“I’ve always been a storyteller,” says Deborah “Dee” James. “I love to hear other people’s stories.”
This is at least in part why she was so successful as director of the First-Year Writing Program at UNC Asheville. “Sometimes students came into Basic Writing certain they didn’t have a voice. We’d begin with five minutes of free writing, they didn’t even have to show it to me. I watched this student make a hole in their paper. Every time they wrote something, they’d erase it,” says James. It was incredible, she says, to watch students transform and learn how to communicate on the page.
The Writing Center on campus was James’ concept and creation. “It started in Carmichael Hall in a classroom,” she recalls. At the time, English labs were grammar-based. James wrote the proposal for a different approach. Support and assistance came from her department chair and the Advising & Learning Support department, and her idea was born. James was director and coordinator; two adjunct faculty members assisted; and two students served as peer tutors. James ran the program for 18 years. Today, the center is well-established inside Ramsey Library and continues to thrive.
James, however, retired from UNCA this past spring, after serving more than 30 years as professor of literature and creative writing — but she still serves as teacher, helper and guide.
Her list of honors and accomplishments is long. Most recently — in October — the university’s Humanities Lecture Hall was renamed the Mullen and James Humanities Hall, honoring James, along with three other retiring faculty — Dwight Mullen, Dolly Jenkins-Mullen, and James’ husband, Charles James. Together, in 1991, they created the African-American Colloquium to help black students understand their heritage and to build a support system on campus.
James says UNCA gave her room to grow: “I always taught African-American literature. [The university] allowed me to organize that, probably because not many faculty knew about African-American lit.” She also ventured into African literature as a novice. “By the time I taught it seven times, I began to understand what I was trying to teach,” she says.
On tackling new material, James notes, “I love being engaged with my students as a student.” Her eyes light up. “I wasn’t pretending to be open — I was open. ‘What do you make of this,’ I’d ask, or, ‘What do we think this is about?’”
James credits Catholic school for her journey to UNCA. Born in segregated Charlotte to a Baptist, working-class family, James is one of five siblings. Thanks to her December birthday, James ended up attending an African-American Catholic school. Since she was already reading, Our Lady of Consolation let James enter first grade early instead of waiting, as public schools required for those born at the end of the year.
James continued to an integrated, all-girls Catholic high school. UNCA was actively recruiting at the public schools in Charlotte in an effort to integrate the college’s dorms. The recruiter happened to be Catholic and decided at the last minute to visit James’ school, Our Lady of Mercy. “I listened politely, but I thought I was going to Michigan State,” says James. “I was looking to go away from home, like most kids.”
In the end, James’ father said no to Michigan and encouraged her to rethink UNCA. “He said, ‘We couldn’t get to you, and we couldn’t get you to us if we needed to. You need to look at that little mountain school. They keep sending you stuff.’ That’s how I came to UNCA.”
James arrived in 1969 and was the first black student to integrate the dorms. “There were actually two of us,” she recalls. “The other woman was from Greensboro, but she only stayed six weeks.”
Coming from an integrated high school, James was somewhat prepared for the experience. “But I hadn’t thought about what it means to live away from your community,” she notes. “That part was more challenging than I had anticipated.”
She worked hard as a full-time student, sometimes holding as many as five jobs, such as cafeteria aide, library aide, resident assistant, janitorial aide and even briefly as a full-time certified nursing assistant at Mission Hospital — all this with no car.
A turning point for James came when a professor asked if she’d considered literature as a major. “Reading, writing and talking? You can major in that? I thought, ‘That’s it,’” she says.
About a decade later, James and her husband returned to UNCA to teach, and she had a dissertation to finish. “Some days I felt like I was going to die. I was teaching full time. I had two children. I was on at least four university committees,” she says. “They hired me partly for diversity, so they needed me on these committees to be the diverse person.” She says it still feels like a miracle that she finished the dissertation.
James continues, “So much of my life is about blessing. It’s about the improbable, seemingly impossible. So much of it is grace-filled.”
Of her overall experience teaching writing and literature, she says, “My greater goal was to give people access. To help people communicate.” Listening to other people’s stories promotes empathy and connection, she explains, helping us to understand parts of ourselves.
“It’s a gift to be asked to tell your story,” says James. “Thank you for hearing it.”