Trailblazer: UNCA professor Dee James still leads the way

When Deborah “Dee” James walked tentatively onto the UNC Asheville campus in 1969, it was as one of the first African-Americans to integrate the women’s dormitories. Nowadays, however, she downplays that pioneer status.

“It was the times; it was happenstance. If it wasn’t me, then it would have been somebody. Also, because I was 17, I didn’t know that it was going to be such a big deal,” she points out. “Saying that I’m a trailblazer is just not quite accurate, because everybody was doing it: Everybody was blazing a trail somewhere. My little piece here was so small.”

But colleague Dolly Jenkins-Mullen, an associate professor of political science, says James doesn’t realize how her presence at UNCA impacted diversity. “She’s always stayed in the loop. She is the loop; she’s never broken with that.”

Jenkins-Mullen says she met James in the early 1980s, when the state forced the school to hire more African-American faculty; their relationship started off strong and has only gotten stronger over the years.

“We met because we were hired within a year or so of each other,” she explains. “We call ourselves sisters because we are: We take care of each other and of each other’s families. We’ve had family troubles, and she has stood there. She stood there.”

Growing up in a time of weighty racial tensions, notes James, fueled her passion for diversity work.

“I’ve always been one of the racial minorities,” the Charlotte native observes. “I came of age in the late ’60s; it was imprinted on me that we had some work to do. Part of our work was we were always representing the race. Whatever you were doing, you were representing the race. So you have a responsibility to do that as well as you can.”

But representing an entire race also involved cultivating one’s own talents.

“From the time that I was growing up, I was made to understand that you could go as far as you could possibly go with whatever talent you had. That was not about race — that was about being a human being,” she recalls. “If you’ve got a talent, then it was your job to make the most of that talent. To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Hard times

James, now in her 40th year of teaching freshman composition, says she wouldn’t want any other job.

“If I had been able to design a dream job — if I had known how to do that — this is pretty close to it,” she reveals. “It makes me sound weird in some ways, because we still struggle with diversity, but I just really love teaching. I love having the opportunity to work with students individually.”

James and her husband, Charles, an associate professor of chemistry, both began working on their doctorates at a challenging point in their lives.

“We were running out of money, everything — we were as poor then as we have ever been,” she remembers. “Just when I thought we couldn’t hold on, we got this phone call that invited us to interview for two positions up here. That had to be God, as far as I was concerned.”

They started teaching at UNCA in August 1987, but the pace didn’t slow.

“I was 5 1/2 months pregnant with my second child,” James reports. “In August, I did not know I was pregnant; I did not know until I got the results of my comps. It was hard, because we were very poor. We were not like the other professors here.”

Frequent separations from her husband, who often had to travel to Columbia, S.C., to complete his dissertation, made the shift even harder.

“The first summer, he got an assistantship and got an apartment there. He came every other weekend. So I was pregnant, with a 4-year-old, and I was still under contract, because I was supposed to be working that summer,” she recalls. “We were very nervous about how that was going to work. Lynette was born a week before she was due, and there were days when I was crying. I spent days crying.”

Strategy for success

James, meanwhile, hadn’t completed her own dissertation, but a push from her supervisor forced her to get to work.

“My boss, who was Jeff Rackham, took me out and said, ‘I want you to understand one thing: I don’t care how much we love you; I don’t care how good you are in the classroom. If you don’t finish that Ph.D., you are out of here,’” she recalls.

James realized she needed a strategy.

“I had sense enough to understand the only way I could make this work was to embed the research in my teaching. So it became a project about how you teach writing, which is something I really needed and wanted to know more about,” she explains. “I did an ethnographic study, which meant that I could do interviews, follow people around. It took me a year to gather all that data, another year to analyze data.”

But when it came time to sit down and actually start writing, she couldn’t find a suitable workspace. And with her husband wrapping up his dissertation, James grew worried.

“When Charles told me in March that he was going to defend in April, that really scared me, because I thought, ‘If all of them are home, I’ll have no place to concentrate.’ We had no place for me to go sit and work,” she said. “I needed a place that was not on campus, because coming to campus I ran into people, stuff from the campus got in my way.”

Then help arrived. Colleague Ileana Grams, a walking buddy who was going on vacation for a couple of weeks, offered James her house.

“I would get up at 6, have some breakfast, I would work — solidly, with laser focus — until about 12:30. I would take a half-hour for lunch, go back to work and work solidly,” she remembers. “Dot Sulock [now a lecturer in mathematics at the school] would come and walk with me for about an hour at 5. I would go back to Ileana’s, read and prepare for the next day’s work. By the end of those two weeks, I had finished my dissertation.”

Nearly 30 years later, James is still amazed by her feat.

“Even looking back at it, it doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t know how that worked, because I could have sworn to you that I had six months more of work to do on that dissertation,” she says. “But I was done with that manuscript, and I still think that it’s some of the best work that I’ve done.”

Welcoming diversity

James’ engagement with diversity didn’t stop there, however.

“As long as I’ve been associated with UNCA, I’ve always been associated with efforts to increase diversity,” she notes, “to make this place feel welcoming and safe and better for underrepresented groups, particularly for African-Americans.”

One long-running project was the African-American Colloquium, launched in 1991.

“We did it for 13 years and focused it on the theme of a liberal arts education, and we always had them reading something of classic black literature,” political science professor Dwight Mullen recalls. “We added it onto our schedules. Whatever schedule we were teaching, we added that class on top of it. So if you were scheduled for four classes, basically you were teaching five, which is killer. After 13 years, it just wore us out.”

