Prettyman portrait by Frits Schroeder; Miller portrait, Asiya Khaki
I interviewed my colleague, friend, and senior lecturer in the English department, Quandra Prettyman, on a recent sunny afternoon. Quandra teaches Explorations of Black Literature: Early African American Literature 1760–1890 on Thursdays, and has a ritual of going to Le Monde restaurant on her way home for a bowl of French onion soup. She invited me along, and when we arrived at the restaurant, she asked for a table near the window. At 80 years old, Prettyman is quick and nimble both physically and mentally—she took off her coat, sat down, ordered her soup and a Bloody Mary like the regular customer that she is. Sitting across from her, with a cup of coffee and a slice of rich chocolate cake, I looked into her warm, friendly face and marveled at her devilish smile. She does not suffer fools, so I was relieved when she began the conversation about how she arrived at Barnard, her 40-plus-year career at the College, and her thoughts about Barnard’s Africana studies program becoming a department.
“He told me that an associate position would be safer,” Prettyman said, looking out the window onto Broadway. She was talking about a conversation she had in 1970 with Barry Ulanov, chair of the English department, about coming to teach at Barnard. “Safer?” I asked. “Yes, the best piece of advice I have received in my adult life was to drop out of Michigan’s English PhD program and teach at Barnard. I’m so grateful to Barry for that advice,” she reassured me.
This was a certainly unexpected turn for our conversation—I wondered how a job interview for a college teaching position could include a welcome suggestion not to complete a degree. Over the course of our lunch, Prettyman explained how the relationship between her personal and professional life and Barnard’s efforts to integrate the faculty and curriculum in the early 1970s resulted in her interview with Ulanov and her subsequent long career at Barnard.
“I came home and said, ‘I think I’ve just been hired!’” Prettyman explained, indicating what happened after her initial meeting with Ulanov. Living on 110th Street with her family, she had been teaching English at the College of Insurance and the New School. Though she had been living quite close to Barnard and Columbia, neither place, especially Barnard, was “on her radar.” But Janet Thaddeus, her neighbor and a Barnard English department faculty member, had been telling her for “quite a while” that she “really ought to come and teach there.” Frustrated with Prettyman’s lack of initiative, Thaddeus finally made an appointment with Ulanov for her, telling her where and when to show up. History was made that spring day. Prettyman went to the meeting and Ulanov convinced her to start teaching what was then English A (now first-year English), though she had planned to stay home with her infant daughter for a while longer. Not intending personally to integrate the faculty, she was nevertheless among the first to do so, after an especially difficult time in Morningside Heights in the late 1960s. English A was the department’s signature course, and as a new hire, Prettyman was enjoined to use her training in 17th-century and Modernist literature. She said that “Barry advised me, rightly, that I shouldn’t go there,” with there being further studies in 17th-century literature.
She understood his advice as practical and political. He seemed to intuit that as a young black woman and one of the first generation of professors of color, she would be doing multiple kinds of work in and out of the classroom, given her excellent and progressive education—first in Baltimore, at the famous Frederick Douglass High School (alumni include Thurgood Marshall), at Antioch College, and later at the University of Michigan. Prettyman understood his insistence that Barnard would be “safer” as meaning that he could provide her a supportive space to do her teaching, writing, and scholarship. (She was already a published poet.) For her, Barnard could be a place to educate with an example of excellence, rather than as an example of the academy’s newly enlightened racial politics.
“I never wanted to be a teacher,” Prettyman asserted, explaining that her parents were teachers in the Baltimore public school system, first in segregated schools where they taught grade school (her father) and sick children in the hospital and at home (her mother). Desegregation for her family meant that her parents changed jobs; because of the excellence of their work, both were plucked out of the “black” school system and put to work in the predominantly white system. Her father became a high school counselor in a white school; her mother found herself exclusively teaching white children, because she was finally allowed into their homes. Teaching was a good job for African Americans in the mid-20th century, a well-regarded option for black people. Prettyman never understood the true nature of the “respectability” that teaching held for her father until she read his obituary, in which he was curiously described as a musician, which was not how she knew him. “He was a teacher!” Prettyman insisted. But then, she explains, she remembered a basement full of jazz records and a seemingly unused upright bass that stood in their house. Reading about his life, she realized that her father had “really been” a jazz musician who settled into a life of marriage, teaching, and respectability in Baltimore. Perhaps her father “never wanted to be a teacher” either, and maybe it was also a “safer” choice for him and his eventual family.
