Quandra Prettyman, who developed some of the country’s first courses in Black women’s literature as the first Black full-time faculty member at Barnard College, died on Oct. 21, 2021 at her home in Manhattan. She was 88. Her sister, Waltyn Prettyman, said the cause was cancer.
Professor Prettyman was a 1954 graduate of Antioch College with a BA in History. She was the 2020 recipient of the Antioch College Alumni Association’s Walter Anderson Award.
Professor Prettyman arrived at Barnard, with its all-female student body, in the early ’70s, and her willingness to present literary classics in ways that made them accessible to students, particularly those of color, quickly made her one of the most popular professors on campus.
“She presented literature like it belonged to all of us,” the writer Edwidge Danticat, who took Ms. Prettyman’s freshman English course and remained close friends with her, said in a phone interview.
At first, Professor Prettyman taught introductory survey classes, but in 1972 she introduced a new course, on Black women writers, including authors like Harriet Jacobs, author of “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” published in 1861.
It wouldn’t be the first course at Barnard to focus on Black literature; a few had been offered in the 1960s. This one, though, would be different: It brought together perspectives from the emerging field of feminist literary studies with a study of Black writers, what was then an underappreciated area of American literature.
The course was an immediate hit, and over the decades Professor Prettyman added others that explored different aspects of the Black literary experience, including some of the first courses in the country on slave narratives and the Harlem Renaissance.
She also edited “Out of Our Lives: A Selection of Contemporary Black Fiction” (1975), which presented readers with works by then-emerging writers like Louise Meriwether, Ernest J. Gaines and Alice Walker.
“She was pushing the canon open, not just at Barnard, but far beyond,” Sian Beilock, the president of Barnard, said in a phone interview.
Professor Prettyman struggled with accusations, often subtle but not always so, that she was a token hire. Two years before she joined Barnard, hundreds of its students had crossed Broadway to join Columbia University students in protests over, among other things, their schools’ failure to attract Black students and faculty, despite a promise in 1964 to do so.
Whenever Black speakers came to the campus, Professor Prettyman was asked to introduce them, and she worried that her presence at some Barnard gatherings created an illusion of diversity at the college, which was predominantly white.
“There was a time when I stopped going to parental events, so as to not give a false sign of Black presence,” she said in a 2014 interview with Monica Miller, another Barnard professor, in the college’s alumnae magazine.
But she also embraced her role as a voice and mentor for Barnard’s Black students, especially those who did not come from elite backgrounds.
Among them was Ms. Danticat, who was born in Haiti and graduated from a public school in Brooklyn. She remembered Ms. Prettyman as an inspiration, even though she got a C on one of her first papers, for an essay on “Jane Eyre.”
“When we finished the class, and we had dinner at her apartment, I felt like I had been launched on my career,” said Ms. Danticat, now a much-honored author of novel and short stories.
Quandra Erlyn Prettyman was born in Baltimore on Jan. 19, 1933. Her parents, Lloyd Eugene Quandred Prettyman and Buena Vista (Gray) Prettyman, were teachers in the city’s public schools. Her father also played bass and French horn in a big-band jazz ensemble and counted the singer and bandleader Cab Calloway among his circle of friends.
Quandra took to literature at an early age; in high school she fell in love with the works of Gwendolyn Brooks and decided to be a poet. In the late 1940s, she and a biracial group of friends took a road trip to Mexico, a journey, she later said, that was more dangerous than she had realized at the time, traveling through parts of the country where a Black person seen in the company of white people might get arrested, or worse.
After graduating from Antioch, she began graduate studies in English at the University of Michigan, and in 1957 she moved to New York to work in publishing and teach literature at the New School.
She married John Stadler in 1963; they later divorced. She married William L. Smith in 1984. Along with her sister, she is survived by her daughter, Johanna Stadler, and her stepson, Sean Smith.
Professor Prettyman joined Barnard in 1970 after a friend had arranged a meeting for her with Barry Ulanov, the chairman of its English department. She was still writing her dissertation for a doctorate at the time, but Professor Ulanov asked if she could start teaching that fall, as an instructor. She never finished her Ph.D.
Before and after joining the Barnard faculty, Professor Prettyman traveled widely, and frequently to Amsterdam and Paris, where she befriended James Baldwin.
She never gave up her childhood love of poetry, both reading and writing it, and published several poems over her career. As her career lengthened, she became especially interested in cookbooks written by Black women — her kitchen shelves were lined with them, Ms. Danticat recalled.
Professor Prettyman said that many such volumes, though presented as cookbooks, were more like memoirs, offering powerful insights into the lives of Black families in the South.
“One in search of the Afro-American woman’s story is well-advised to consider cookbooks along with the more conventional autobiographies,” she wrote in a 1992 essay in the journal Southern Quarterly.
She reveled in Edna Lewis’ “The Taste of Country Cooking” (1976), with its rich details about Ms. Lewis’s family going back generations, to a time before the onset of sharecropping and Jim Crow.
“The frightful loss of Black-owned farms gives this work a poignant, somewhat tragic sense,” she wrote. “Taste may be apolitical, but it is not ahistorical.”