Literary and cultural critic Trudier Harris (1948- ) has gained acclaim for her work on African American writers such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, but her primary field of research focuses on the complexities of southern African American identity and experience. Growing up as a black female in the segregation-era South, Harris learned to overcome obstacles and to appreciate the family and community values generated by such restrictions.
Harris was born in February 1948 in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County. She was the sixth of seven children born to Terrell Harris Sr. and Unareed Burton Moore Harris; she had two older half-sisters from her mother's previous marriage. Harris spent her early years on an 80-acre cotton farm in Greene County. Her father was a successful farmer but still combated the prejudices of the day; he was jailed for one year after being accused of stealing a bale of cotton. Harris recalls participating in canning vegetables and killing hogs on the farm. Her father died of a heart attack in 1954 when Harris was six years old.
Her mother was the largest influence in Harris's life. After Terrell Sr.'s death, members of the larger Harris family suggested that Unareed separate the children and turn custody over to extended family members. Unareed refused, sold the cotton farm, and moved everyone to Tuscaloosa. To support her family, she worked as a domestic for white families, then later as a janitor and cook at an elementary school.
Harris attended the all-black Druid High School, where she wrote the senior play for her graduating class. Harris remembers that even within the black community, racial prejudices existed; she recalls being excluded from cheerleading because of her darker skin. After a plan to attend Knoxville College in Tennessee failed, Harris worked her way through Stillman College in Tuscaloosa. She was very active on campus and became president of her sorority. As a student worker, she was an assistant to John Rice (Condoleezza Rice's father) when he was a dean at Stillman. Harris also witnessed and participated in protests as African Americans were beaten, gassed, and jailed during the civil rights movement in Tuscaloosa. She and her family frequently attended the black community's mass meetings on Monday evenings; despite the threat of violence, they worked to make sure each citizen got to the voting polls and also demonstrated until the local grocery store hired a black worker.
After attending a summer exchange program at Indiana University in Bloomington, Harris decided to attend Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where she received her master's and doctoral degrees in English. After graduating from Ohio State in 1973, Harris taught at William and Mary College in Virginia before taking a position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) in 1979.
Harris's literary studies of African American writers and experiences have brought her critical praise. In particular, her respect for strong women such as her mother inspired her work on southern African American women writers, including Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature (2001). Harris's participation in activities such as "porch-sitting," where the porch becomes a story-telling space that brings together the private and public worlds of the black community, resulted in her study, The Power of the Porch: The Storyteller's Craft in Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, and Randall Kenan (1996). Her memoir, Summer Snow, which critically reflects on and celebrates her life in Tuscaloosa, was published in 2003.
Harris currently holds the position of J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of English at UNC. She returns to Alabama to visit with family several times a year.
Works by Trudier Harris
From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature (1982)
Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (1984)
Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin (1985)
Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison (1991)
The Power of the Porch: The Storyteller's Craft in Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, and Randall Kenan (1996)
New Essays on Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Editor (1996)
The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Co-editor (1997)
Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, Co-editor (1998)
The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology, Co-editor (1998)
Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature (2001)
South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature (2002)
Summer Snow: Reflections from a Black Daughter of the South (2003)
Andrews, William L., and Frances Smith Foster. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Columbus State University
Published September 3, 2009
Last updated February 17, 2010