De Veaux runs home

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

The Spectrum

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.

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."

Since retiring from teaching, De Veaux has returned to her hometown of New York City, a city she contends is the greatest in the world. While she is no longer teaching on the collegiate level, she plans to keep giving back by teaching literacy in community-based organizations and supporting social justice causes with her writing talents.

"I'll probably get in a lot of trouble of some kind or another," De Veaux laughed. "But I will have more time to write. I'm kind of interested in the adventure of this moment, of just sort of packing up and not knowing where I'm going to live or what I'm going to do."

De Veaux has lived as writer since she was 12 years old, and after beating her strikes and turning them into weapons - black, poor and female - she plans to attack whatever new adventure awaits.