Professor continues to fight for an increasingly diverse campus

By Randal Walton – rwalton@unca.edu – Contributor

A colorful map of Ghana adorns the otherwise bare walls in Deborah James’s office. Books crowd two of three tall white bookshelves with Post-it notes hanging off the edges; labels such as “Black Theater USA,” “Blacks in Appalachia” and “Black Intelligence” designate each shelf.  Dull, yellow Post-it notes also litter every book on the shelves – some with recognizable names like Zora Neale Hurston, Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison – a sight most of James’s students never fail to notice.

“I had a student in here this morning and she was telling me, ‘Dr. James, you know, you have so many things in your books and you can’t find things when you’re looking for them. You have all these stickers, but it might help if you wrote things on the stickers,’” James said.

Deborah “Dee” James didn’t realize she carved a place for herself in the school’s history books in 1969 when, at 17 years old, she tentatively walked onto the UNC Asheville campus as one of the first African-American women to integrate the women’s dormitories. James, now a professor of literature and language, said she doesn’t deserve her pioneer status.

“It was the times; it was happenstance. If it wasn’t me, then it would have been somebody. Also, because I was 17, I didn’t know that it was going to be such a big deal,” she said. “Saying that I’m a trailblazer is just not quite accurate because everybody was doing it. Everybody was blazing a trail somewhere. My little piece here was so small.”

Dolly Jenkins-Mullen, associate professor of political science, said James doesn’t realize how her presence at UNCA impacted diversity.

“She’s always stayed in the loop. She is the loop; she’s never broken with that,” she said.

Jenkins-Mullen said she first met James when the state forced the university to hire more African-American faculty members in the early 1980s; their relationship started off strong and only got stronger over the years.

“We met because we were hired within a year or so of each other,” the 59-year-old said. “We call ourselves sisters because we are. We take care of each other and of each other’s families. We’ve had family troubles, and she has stood there. She stood there.”

Growing up, James said her interest in diversity work developed out of living in a time with weighty racial tensions

“I’ve always been one of the racial minorities. I came of age in the late ‘60s; it was imprinted on me that we had some work to do. Part of our work was we were always representing the race,” the Charlotte native said. “Whatever you were doing, you were representing the race. So you have a responsibility to do that as well as you can.”

Representing an entire race also involved cultivating one’s talents, according to James.

“From the time that I was growing up, I was made to understand that you could go as far as you could possibly go with whatever talent you had. That was not about race. That was about being a human being,” she said. “If you’ve got a talent, then it was your job to make the most of that talent. To whom much is given, much is expected.”

James, who currently stands in her 40th year of teaching freshman composition, said she wouldn’t want to pick any other job than the one she has right now.

“If I had been able to design a dream job – if I had known how to do that – this is pretty close to it,” the 62-year-old said. “It makes me sound weird in some ways because we still struggle with diversity, but I just really love teaching. I love having the opportunity to work with students individually.”

James and her husband, Charles, an associate professor in chemistry, began their Ph.D. work at a hectic point in their lives.

“We started our Ph.D. work when our son was five-and-a-half months old. Then, we were running out of air, water, money everything – we were as poor during our Ph.D. work than we have ever been,” she said. “Just when I thought we couldn’t hold on, we got this phone call that invited us to interview for two positions up here. That had to be God as far as I was concerned.”

Their lives didn’t slow its pace as they started teaching at UNCA in August 1987, according to James.

“I was five-and-a-half months pregnant with my second child,” she said. “In August, I did not know I was pregnant. I did not know until I got the results of my comps. Coming here pregnant, it was hard, because we were very poor when we came here. We were not like the other professors here.”

Separation from her husband, who often traveled to Columbia, S.C., to finish his dissertation, made the shift even harder.