Reserved exclusively for African-American students, the colloquium aimed to help them understand their heritage, says James.

“Part of the thing we tried to address there was the notion of identity. How many ways can you be black?” she explains. “If you take yourself seriously as an intellectual, does that mean that you’re also not black? Does that mean that you’re somehow embracing whiteness? So we tried to dispel that notion.”

After talking with James, Alan Hantz, a professor of mass communication, joined the colloquium, even though he’s white. “I’ve always been very close friends with the Jameses; our children went to the same day care,” he says. “We had ongoing conversations on how issues of media effects were relevant to issues of diversity. Eventually, we put that together and did a film class that was a lot of fun.”

Jenkins-Mullen remembers times in the colloquium when James dropped her usually mild manner.

“I have seen her get upset. I have seen her take some [students] to the side and tell them, ‘Look, you’re not acting right,’ because they weren’t getting it any other way,” says the Baltimore native. “We looked over there, we’re like, ‘Oh, y’all have really messed up,’ because there’s nothing you can say when Dr. James takes you in a corner. I remember just sniggling. Whatever it was did not need to be repeated, because she had made it clear.”

Confronting racism

From the beginning, says Mullen, he and James shared a vision of what it meant to be true colleagues.

“Initially, when we didn’t know each other, we decided that a problem at many universities is faculty not getting along with each other, within departments and between departments. And we said that was not going to happen,” he explains. “We never have issues; we’re on the same page. But we resolved a long time ago that the only way we want to be on this campus was in a mutually supportive relationship.”

James also had a way of speaking to Mullen when he would get too passionate, his wife notes.

“She’s stern, but she’s the one who would come and calm Dwight Mullen down: ‘Now, brother, we’re not going to hit anybody today. We need to address this,’” Jenkins-Mullen recalls. “Her deportment in many ways was very much needed, because her perspective was right on and she delivered it — and she delivers it still — in ways that were not so antagonistic.”

Even as a child, says James, she loved to talk.

“The nuns told my parents in first or second grade that I talked too much. They would stand me in the corner, but they were too afraid that I would talk to the bricks,” she recalls. “And as an adult, one of my priest friends told me, ‘I bet when you talk to God, you do all the talking.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, so I’m still talking, huh?’ So a challenge in my life has been to learn how to listen.”

As a student at UNCA, says James, that included listening to racist remarks.

“A white woman, a freshman colleague of mine from Texas, said to me, ‘I don’t have anyone else to ask, so can I ask you? My aunt told me that when I was coming up here to school that I needed to be careful about black men. Is it true that black men have prehensile tails, like monkeys?’” remembers James. “Do you know what you’re asking me? Are you asking me if we’re human? Are you asking me if we’re the same species?

“It took me about 10 years to process the trauma of that question,” she continues. “I had known that white and black people had racial difficulties, but it had never occurred to me that people could look at me and not see a human being.”

Still a trailblazer

James has also heard racially charged remarks from her students.

“I was sitting in another class with freshmen, and we had read a story, and we got ready to talk about it. One of the young women said, ‘I just love this story: You people are just so good at singing and dancing.’ Several people who were sitting in the circle with me just went, ‘Oh, no, she didn’t.’ But you’re a teacher,” says James. “What she said was stupid and inappropriate. So I kept trying to say, ‘Let’s not talk about “you people.” Not all black people can sing and dance, if that’s what you meant. And I don’t think that’s what this story is about, anyway, so let’s talk about the story.’”

Dealing with prejudiced remarks as a professor, she says, requires deft maneuvering and keeping a level head.

“I’m often the only black person in the room, even now. There have been challenges, because I am the teacher in the room: I have a power; I give you grades. So you are naive, you may also be racist, and what you said was really offensive,” James explains. “I have to find a way to make you see that that’s really offensive and not to say that out loud in front of people. Sometimes that has been really problematic, and I still think about did I do enough or did I not do enough? But you do your best.”

Despite those obstacles, however, James loves her work.

“I love reading people’s papers and responding to them and watching people grow,” she says. “I was telling my freshmen — and I know that they think I was just blowing smoke — that I know that they can achieve things that they can’t dream of yet. And that’s really exciting, and I know that I can be a part of pushing them and helping them.”

Still, there is one part of her career that James says remains unfinished: her efforts to increase overall diversity and particularly the African-American presence at UNCA.

“It feels like I haven’t done the work,” she says. “All that work, and we still don’t have that much to show for it? But it’s just the work that needs to be done. We have to keep on doing and doing. You have to pay attention to it, though, because it won’t take care of itself.”

— UNC-Asheville senior Randal Walton, a mass communication and creative writing major, can be reached at rwalton@unca.edu.

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3 thoughts on “Trailblazer: UNCA professor Dee James still leads the way

  1. CJ

    My sister-in-law Dee was not only a trailblazer but also a pioneer at UNCA, who studied, worked on her PhD, taught students and got married right there on campus at UNCA.
    This all was done during those tumultous years of the 60s and the 70s.
    She is super intelligent and helped me help my children with term papers, sholarship essays, or resumes. I have never noticed anything but the mildest demeanor and the calmest attitude, even during our highly charged James family “debates” (or rather chaotic arguments).Dee would be the much needed referee and could calm us down and make us see clearly with her talking points. She is one of a kind and UNCA was lucky to have hired her.

  2. Anne Craig

    I had the honor of being Dee’s daughter’s preschool teacher, close to 30 years ago. Long ago, but I still feel a closeness and respect for Dee on the rare occasions we ‘run’ into each other around town. I am pleased to read this article about a wonderful person, academic and teacher.

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