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UC Berkeley Press Release

VèVè Clark, cosmopolitan African diaspora scholar, dies at 62

– VèVè Amasasa Clark, an associate professor of African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a literary scholar who coined the term "diaspora literacy," died Dec. 1 at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley after being found at home in a coma. She was 62.

VeVe Clark
VèVè Amasasa Clark (Francine Price photo)

During her 16 years on the African American studies faculty at UC Berkeley, Clark became an expert on such topics as African oral expression and the Francophone novel. She was instrumental in helping create at UC Berkeley the nation's first doctorate program in African diaspora studies.

"Her theorization of 'diaspora literacy' has functioned as a model for numerous scholars in the field, here in the United States and in the Caribbean. She will be sadly missed," said Suzette Spencer, an assistant professor of African American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a former student of Clark's.

Clark's urbane manner was reinforced by her multilingualism. She spoke fluent French, Spanish and Creole and had a fair understanding of Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania. She co-edited "The Legend of Maya Deren" (1985), a biography of the avant-garde filmmaker and theorist; and "Kaiso! Katherine Dunham: An Anthology of Writings" (1978), about the iconic dancer and choreographer who died last year.

"She was the epitome of a brilliant scholar, passionate thinker, gifted writer and master teacher," said Ula Taylor, chair of UC Berkeley's Department of African American Studies. "As a colleague, she was a woman of integrity who was committed to encouraging younger faculty to embrace their own intellectual voice."

As a mentor and champion for black scholarship, Clark worked on the retention of African American students and sought to provide a support network for graduate students in African American, African and Caribbean studies. What many students loved most was how she challenged them academically and intellectually.

"She could think so far out of the box, it was mind-blowing," said Lisa Ze Winters, an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at Wayne State University, Detroit, and a former student of Clark's. "Even as she pushed you, told you that your work could be better, you knew she really wanted you to succeed, to exceed your own expectations. In her mind, there were no limits."

Clark was born Dec. 14, 1944, and grew up in the New York City borough of Queens. She was the only child of Alonso Clark, who was from North Carolina and belonged to the worldwide historic Freemasonry fraternity, and of her Caribbean mother. VèVè Clark was extremely close to her father, friends said. Both her parents are deceased.

As a child, Clark first contemplated becoming a doctor and then a musician, according to an interview she did in 1996 when she became the inaugural recipient of UC Berkeley's Social Sciences Distinguished Service Award.

As an undergraduate in Queens College at the City University of New York, Clark majored in romance languages. After receiving her bachelor's degree in 1966, she continued her language studies at the Université de Nancy in France, where she received a certificate d'études supérieures. She returned to Queens College and received her master's degree in French in 1969.

During the 1970s, Clark headed west to UC Berkeley, where she worked as a teaching assistant in French and then as a lecturer in what was then called Afro-American studies. She also taught French at an experimental collegiate seminar program on campus that was known informally as Strawberry Creek College.

Daphne Muse, director of the Women's Leadership Institute at Mills College in Oakland, met Clark in 1973, when they were both teaching at UC Berkeley. The two quickly became close friends, and Clark officiated at Muse's wedding.

"She would have me on the floor in tears with laughter. She had an uncanny ability to mimic, and she was just brilliant," said Muse. "She was also incredibly generous, both spiritually and financially."

In 1980, Clark was hired as an assistant professor of African and Caribbean literature at Tufts University in Massachusetts. During that time, she worked on her Ph.D. thesis in French and ethnology for UC Berkeley and received her degree in 1983.

In 1985, she received a faculty research award from Tufts to attend the United Nations Conference for Women in Nairobi. A year later, Clark was promoted at Tufts to associate professor of African and Caribbean literature.

In 1991, she returned to UC Berkeley as an associate professor of African American studies. That same year, Clark won recognition for coining the phrase "diaspora literacy" in a paper titled "Developing Diaspora Literature and Marasa Consciousness." She defined the term as the ability to understand multi-layered meanings of stories, words and folk sayings in African diaspora communities through the knowledge and lived experiences of the community members' cultures.

Her method of using literature to convey experiences inspired students to look beyond dry surveys and interviews for their research. That was the case for Erin Winkler, who took Clark's "Diasporic Dialogues" course during her first year in graduate school at UC Berkeley.

"As a social scientist who researches children's developing understandings of race, I was not sure how a literature course would speak to my work," said Winkler, an assistant professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

But Clark encouraged Winkler to use coming-of-age novels in her research, said Winkler, "because they speak to experiences of race in ways that sometimes go unspoken in surveys or interviews. What she modeled in her own scholarship had a profound impact on my development as an interdisciplinary scholar."

During Clark's career, she received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship for research on choreographer Katherine Dunham and a graduate fellowship for study at the Université de Dakar, Sénégal. She also was a Rockefeller Foundation fellow-in-residence at Brown University,

In 1996, after winning UC Berkeley's first Social Sciences Distinguished Service award for "service that benefits undergraduate and/or graduate students," Clark explained to an interviewer her passion for fostering a new generation of black scholars.

"We're all trained in something else: English, political science, French, sociology," she said of her own generation. "How many Ph.D.s do we have who actually came though in African American studies or African diaspora studies? So, it's exciting to me that we are about to develop a generation in this field."

Trica Danielle Keaton, an assistant professor of American studies and global studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, fondly refers to Clark's adages as "VèVèisms."

"'Joining the ancestors,' a precious VèVèism, is not an ending, but rather a transition, something that feels akin to one of VèVè's 'zen moves' to higher and safer ground," Keaton said. "I am humbled by the love that she bestowed on us, her 'intellectual daughters and sons.' Indeed, I am honored to be but one of so very many touched by her genius and generosity."

Clark is survived by a wide circle of friends, colleagues and students. A memorial gathering in celebration of her life and legacy will be held on Friday, Dec. 14, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Lipman Room in UC Berkeley's Barrows Hall.