Africana Studies

Tribute to Professor Quandra Prettyman

Barnard College mourns the passing of Professor Quandra Prettyman, a trailblazer at the college and in the fields of Africana Studies and English Literature.

Headshot of Quandra Prettyman

Barnard College mourns the passing of Professor Quandra Prettyman, a trailblazer at the college and in the fields of Africana Studies and English Literature. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Quandra was the daughter of two school teachers. A curious, adventurous child who saw the world as her playground, in her teens she took a road trip from Mexico back to the U.S. with friends of various racial and ethnic backgrounds that created an ongoing commitment to nurturing cross-racial and multi-ethnic communities. After studying history at Antioch College (1950-54) and English at the University of Michigan (1955-57),  Quandra made New York City her home base: she worked in publishing and began teaching while initiating a lifetime of travel abroad, with regular trips to Amsterdam. Her welcoming apartment on the Upper West Side, in which every room was a library, showed her passion for making visible the parts of life buried in archives and books. Quandra herself was living history, often sharing stories of her friendships with luminaries like Coretta Scott King and James Baldwin and teaching newcomers the history of Black Barnard. Her home was a salon where gossip, knowledge, food, and drinks were served in abundance. It was also a haven for friends and students who needed a sudden place to stay or a shoulder to lean on.

 Professor Prettyman joined the Barnard College Department of English in 1970, becoming the first Black faculty member to receive a full-time appointment at the College.  In addition to teaching writing, she created courses new to the College (and sometimes new to the field) such as The Harlem Renaissance; Slavery: the Woman’s Experience, Black and White; Minority Women Writers in the US (Native American, African American, Latina, Asian American); Literature of the Great Migration, and Early African American literature 1760-1890. Her commitment to African American studies and mentorship inspired countless students during her 50-year career as a Senior Associate in English. Even after Professor Prettyman’s official “retirement,” she continued teaching, offering “Explorations in Black Literature: 1760-1890,” as recently as the fall of 2019.  Her innovations were not just in content, but in form; she was often one of the earlier adopters of digital tools for teaching. In addition to teaching, she wrote in a range of genres. A poet since her college days, her work appears in Arnold Adoff’s The Poetry of Black America (1973), among other venues.  She edited Out of Our Lives: A Selection of Contemporary Black Fiction in 1975. Her lifelong interest in cookbooks and recipes led her to publish one of the earliest academic articles on African American Foodways, “Come Eat at My Table: Lives with Recipes” published by Southern Quarterly in 1992. A regular reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly and an ardent consumer of literary and gastronomic magazines, Quandra was one of the best-read members of the faculty and a lifelong example of dedication to and passion for the liberal arts. In 2019, the Africana Studies department created the Quandra Prettyman Prize, given to a graduating senior, who like Quandra, embodies intellectual curiosity, generosity of spirit, constant growth, and a belief in the generative power of community. 

Professor Prettyman passed away on the morning of October 21, 2021. There will be a memorial. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made to support the Quandra Prettyman Prize.  Condolence messages can be sent to or to the English Department / Africana Studies Barnard College / 3009 Broadway / New York, NY 10027.