin Falola's obituary for Barbara Harlow was first posted to the USA Africa Dialogue Series.  

Barbara Harlow speaking at Michigan State University, 2012. via YouTube

The gloom of the world is but a shadow.
Behind it, yet within reach, is joy.
There is radiance and glory in the darkness,
could we but see, and to see,
we have only to look.
I beseech you to look.
–Fra Giovanni

Only a handful of scholars embody relevant driving forces within multiple fields. Barbara Harlow, our illustrious colleague, was such a force in many ways. She profoundly and unabashedly shaped the fields of Feminist and Post-Colonial Theories, Middle Eastern and African literatures, and mainstream Feminist, Women's, and Gender Studies. She was able to imagine each of these fields as independent clusters, decompose them, work within the fragments of each of their branches, and recompose them as agencies, subsequently interfacing them as being mutually exclusive and compatible.

A preeminent translator, Barbara translated Jacques Derrida's Spurs, and she made famous Palestine's Children, the work of the Palestinian author, Ghassan Kanfani. She was also a translator of ideas, indeed from one field to another, while being astute at intellectual domestication, presenting it as a project of enculturation. Ironically, she was keenly interested in assassinated figures, such notables as Roque Dalton of El Salvador and Ruth First of South Africa who was painfully done to death with an apartheid bomb at Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique. Barbara's last project was on Ruth First. Truly, she was a scholar of the globe.

In 1970, Barbara received a BA degree in French and Philosophy from Simmons College (Boston, MA). Soon after, she pursued an MA degree in Romance Languages and Literatures from the University of Chicago (1972) as a Ford Foundation fellow. In 1972, Harlow relocated to Paris where she studied at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and Ecole Normale Supérieure. In 1973, she returned to the United States to pursue her doctorate in Comparative Literature under Eugenio Donato at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which she completed in 1977. She subsequently went on to teach at the American University in Cairo; Hobart and William Smith Colleges; and The University of Texas at Austin, with visiting appointments at Yale University, University of Minnesota, and University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban and Pietermaritzburg campuses).

Over the course of her career, Barbara published three single-authored books, Resistance Literature (Meuthen, 1987, selected by CHOICE as one of the outstanding books for 1987); Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (Wesleyan University Press, 1992); and After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (Verso, 1996). Each received universal acclaim, making her a "known" name. Intellectually, she became a force to be reckoned with.

Barbara was also the co-editor of six edited volumes, The View from Within: Writers and Critics on Contemporary Arabic Literature (co-edited with Ferial Ghazoul, American University in Cairo Press, 1994); Imperialism and Orientalism: A Documentary Sourcebook (co-edited with Mia Carter, Blackwell, 1999); Palavers of African Literature: Essays in Honor of Bernth Lindfors, Vol. 1 (with Toyin Falola, Africa World Press, 2002); African Writers and Their Readers: Essays in Honor of Bernth Lindfors, Vol. 2 (with Toyin Falola, Africa World Press, 2002); Archives of Empire: Vol. I: From the East India Company to the Suez Canal (with Mia Carter, Duke University Press, 2003); and Archives of Empire, Vol. II: The Scramble for Africa (with Mia Carter, Duke University Press, 2003). Additionally, in her very productive lifetime, Barbara published well over 100 journal articles, review articles, and book chapters. An intellectual giant, Harlow grappled with theory the way that children obsess about sports or play: it was fun for her and she was highly skilled and adept at it.

In addition to her scholarship, Barbara made remarkable contributions as both a teacher and mentor. Thousands of students and scholars from across the globe benefitted from her generous spirit as a teacher and mentor. Alhough always focused on research, Barbara took to serious teaching, particularly dealing with graduate students. At the University of Texas at Austin, she helped start the Ethnic and Third World Literatures concentration, as well as the E3W: Review of Books, a famous graduate student-centered journal, in which many students often published their first pieces or for which they served as guest editors. She welcomed as well as cordially embraced new scholars across the disciplines, very often pushing them to develop their thoughts and ideas, and it is a conservative assessment, I think, that she directly and indirectly aided in the careers of not less than 500 graduate students over her career.

Most nobly, and also notably, Barbara was always ready to embark on a fight, as she spoke truth to power. She consistently fought for the oppressed as well as the down-trodden and all-in-all she never sided with the oppressor. At Texas, she led campus protest movements to support Palestine; against apartheid South Africa; and against the United States' wars in the Middle East. She spoke out against America's use of torture, post-9/11, as well as the country's wanton use of drones that struck fear across the Islamic world. She spoke forcefully against the maltreatment of Palestinians, and also about South Africa's inability to better serve the people during the post-apartheid era. Barbara was disgusted by the recent nativist turns across Europe and North America, and she would most certainly be mobilizing from her Heavenly address against Donald Trump's multitudes of executive actions!

Barbara was nothing short of prolific, tenacious, definitive, sharp, generous, and kind. She fought the good fights and she did so with acerbic wit that made you pray she'd be on your side. While Barbara may no longer be here physically with us, we owe it to her to emulate her shining example in order to write, think, and carry on the ongoing and urgent struggles for justice.

Her last days revealed a lot about her. As family members, friends and colleagues gathered around her at Seton Hospital in Austin, her full faculties were at work. She could see, and could hear, taking the end with stoic alacrity. Yet, the medical breathing tube in her mouth was like a mini-gag, as if installed by one of the oppressive states she was compelled to confront, as it did not allow her to talk any more about corruption and the excessive abuse of power, guns, and drones. She used her notepad to give instructions, to ask about everyone, to remember events. "How is Bisola, your daughter?" she asked Bisi, my beloved wife. She made jokes, asking her sister to go and buy a new dress for her funeral. She mandated us to gather at 12.30 pm on Saturday, January 28, her last day on earth, to drink Vodka at her bedside at the ICU. Vodka in such a chamber! We spoke about the manuscript on Ruth First that she was completing, and how the chapters have been arranged. One of her best friends in the world (Neville Hoad) and I spoke about how this will be completed and published.

On a personal note, Barbara's death is the end of an era at the University of Texas at Austin: an era of maintaining great intellectual bridges across departments and disciplines; the unity of progressives; and attention to African Studies in the larger context of the national and global academy. I sincerely hope that the lessons of that era, which she fully embodied, would become the seed of a brighter future spreading from the University outward to the society — a befitting monument to her memory.

As Barbara changes her physical address and marches to another world (Heaven?), indeed, as a secular philosopher, she may be upset along the way. For the mysteries of the long journey to an afterlife we can, perhaps, incongruously turn to the Bible, a book she did not seem to bother to read while alive. But if the Bible be given to her, and it accidentally opens to the book of Matthew 23: 13 (written by a man that Barbara would easily query), in protest and anger, and then, adopting, adapting, rewriting it, as she was fond of doing on earth, she eventually would be reciting:

I've had it with you!
You are are hopeless, you...scholars
You Pharisees!
Your lives are roadblocks to God's kingdom.

Sleep well, great mind, but endeavor to clear the roadblocks for me to follow you to Bookdom, Library Road, Beyond University. And if they want to push you from Bookdom to Godom, don't argue with them too much. With a cigarette between your fingers, mock them by quoting TF in the following axiom:

A cockroach does not need to dress up to live in a king's palace.

Filed under: imperialism, israel-palestine, literature, obituary