Prettyman speaking at the department’s first in a series of Distinguished Alumnae events, Creating Dangerously, which welcomed writer Edwidge Danticat ’90. Photo by Asiya Khaki
Barry Ulanov did not initially hire Prettyman to teach African American literature—that came later. She recalls actually asking if she could do such a course, in 1972. Previously, she had taught a course called The Negro Character in American Fiction at the New School, which she thinks may have been “the first class taught at a predominantly white institution that had African American literature at the forefront.” When she arrived at Barnard, she learned that a Columbia faculty member had taught an early course, at the time of the 1968 protests. While Prettyman recalls almost all good memories from this time—including the excitement of developing the course, of beginning her career attending to early African American literature, of having students take the words of slaves and themselves seriously as scholars—she did mention that when some complained that Prettyman and her course were “just a result of affirmative action” she felt angry and hurt. “Safety” is, indeed, a relative concept. When I asked her about this class at Barnard, she smiled, and with light gleaming in her eyes, told me, “The first or second time you teach a course is the best.” Populated almost exclusively with black students, male and female, the 1972 version of Explorations of Black Literature was a hit. It was in this classroom that Prettyman found her passion and also honed the teaching style for which she is famous today.
ONLY THE BEST
Her pedagogy has won her respect, admiration, and, for some, a healthy fear. “When Emmanuelle St. Jean ’04 came to Barnard, she was assigned my first-year English class. When she was done, she swore she would never take another class with me,” Prettyman chuckled. “But when I ran into her on the fourth floor of Barnard Hall her sophomore year, I grabbed her arm and said ‘I’ve been waiting to get you back!’” St. Jean enrolled in Prettyman’s Explorations class and worked just as hard, if not harder, than she did in first-year English. Prettyman’s rigor commands respect and, begrudgingly, admiration. (The women are still very close friends today.) Seeing the classroom as a kind of ministry, she converts her students into hard workers, excellent writers, and perspicacious readers. Prettyman explains, “Once, a student came in to complain about a B-. I told her that she earned it—the paper was not her best work. ‘I’ll give you an A when you hand in your best work,’ I said. She never handed junk in again.” At age 70, which is when St. Jean had her as a professor, or now, at age 80, Prettyman’s appearance masks the tiger that she is—diminutive, with her snow-white hair often secured with a hair band and in a ponytail, clad in a denim dress and sensible shoes, she appears a nice older woman, even when she deploys that devilish smile. In reality, she is a drill sergeant, unwilling to brook student laziness, with a multigenerational reputation for encouraging students to do multiple rewrites until they actually get to their best work.
SURVIVAL & SOLIDARITY
As one of the first black faculty members who also taught African American literature, Quandra Prettyman was often responsible for representing blackness at Barnard, especially in the 1970s before there was any program or department in Africana studies. “There was a time when I introduced every black person that came to speak at Barnard, which was interesting,” she remembered. Indicating that this work was actually a “nice Barnard moment,” Prettyman beamed when recounting the luminaries she met: “Maya Angelou a couple of times, Toni Cade [Bambara], Sonia Sanchez.” She missed having Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis, both ’70, in her classes by just one semester. When she herself was asked to speak at a Black History Month event in Brooks Hall, rather than merely introduce a black speaker, she was reminded—by the notes for the talk recently found in her files—that her topic was love letters sent by slaves to one another.
This discovery is of a piece with Prettyman’s pedagogical practice; as a teacher and scholar of African American literature, she emphasizes solidarity. When asked which of the classes in her repertoire were her favorites, she mentioned a course titled Women and Slavery in Black and White. Using an example from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, she mused, “Everyone thinks of me as a descendent of Sethe [the slave mother in the story]. What I wanted in that class was for white students to understand themselves as descendants of Denver [Amy Denver, the white woman who helps the slave Sethe survive childbirth during her escape from slavery].” Not a person who overly emphasizes racial difference, Prettyman is interested in exploring the conditions for mutual survival and prosperity.
Though she grew up in segregated Baltimore, her world was always diverse and cosmopolitan—she traveled to Mexico with an integrated high school group, was in Paris with James Baldwin, and has spent many summers of her adult life in Amsterdam or other parts of Europe. This desire does not blind her to the realties of race and power, as she explained when recounting another, not so nice, Barnard moment. Saying that “there was a time when I stopped going to parental events, so as to not give a false sign of black presence,” she indicated that the work that she would do for Barnard, in the broad category of “solidarity,” would be on her own terms. The point-person for black people, culture, and scholarship at Barnard for many years, Prettyman is overjoyed that the Africana studies program has recently become a full department. “What pleases me so much is the variety of experiences, the many different perspectives students are getting now,” she says. Forty-plus years after her initial job interview, there are six tenured black women teaching in the department and “you are all so different!” she insists. Because of her long, passionate, dedicated service to black folk and black studies, Barnard has become not only “safe” for the study of Africans in and of the diaspora, but vibrantly and energetically so.