A Quiet Force For Change: Meet Karla FC Holloway

Oct 21, 2019

Karla Holloway
Credit Esther Hicks Photography / Courtesy of Karla Holloway

Karla FC Holloway was raised in Buffalo, New York in the midst of the battle over school desegregation. Her parents were both school administrators, and although she was not aware at the time of just how involved they were in that fight, she keenly observed their commitment to racial equality.

I was just always negotiating which kind of black person I was going to be, and I think in one way that's followed me.

Her father testified in Congress, and her mother wrote letters to anyone and everyone she hoped would fight for policy change. Despite her introverted nature, Holloway took up the fight for racial justice in college. As the black power movement ramped up, she joined The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and marched in Birmingham, Alabama. She went on to translate her activism to academia. Holloway spent more than 20 years as a professor at Duke University where she centered the contributions of female African American writers and shined a light on specific African American cultural practices, like funerals.

Host Frank Stasio speaks with Holloway, a James B. Duke Professor Emerita of English, about her belief in the power of activist academic work and about her latest adventure, the writing of her recent first novel “A Death in Harlem” (Triquarterly/2019). She will speak about the novel on Monday, Oct. 21 at a ticketed event in Charlotte for The Women’s National Book Association Charlotte Chapter’s Bibliofeast.

Interview Highlights

On how her parents’ jobs as black school administrators during desegregation shaped her household:

I was a fairly insular child, and maybe people don't believe it, now I'm still an insular adult. But I got pulled into a public role, despite my own inclinations. And that was because of what was going on in Buffalo. That was my parents’ situation in terms of being first blacks: first black director of — well, actually, I think we were Negro then ⁠— first Negro director of language arts for the public school system with my mother, and my father was the deputy superintendent of schools. [He] would have been superintendent if not for the politics at the board of education, but he was still on the front lines of what was happening in the schools in terms of segregation and desegregation. And our dinner table was about how that politic was to be presented in our daily lives … And our public presentation was important to what they were doing and representing in the schools — a fact that we rarely understood with the same seriousness that they wanted us to. But we got the sense that it was important for us to conduct ourselves in what they considered an appropriate way.

On her interest in the supernatural and sci-fi:

I thought a Ouija board was invented for me. I thought Erich [von] Däniken's "Chariots of the Gods?" just satisfied everything I ever wanted to think about as a possibility and that sci-fi was literature. The first course I taught on my own at Duke when they told me: Teach what you want.  I taught a sci-fi course. It was years ago. I don't think I repeated it, but science fiction has always been my retreat, because I like to think of things that we haven't thought about yet. The real was much too pedantic for me, and the imaginative, I think was my escape. I escaped into [the] Buffalo Public Library. I escaped with books in a closet. 

 On becoming politically involved in college and navigating her family’s socioeconomic status: 

My first protest was actually the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, which was another collision for me ... I left for the Poor People's Campaign from Buffalo. [My father] was riding his Lincoln Continental down to the Fruit Belt neighborhood center where we would leave from. And I asked him to drop me off several blocks ahead, because I didn't want to go to the Poor People's Campaign from a Lincoln Continental. I was just always negotiating which kind of black person I was going to be, and I think in one way that's followed me. 

To be a parent who has lost a child is an exquisite company. I wish I weren't in it.

Her reflections on the death of her son:

I had to learn to live with that grief. I had to learn to live with a certain kind of loss. He was shot trying to escape from prison. I do think that he would have been someone who committed more crimes if he had not been killed. But that doesn't mean I didn't lose my son whom I loved. I don't know how my life — what it would have been like without him, and I don't want to know. I do know that the moments he had of love and happiness came from being in our family. He was adopted right after a tornado destroyed our home in Kalamazoo, and we all started new as a family. But I think there were harms that happened to him — he was in several foster homes by the time he was 4 or 5 — that could not be undone. But it taught me something about myself I thought I’d never have to learn, and that is I could love hard. The most difficult person in the world to love was him. And I still do. The easiest [people], my husband, my daughter, I mean, they're like gifts. But to learn that I could love through that was something I think I might not have learned about myself. To be a parent who has lost a child is an exquisite company. I wish I weren't in it.