When Richard Yarborough joined UCLA in 1979 as the English department’s solitary specialist in African American literature, he was tapped to teach the only course UCLA offered in that field. In English 104: “Afro-American Literature,” Yarborough sprinted through more than 200 years of history, literature and culture in just 10 weeks, with just 18 students.
Today, that introductory survey has expanded to a sequence of four classes, and UCLA’s offerings in African American literature have grown to dozens of courses — due, in no small part, to Yarborough’s wide-ranging scholarship and persevering leadership, noted King-Kok Cheung, a professor of English and Asian American studies. “Our English department is now considered one of the strongest — if not the strongest — in African American literature, with the richest selection of courses in the country,” she said in a letter to the UCLA Academic Senate.
It was this accolade and many others like it from faculty colleagues, administrators and students that led to Yarborough’s selection by the Academic Senate as this year’s recipient of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award. Included in his thick dossier are details about his awards for teaching and mentoring and the key positions he has held at the Center for Afro-American Studies (now the Bunche Center for African American Studies) and the Interdepartmental Program in Afro-American Studies (now the new Department of African American Studies) — during a lifelong career devoted to diversity.
Professor Ali Behdad, chair of the Department of English, described Yarborough as “a renowned scholar of African American literature whose research has been instrumental in transforming the canon of American literature to include race and the writings of black Americans.”
Yet for all the high praise, Yarborough countered, “There are countless people who could have received the award … scores of people. It strikes me that it has less to do with me receiving the award and more to do with the university’s recognition of efforts that are important.”
Since coming to UCLA, Yarborough has taught more than 40 different undergraduate and graduate courses in African American literature. He was behind the 1998 launch of “Interracial Dynamics in American Literature, Culture, and Society,” a freshman General Education cluster class that’s still going strong.
“To this day,” wrote Cheung, who helped teach that inaugural class, “I hear from students … about how much it had transformed them personally by making them aware of social inequality and of their personal biases.”
A diverse curriculum, Yarborough said, should not just “make a case for bringing people and voices into the university, but should be more about broadening our students’ awareness of their cultural, social and demographic differences” in the context of a community.
“Diversity matters most if we view our society as a community in terms of shared interests and a shared sense of common welfare,” Yarborough said. “If we do, the idea of diversity is directly linked to the idea of equity. Then inclusion becomes simply a way to achieve a certain kind of social justice.”
But the road to such awareness “can get messy” for students, he explained. “People get upset. I teach material that often elicits emotional responses.” For example, in the undergraduate class “Early African American Literature,” he introduces students to the cruel conditions of slavery. “Most of the students have very little sense of the reality of slavery and the way that race factored into the formation of the United States,” he explained.
Yarborough’s own education started out as anything but diverse. In the 1960s, he was the only black student at a college preparatory high school just outside Philadelphia. One of his English teachers used a thick anthology of American literature. “But out of the hundreds of writers,” Yarborough recalled, “there was one black writer, and he was at the very end of the book,” covered in roughly three pages. No Latino, American Indian or Asian American authors were included, and there were only about five women writers represented.
He still owns that anthology from high school, along with every edition of the decidedly more diverse “Heath Anthology of American Literature” (Cengage Learning), a bestselling text since its launch in 1990 by Yarborough and a cohort of wide-ranging scholars.
“It took us a long time to find a press willing to take the [financial] risk to bring out that kind of anthology,” said Yarborough, now associate general editor of the publication. “But we were committed to incorporating the voices of diverse communities ethnically, racially and regionally … The ‘Heath’ changed, in fundamental ways, how American literature was taught.”
Yarborough was also a founder of the “The Library of Black Literature” reprint series at Northeastern University Press (now published by the University Press of New England), a project prompted by his experience as a young professor who had to scramble to build reading lists for his classes. “I would order 10 books for a class, and I would get notices from the bookstore that four of them were out of print.” As general editor of the reprint series, he has overseen the publication of dozens of books by African American authors whose work was in danger of disappearing.
Yarborough’s Academic Senate award also recognizes his commitment to student diversity. When he joined the faculty 35 years ago, there wasn’t a single African American student in the English department’s graduate program. He has since recruited and mentored scores of students, particularly those from underrepresented groups.
Yarborough recalled the very first black professor he ever had, a Stanford faculty member who taught a course in black literature and later became his mentor. “I certainly had supportive teachers throughout my education, but having an African American teacher opened up the possibilities for me in terms of role models.”
Yarborough also finds himself advising graduate students and junior faculty members from other UCLA departments — and even from other colleges. So esteemed is he as a mentor that the Minority Scholars’ Committee of the American Studies Association presented him in 2012 with the inaugural Richard Yarborough Mentoring Award, now given annually to exceptional mentors nationwide.
As gratified as Yarborough has been for all the honors given him, he sums up his accomplishments this way: “For me, that’s how you behave. All of a sudden, these things are something special, but they’re how I define my job. I get paid to teach, I get paid to do research and I get paid to mentor.
“I am very, very committed to doing for other people what was done for me. I’m passing on what was given.”