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De Veaux runs home

Newly retired UB professor, former renowned journalist, reflects on her at-bat

Managing Editor

Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 18:01


Courtesy of Jill Brazel Photography

Alexis De Veaux, a now-retired professor of women's studies, recites a poem in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., during 2012's Split This Rock Poetry Festival, a poetry festival that celebrates activism and social change. De Veaux, who considers herself to be a writer, believes in using literacy for social change.

The world changed when Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement leader, walked to freedom on Feb. 2, 1990.

Alexis De Veaux, a retired UB women’s studies professor, never thought she would see such a moment in her lifetime, let alone experience it firsthand. But there she was, a black woman barely into her 40s, sitting across from Mandela and his wife in their home in Soweto, South Africa, the day after his release from prison – a moment De Veaux will never forget.

“It was mind-blowing,” she said, almost unable to describe the moment. “You had to change. You were changed yourself. Your cellular structure changed as a result of witnessing the power of this moment in South Africa.

“Just his own sense of himself as a human being, in spite of the fact that we also look at him as a black South African, but his notion of what it meant to be dignified really gave me another way of thinking about what it means to be among those who are considered to be oppressed.”

De Veaux, a black woman who had felt racial discrimination throughout her own life, was the first North American journalist to interview Mandela after his newfound freedom. She subsequently published a story entitled “Walking Into Freedom” about her private meeting with South Africa’s first president elected in a representative democratic election.

She didn’t quite recognize then how this opportunity would propel her into the world stage; in her mind, she was just a black female writer in a world that didn’t quite have the perfect space for her.

De Veaux was then working as a contributing editor for Essence magazine, a monthly publication geared toward empowering young African-American women, writing about social issues and conditions with a global focus.

Mandela, who was imprisoned in South Africa for 27 years for leading the African National Congress and fighting against black oppression, was never broken by his struggle. His release into the country he had fought so hard for began a global shift in terms of peace and racial segregation.

The world celebrated with South Africa. As Mandela negotiated for liberation and was released from prison, the anti-apartheid movement was given new strength. De Veaux, along with millions of people around the globe, witnessed continent-wide celebrations in Africa and among black people involved in the Diaspora, and she was right at the heart of the moment.

De Veaux – now 64 years old and years after what she describes as the “fateful day” with Mandela that changed her life –retired from UB at the end of the fall semester after spending over 20 years as an associate professor in the department of women’s studies.

Strike one: poor

De Veaux was born in Harlem, N.Y., in 1948, just after the explosion of African-American culture from the Harlem Renaissance and at the turn of the 20th century, which changed and shook the literary and arts worlds.

Her mother, a Caribbean immigrant, had eight children, all from different fathers, and supported them on welfare.

Her father, a descendant of migrant workers from North Carolina, was absent from her childhood – he was in prison most of her life and died in 1975. Her siblings’ fathers, too, were out of the picture and De Veaux’s mother made it clear to her children that privilege was nonexistent in their lives.

“When I was a really young person, my mother made that poverty clear to me by telling me I had three strikes against me,” De Veaux said. “I was black, female and poor. And that was how she understood life, that she was also black, female and poor … from the time that I was a kid, I was working against this notion that I was powerless.”

Around the age of 12, De Veaux remembers deciding that fate would not be her life – the strikes against her were not going to restrain or limit her. She decided that being black, female and poor were going to be her deepest, most powerful weapons.

“There were eight of us, and that’s a lot of kids to feed and clothe and educate and maintain,” De Veaux said. “My mother was not always able to do that affectively, but I’ve come to understand that she did the best she could. And what she gave me is what I’ve made of the life that I started out in.”

Strike two: black

Her mother wasn’t alone in raising her children, though. De Veaux’s paternal grandmother, Ruby Hill, helped care for the eight children, and in turn helped De Veaux discover her passion: writing. Hill taught De Veaux how to read by teaching her the poetry in the Bible – how to read it, recite it and memorize it. 

Hill was a devout Baptist, born and raised in North Carolina, whose job was to oversee and direct the Sunday school programs. She came to New York in 1929 with nothing but herself and her teaching certificate. But because of the racism and segregation in the city during that time period – it was right around the time of the Great Depression – Hill was only able to find work as a maid.

“It was clear to me that she worked as a maid, but she was not a maid,” De Veaux said, describing the struggle her grandmother faced in the new city. Her grandmother helped her see the history of black women and how they had their own spaces in literature.

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