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OBITUARIES VeVe Amasasa Clark, 1944 - 2007

UC professor, expert on African expression

December 12, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

VeVe Amasasa Clark, an expert on African oral expression, who coined the phrase "diaspora literacy" and helped develop a doctorate program in African diaspora studies at UC Berkeley, has died. She was 62.

Clark died Dec. 1 at a hospital in Berkeley after being in a coma for three days, said Ula Taylor, chairwoman of the university's Department of African American Studies. The exact cause of death was not known.

"She was the epitome of a brilliant scholar, passionate thinker, gifted writer and master teacher," Taylor said in a statement. "As a colleague, she was a woman of integrity who was committed to encouraging younger faculty to embrace their own intellectual voice."

Last spring Clark taught two courses, but in the fall she went on sabbatical to work on a biography of Katherine Dunham, the famed dancer and choreographer.

Among undergraduate and graduate students Clark was a popular professor whose classes were well-attended, Taylor said. Clark taught courses such as "Negritude: French African Literature," "African Theater," "Literature of the Caribbean: Significant Themes" and "Comparative Diasporic Discourses."

Clark's work was focused on the African diaspora -- people of African descent, now scattered throughout the world, in part by the transatlantic slave trade. She spoke French, Spanish, Creole and some Wolof, a language spoken in the African nations of Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania.

In the late 1980s Clark coined the term "diaspora literacy," which refers to a reader's ability to comprehend multilayered meanings of stories, words and folk sayings of people of African descent "from an informed, indigenous perspective," Clark wrote in "Developing Diaspora Literacy and Marasa Consciousness."

"This type of literacy is more than a purely intellectual exercise. It is a skill for both narrator and reader which demands a knowledge of historical, social, cultural and political development generated by lived and textual experience."

The term helped explain a phenomenon and "it helped to name and theorize the field of African diaspora studies," Taylor said. Other scholars and writers picked up on the terms.

"Marasa" is a Haitian term for twins. For Clark it was a metaphor representing the profound differences in environment, social organization and language encountered by African slaves in the Americas.

Clark was also the co-editor in 1978 of "Kaiso! Katherine Dunham: An Anthology of Writings" and in 1985 of "The Legend of Maya Deren," a work about the author of an important book on Haitian voodoo.

In 1997 UC Berkeley began offering what is believed to be the nation's first doctorate program in African Diaspora studies. The interdisciplinary, multinational program prepares students to "use and develop theoretical, analytical and methodological approaches to critical issues relating to the study of people of African descent," Taylor said.

Clark was one of the anchors of the humanities element of the program and a strong advocate, Taylor said.

"We're all trained in something else: English, political science, French, sociology," Clark said in a 1996 issue of "The Diaspora," a campus newsletter. "How many PhDs do we have who actually came through African American studies or African diaspora studies? So, it's exciting to me that we are about to develop a generation in this field."

Clark was born Dec. 14, 1944, in Jamaica, N.Y., the only child of Pauline Kirton and Alonzo Clark. Her mother was from the Caribbean, her father from North Carolina. In the 1960s she earned a bachelor's degree in romance languages and later a master's degree in French from Queens College at the City University of New York.

During the mid- to late-1970s, Clark worked at Berkeley as a teaching assistant in French and as a lecturer in what was then known as Afro-American studies. In 1983 she earned a doctorate in French. After teaching at Tufts University in Massachusetts she returned to Berkeley in 1991. Five years later she was awarded Berkeley's first Social Sciences Distinguished Service Award.

Clark was not married and had no known immediate survivors, Taylor said.

"She has what we call many 'intellectual daughters and sons' who are currently assistant professors and associate professors in academia throughout the country," Taylor said.

A memorial gathering will be held Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Lipman Room in Barrows Hall at UC Berkeley.

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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