Department of English

In Memory of Professor Barbara Harlow, 1948-2017

Thu, February 2, 2017
In Memory of Professor Barbara Harlow, 1948-2017
Image credit: Tarek El-Ariss

Barbara Harlow, Louann and Larry Temple Professor of English Literatures in the English Department at the University of Texas, died of cancer on 28th January, 2017. Surrounded by her family and friends, she orchestrated her removal from life support as a celebration: in plastic cups filled with vodka and tonic we toasted her courage, and we toasted resistance. Released from the bondage of tubes and restraints, she was able to smile for the first time in days.

Barbara, the daughter of Lawrence and Lucille Harlow, was born in 1948. Her academic career began in high theory: she wrote her doctorate on Proust and produced a translation of Jacques Derrida’s Spurs in 1979 (something she later dismissed as “juvenilia”). But during her first academic post, at the American University in Cairo, the trajectory of her career changed utterly. She became passionate about contemporary Arab literature, the legacies of Empire in the Middle East, and the Palestinian question, and she produced her landmark translation of Ghassan Kanafani’s Palestine’s Children. In 1985 she brought her passions and her political commitment to the English Department at the University of Texas.

Barbara was an original. From the day she came to the week she died, her clothes exemplified her stylish rejection of style: she wore idiosyncratic loose-fitting trousers that she sewed herself, always to the same pattern, accompanied by plain t-shirts and big silver earrings. Her lovely house in Clarksville was sparsely furnished and her kitchen was fuller of cats than of comestibles, but asceticism had its limits: there was always wine in the fridge, and sometimes there was hummus too. Her Clarksville neighbors didn’t know she was a famous academic, but they valued her faithful participation in events like the supper club and the Fun Fest, her genuine interest in their children, and her commitment to the community. They will miss her comings and goings, and the light in her study window.

In 1986, with her colleagues Ben Lindfors, Wahneema Lubiano, and Ramon Saldívar, Barbara founded the Ethnic and Third World concentration, E3W, which was dedicated to studying the literature of recently decolonized nations alongside the literature of ethnic minorities in the United States. Her book Resistance Literature, which appeared in 1987, was the first English-language study of the fiction produced during Third World national liberation struggles. Lucid and direct, the book announced her departure from the world of high theory and entry into what we still call postcolonial studies, though she hated the term because it implied that colonialism was over. Barbara’s ethical humanism, commitment to liberation, and unswerving concern for the wretched of the earth became the common moral backbone for generations of graduate students who followed her into this comparative and cross-disciplinary field of study. Barbara’s academic children are teaching now all over the country.

The enthusiastic reception of Resistance Literature led to numerous international speaking engagements: Barbara was an avid traveler, in both her physical and literary life.  Her second book, Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention, which appeared in 1992, engaged with writings by and about women political prisoners in Northern Ireland, El Salvador, Israel, Egypt, South Africa, and the United States; while After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (1996) focused on the works of assassinated political authors: Kanafani, the South African Ruth First, and Roque Dalton from El Salvador. Working across disciplines, regions, and national languages – in close collaboration with colleagues in African Studies, the South Asia Institute, Middle Eastern Studies, and the School of Law– Barbara demonstrated the vitality and necessity of the Humanities in understanding the crises of the contemporary world, and building intellectual foundations for resisting them. In conjunction with the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice and the Bridging Disciplines Program she championed an interdisciplinary undergraduate program on literature and human rights, and when she died she was teaching and writing on the imprint of drones in contemporary film and literature. She has left us too soon: we need her example of resistance now.

Barbara is survived by her sister Ann, her sister Karen and her brother-in-law Brian, and her beloved nephews and niece, Sean, Ryan, and Katie. With them she spent traditional Christmases, and summers at the beach on Cape Cod, drinking wine and eating crab cakes. She took them all with her to South Africa, and transformed the children’s view of the world. The loss to them, and to us, her academic family, is immense. Donations in Barbara’s memory to the ACLU or to the Center for Constitutional Rights will honor her lifelong fight against injustice.


Written by Elizabeth Cullingford, in collaboration with Karen Kelleher, Neville Hoad, Kamran Ali, Tarek El-Ariss, Mary Reed, Yoav DeCapua, Mia Carter, and Karen Engle

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