De Veaux runs home
Newly retired UB professor, former renowned journalist, reflects on her at-bat
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 18:01
De Veaux knew she wanted to use words as her ammunition, and she started writing her first poems in the sixth grade. She wanted to emulate June Jordan and Paule Marshall, among others – women known for their contributions, the first of their kind, to this new African-American wave of literature that started during the Harlem Renaissance.
Strike three: female
She wanted to write for the women who were enslaved – not only those who were slaves themselves but also those who chose to free themselves from a second-rate life by learning to read and write.
“Most of the writers I read through elementary school, middle school were male and most of those were white,” De Veaux said. She knew at a young age that a world existed beyond the books she read in school. “One of the things that had been missing from literature in the 1960s, primarily, and even before the 1960s, were really strong black female characters – complex characters, not just ‘mammy’ figures.”
She wanted to develop the role of black women in her stories while also promoting the notion that black women could write, too. She wanted to develop complex characters central to the narrative she was telling, ones who were peripheral and not simply “hanging on some man’s arm.” She wanted these women to explore their sexualities and their own senses.
As a woman of color who also identifies as a lesbian, De Veaux began mentoring kids at Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York (GLYS) when she came to Buffalo to study – a way to help give back to young people of color and share her experiences.
When she was growing up in the ’60s, there was no outlet available to help her deal with the coming-out process and there certainly was no discourse about any type of homoerotic desires, De Veaux said. She didn’t have distinct role models and being black and a lesbian was unheard of.
“One young woman who identified as black, as a lesbian, had a tendency to be angry,” said Marvin Henchbarger, the executive director of GLYS. “And after having been here for a couple of Alexis’ visits, it started to change. I think it gave her a sense of value, a sense of belonging, a sense of self-acceptance that she didn’t have before having that chance to interact with somebody who’d walked in her shoes – many, many miles before she even came to GLYS. And that may not sound like a big deal, but to a gay kid it is and to a young black lesbian it was.”
De Veaux believes she has overcome the strikes against her; she’s now written sixbooks and numerous plays, poems, essays and articles, including award-winning biographies of jazz legend Billie Holiday and Caribbean-born poet, novelist and essayist Audre Lorde – two of her biggest influences.
As she furthered her writing career, De Veaux realized she wanted a career with more stability – a career that promised a steady income so she would never return to her childhood-poverty lifestyle. She wanted to give back. In the midst of her burgeoning writing career, she decided to expand her skills as a community-based teacher and sought her Ph.D. in Buffalo.
In the ’90s, when De Veaux was pursuing her Ph.D., UB did not hire its graduate students to tenure-track jobs. The faculty of the department of American studies made a bid to the College of Arts and Sciences and because she was a mature student in her 40s, the university offered her an associate professor position after she received her degree in American studies with a concentration in women’s studies.
“Everything that I have now today is a reflection of the teachers and the people who came into my life and said, ‘Oh, yes, you can. Oh, yes, you better. Oh, yes, you will,’” De Veaux said. “I’ve always tried to live by something that we used to say in the ’60s and ’70s: each one, teach one.
“So what you have, it’s not yours to have – it’s yours to give … and I hope that I have loved my students that way, that I’ve loved them toward their destinies.”
She’s taught courses in art, social activism, black women’s literature, feminist theory, introduction to women’s studies and sex, gender and popular culture on the graduate and undergraduate levels. She’s explored the boundaries of race and sex with her students, while attempting to communicate social histories.
And now that De Veaux has retired from teaching at the university, many of her students are remembering her impact.
“I've learned a lot from being around Alexis in a number of a venues, not just formal classroom settings,” said Josh Cerretti, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in global gender studies. De Veaux was his adviser last year. “She has introduced me to some of the most accomplished and interesting people in Buffalo [and] taught me to be self-reflexive in a way that is both critical and compassionate. Her guidance has had a tremendous impact on me as a scholar and a teacher. Countless other positive ripples have been put out into the world through her influence on her students.”
Besides lecturing and teaching at UB, De Veaux has gotten involved in the Buffalo community. She’s not only used her passion for literacy in the classroom, but she’s also branched into social justice causes she believes in, whether it is helping young black adults realize their sexualities by sharing her story or using literacy to help spur social change.
She and a friend, Kathy Engel, started Lyrical Democracies, a community-based literacy workshop, after President Obama urged a “Call to Service” in 2009. The group holds language-in-action workshops to help groups use the written word to help spread their social justice causes.
“Our motto is ‘our story begins with my story.’ And so we understand stories and narratives as the framework for community,” De Veaux said. “ We each have the story of our being and so being able to arrive at a collected narrative means being able to hear each other and by hearing each other, we can understand differences.”