Cheryl A. Wall, an author and longtime Rutgers University professor who helped elevate Zora Neale Hurston and other black women into English literature curriculums, died on April 4 at her home in Highland Park, N.J. She was 71.
The cause was complications of an asthma attack, her daughter, Camara Epps, said.
In a teaching career of nearly five decades, Dr. Wall championed racial diversity both in the curriculum and the classroom. She encouraged more black students to major in English and pursue postgraduate degrees. And she widened the scope of literary scholarship to include black novelists, poets and nonfiction authors as well as essayists, whom she considered central to the black literary tradition.
“From its earliest iteration, the African American essay endorsed the democratic ideals the nation professed, while condemning its failure to fulfill them,” Dr. Wall wrote in “On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: The Art of the African American Essay” (2018).
She contrasted W.E.B. Du Bois’s self-conscious vision of blackness with Hurston’s bravado — “that when she is discriminated against, she feels ‘merely’ astonished that anyone can deny themselves ‘the pleasure of my company.’”
Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, described Dr. Wall in an email as “a leading, pioneering scholar of African American women’s literature.”
“Her scholarly work,” he said, “was characterized by the careful, meticulous attention to detail of a great literary historian and the exquisite mastery of form that marks the work of our best literary critics — a combination all too rare among scholars of American literature today.”
Dr. Wall was scheduled to retire from Rutgers next month. A symposium celebrating her legacy, organized by a colleague, Prof. Evie Shockley, had been planned for last week, but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“In a period when black women writers were publishing, being recovered and receiving national attention in greater numbers than ever before,” Professor Shockley said, “Cheryl found it possible to make a 45-year career of helping to ensure that these writers and their writings are valued in all of their power, genius and complexity.”
Dr. Wall was one of the first black women to head an English department at a major research university. Under her leadership, Rutgers required all English majors to complete a course in African-American literature.
Her other books include: “Changing Our Own Words: Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women” (1989); “Women of the Harlem Renaissance” (1995); and “Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition” (2005).
Dr. Wall also edited two volumes of Hurston’s works for the Library of America — “Novels and Short Stories” (1995) and “Folklore, Memoirs and Other Writings” (1995) — and two volumes of criticism on Hurston’s fiction: “‘Sweat’: Texts and Contexts” (1997) and “Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Casebook” (2000).
Her scholarship went beyond the Harlem Renaissance and included contemporary black authors like Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Lucille Clifton and Toni Cade Bambara.
“Cheryl Wall took pains to put black literature in conversation with other academic disciplines and to bring it before churches and community groups,” said Paula J. Giddings, emerita professor of Africana studies at Smith College in Massachusetts.
Cheryl Ann Wall was born on Oct. 29, 1948, in Manhattan to the Rev. Monroe Wall, a pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Harlem, and Rennie Ray (Strayhorn) Wall, an English teacher for the New York City public schools.
“Cheryl grew up around books and literature, read all the time as a child,” her sister, Gatsie Wall-Jones, said. “She was clearly influenced by her mother and developed the same passion to share knowledge, particularly through reading.”
Raised in Jamaica, Queens, she graduated from the Rhodes Preparatory School in Manhattan. She studied piano under the composer and performer Margaret Bonds. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Howard University in Washington and a doctorate at Harvard on a Ford Foundation scholarship.
Dr. Wall began teaching at Rutgers in 1972. She was named the Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston professor in 2007.
Her marriage to C. Roy Epps in 1979 ended in divorce. Her daughter and sister are her only immediate survivors.