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In Memoriam: Bebe Moore Campbell, Diversity Diva

Following Bebe Moore Campbell’s transition into the spiritual realm, many took note of the Washington Post’s earlier appraisal, “If this is a fair world, Bebe Moore Campbell will be remembered as the most important African-American novelist of this century – except for, maybe Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin.” Her publicist, Dr. Linda Wharton-Boyd, noted that Bebe, as she was known to me, had not only received international acclaim for her writing but she had also become a powerful advocate for mental illness and fought valiantly against an array of social injustices. One dimension neglected by Bebe’s recent national coverage is the fact that Bebe was the quintessential positive outcome of a diversity initiative.  

While teaching African American Rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), I met Bebe who was small in physical stature but extraordinarily large in her ability to clearly express seminal ideas. In her term paper, for example, Bebe first discussed the adverse impact of European-derived aspects of beauty such as light skin color, long straight hair, small pointed nose, and a relatively flat posterior on African-American women. Next, she presented the psychodynamics related to her personal decision to cut her long straight hair and wear the “Afro” style. She summed up the excruciating experience by stating, “It was a ‘hellafied’ ‘thang!’” as she experienced the cognitive dissonance emanating from defining her external self in terms other than those for which she had formerly been praised. Once the paper was published in the Black Studies Department’s Black Lines journal, many young women not only identified with her story but also took major steps in the development of their race consciousness by redefining aspects of what made them beautiful.

Other faculty members quickly noted Bebe’s intellectual prowess. What was seldom made clear, however, was the fact that a hard-won diversity program, emanating from the struggle of African-American student activists, brought Bebe to Pitt. Thus, it is most unfortunate that there remain many people who naively, fearfully and politically seek to end diversity initiatives, believing them to be inappropriate uses of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or some other aspect of personal and collective identity. However, informed leaders of high quality and highly competitive institutions know that the best rationale for diversity is that its outcomes help their institutions fulfill their highest priority goals, their core values, and their most fundamental reasons for existing. As such, Bebe is perhaps Pitt’s Diversity Diva, a model outcome of its diversity programs.

Bebe realized the highest levels of undergraduate intellectual attainment as espoused by Pitt’s Honors College. Bebe achieved the national and international professional reputation associated with Pitt’s very best scholars. Bebe performed the distinguished community service embedded in Pitt’s mission. Bebe exhibited excellent teaching with young children, college students, and the adult community. Bebe rose from Pitt undergraduate to Pitt trustee. Bebe grew in stature from Pitt student leader to national leader for mental health issues. In sum, as Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg noted, “As a daughter of Pitt, she was a role model for students and a powerful spokeswoman for the ideals we hold dear.” To that statement I add, “Bebe is to be rightfully recognized as the paragon, the touchstone, the perfect illustration of diversity outcomes and is, therefore, to be crowned the ‘Diversity Diva,’ the now divine Goddess whose creation should be emulated by all others who seek the very best in terms of higher education outcomes.

As many musicians have sung, Bebe is “…gone too soon, gone too soon, gone too soon.”  However, given the presence of the dark shadows cast by those seeking to end diversity programs for people who were historically and continue to be oppressed, Bebe’s good works constitute a powerful beacon that illuminates why diversity is a matter of best practice for institutions of higher education. With the passing of time, it will not be surprising if the substance of the aforementioned Washington Post quote were to be revised as follows: “If this is a fair world, Bebe Moore Campbell will be remembered as one of the most important American novelists of her century. Her writings constitute a calm, clean, refreshing, spiritual breeze that nourishes our souls.”

In Chancellor Nordenberg’s words, the work of a university includes “…enabling students to build better lives, adding to the existing reservoir of human knowledge and serving the public interest…” all of which were realized magnificently by our Diversity Diva, Bebe Moore Campbell. Therefore, we should end our mourning for Bebe by celebrating and implementing inclusive initiatives throughout higher education. 

— Dr. Jack L. Daniel is a tenured professor and the former vice provost for undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

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