“The first summer, I was pregnant. He got an assistanceship and got an apartment there. He came every other weekend. So I was pregnant, with a 4-year-old, and I was still under contract because I was supposed to be working that summer,” she said. “We were very nervous about how that was going to work. Lynette was born a week before she was due and there were days when I was crying. I spent days crying.”

Even though James entered UNCA with a master’s degree, she did not have her Ph.D. because she didn’t yet finish her dissertation. She said a push from her boss forced her to get to work.

“My boss, who was Jeff Rackham, took me out and said, ‘I want you to understand one thing: I don’t care how much we love you. I don’t care how good you are in the classroom, if you don’t finish that Ph.D., you are out of here,’” she said.

James said she developed a strategy for the dissertation in order to get herself organized.

“I had sense enough to understand the only way I could make this work was to embed the research in my teaching. So it became a project about how you teach writing, which is something I really needed and wanted to know more about,” she said. “I did an ethnographic study, which meant that I could do interviews, follow people around. It took me a year to gather all that data, another year to analyze data and another year to write.”

She couldn’t find a decent place to focus enough to start her dissertation, especially after her husband finished his – which only served to drive her even more.

“When Charles told me in March that he was going to defend in April, that really scared me because I thought, ‘If all of them are home, I’ll have no place to concentrate.’ We had no place for me to go sit and work,” she said. “I needed a place that was not on campus because coming to campus, I ran into people, stuff from the campus got in my way – I needed a place that was separate from that.”

Help came in the form of Ileana Grams-Moog, a walking buddy of James’s who offered her house to James for a couple of weeks while she vacationed.

“I would get up at 6, have some breakfast, I would work. I would work again – solidly, with laser focus – until about 12:30. I would take a half hour for lunch. I went back to work and worked solidly,” she said. “Dot Sulock would come and walk with me for about an hour at 5. I would go back to Ileana’s. I would read and prepare for the next day’s work. By the end of those two weeks, I had finished my dissertation.”

Even after almost 30 years, James stills remains shocked at her amazing feat.

“Even looking back at it, it doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t know how that worked because I could have sworn to you that I had six months more of work to do on that dissertation,” she said. “But I was done with that manuscript and I still think that it’s some of the best work that I’ve done.”

James conducted an ethnographic study as part of her dissertation, but her involvement with diversity did not stop at her dissertation.

“As long as I’ve been associated with UNCA, I’ve always been associated with efforts to increase diversity,” she said. “I have never not been involved in some initiative or another to make this place feel welcoming and safe and better for underrepresented groups, particularly for African-Americans.”

One of these efforts was the African-American Colloquium, a precursor to the LSICs, which started in 1991 and ended in 2004, according Dwight Mullen.

“We did it for 13 years and focused it on the theme of a liberal arts education and we always had them reading something of classic black literature,” said the professor of political science. “We added it onto our schedules. Whatever schedule we were teaching, we added that class on top of it. So, if you were scheduled for four classes, basically you were teaching five, which is killer. After 13 years, it just wore us out.”

The colloquium, reserved exclusively for African-American students, aimed to help them understand their heritage and answer questions about their identity, according to James.

“Part of the thing we tried to address there was the notion of identity. How many ways can you be black?” she said. “If you take yourself seriously as an intellectual, does that mean that you’re also not black? Does that mean that you’re somehow embracing whiteness? So, we tried to dispel that notion.”

Although not a person of color, Alan Hantz, professor of mass communication, joined the African-American Colloquium after talking with James.

“I’ve always been very close friends with the Jameses; our children went to the same day care,” the 62-year-old said. “We had ongoing conversations on how issues of media effects were relevant to issues of diversity. Eventually, we put that together and did a film class that was a lot of fun.”

Jenkins-Mullen said although James usually keeps a calm demeanor, she remembers times in the colloquium when James dropped her mild manner.

“I have seen her get upset. I have seen her take some children to the side and tell them, ‘Look, you’re not acting right.’ So, I’ve watched her come out of herself because they weren’t getting it any other way,” the Baltimore native said. “We looked over there were like, ‘Oh, y’all have really messed up’ because there’s nothing you can say when Dr. James takes you in a corner. I remember just sniggling. Whatever it was did not need to be repeated because she had made it clear.”

The family relationship between James and Mullen assures no conflicts arise, Mullen said.

“Initially, when we didn’t know each other, we decided that a problem at many universities is faculty not getting along with each other within departments and between departments. And we said that was not going to happen,” he said. “But, we never have issues. We’re on the same page. But we resolved a long time ago, that the only way we want to be on this campus was in a mutually supportive relationship.”

James also had a way of speaking to Mullen whenever he got too passionate, said Jenkins-Mullen.

“She’s stern, but she’s the one who would come and calm Dwight Mullen down: ‘Now brother, we’re not going to hit anybody today. We need to address this,’” she said. “Her deportment in many ways was very much needed because her perspective was right on and she delivered it – and she delivers it still in ways that were not so antagonistic.”

Her adept way of using words stems from the fact that she loved to talk, even as a child, James said.

“The nuns told my parents in first or second grade that I talk too much. They would stand me in the corner, but they were too afraid that I would talk to the bricks,” she said. “And as an adult, one of my priest friends told me, ‘I bet when you talk to God, you do all the talking.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, so I’m still talking, huh?’ So a challenge in my life has been to learn how to listen.”

According to James, she had to listen to racist remarks as a student at UNC Asheville.

“A white woman, a freshmen colleague of mine from Texas, said to me, ‘I don’t have anyone else to ask, so can I ask you? My aunt told me that when I was coming up here to school that I needed to be careful about black men. Is it true that black men have prehensile tails, like monkeys?’” she said. “Do you know what you’re asking me? Are you asking me if we’re human? Are you asking me if we’re the same species?”

James said it took some time in order for her to mentally recover from that question.

“It took me about 10 years to process the trauma of that question,” she said. “I had known that white and black people had racial difficulties, but it had never occurred to me that people could look at me and not see a human being.”

However, James said she also experienced racially charged remarks from students she taught.

“I was sitting in another class with freshmen, and we had read a story and we got ready to talk about it. One of the young women said, ‘I just love this story, you people are just so good at singing and dancing.’ Several people who were sitting in the circle with me just went, ‘Oh no she didn’t.’ But you’re a teacher,” she said. “What she said was stupid and inappropriate. So I kept trying to say, ‘Let’s not talk about you people. Not all black people can sing and dance, if that’s what you meant. And I don’t think that’s what this story is about, anyway. So, let’s talk about the story.’”

Dealing with prejudiced remarks as a professor requires deft maneuvering and keeping a level head.

“I’m often the only black person in the room, even now. There have been challenges because I am the teacher in the room. I have a power, I give you grades. So, you are naïve, you may also be racist and what you said was really offensive,” she said. “I have to find a way to make you see that that’s really offensive and not to say that out loud in front of people. Sometimes, that has been really problematic and I still think about did I do enough or did I not do enough? But you do your best.”

Despite its difficulties, James said she love her job.

“I love reading people’s papers and responding to them and watching people grow,” she said. “I was telling my freshman – and I know that they think I was just blowing smoke – that I know that they can achieve things that they can’t dream of yet. And that’s really exciting. And I know that I can be a part of pushing them and helping them.”

However, James said one part of her career remains unfinished: her efforts to increase diversity and the presence of African-Americans at UNC Asheville.

“It feels like I haven’t done the work,” she said. “All that work, and we still don’t have that much to show for it? But it’s just the work that needs to be done. We have to keep on doing and doing. You have to pay attention to it though, because it won’t take care of itself.”

 

Deborah James, a professor of literature and language, listens to a student talk about her writing. Photo by Randal Walton - Contributor
Deborah James, a professor of literature and language, listens to a student talk about her writing. Photo by Randal Walton – Contributor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *