Camara Epps remembers spending lots of time in her mother Cheryl A. Wall’s Murray Hall office on the College Avenue campus at Rutgers-New Brunswick, getting to know her mom’s close English department colleagues as she did her homework while Wall worked.
“She was always writing, always grading papers,” Epps recalls. “It was an inspiration to see how hard she worked and how much she loved what she did. A lot of people don’t grow up seeing that, knowing that it is possible to, and you should, love what you do.”
Wall, a highly regarded scholar of African American literature, American literature and feminist criticism, died in April 2020 as campus life went remote early in the COVID-19 pandemic, making it impossible for the Rutgers community to gather in her honor. Two years later, and 50 years since she started teaching in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers-New Brunswick, family, friends and colleagues of the esteemed scholar and professor will finally have the opportunity to come together to honor Wall’s legacy at a symposium, memorial service and reception.
“It has been a long waiting period,” Epps said. “But I wanted to wait until a time when it seemed a little safer to have a large gathering because I envisioned that for my mom. She was such a contributor to the literary field, and she had so many friends and colleagues. A life like that deserves to be celebrated.”
A symposium, originally planned for 2020 as Wall neared retirement in honor of her work, will take place on Thursday, April 21, and Friday, April 22. The event, Changing Our Own Futures: Black Feminist Theory & Criticism, takes a cue from the 1987 conference that Wall organized and documented, and will gather an exceptional group of scholars to imagine and discuss the future of the fields Wall’s work grew and nurtured. The symposium is open to the Rutgers community and beyond, and those who would like to attend can register here.
"The symposium is in keeping with what she had wanted,” said Evie Shockley, a Rutgers-New Brunswick professor of English who is a key organizer and was a close colleague and friend of Wall’s. “There is a good portion of the program that is forward-looking, including papers, a keynote and conversations about the future of Black feminist criticism and theory that will look at what’s on the cutting edge in the field and what lies ahead.”
A memorial service to celebrate Wall and honor her legacy will take place on Saturday, April 23, at 10:30 a.m. at Voorhees Chapel on the Douglass campus and will be livestreamed. A reception will follow at the Douglass Student Center. Those interested are requested to register to attend.
“Since we were unable to gather in person during the pandemic to celebrate the life of Dr. Wall and to recognize the impact her work has on students, colleagues, and the university, the memorial and symposium will be joyful occasions to reflect on her life and legacy while appreciating how lucky we were to have her in our lives,” said School of Arts and Sciences Executive Dean Peter March.
Epps has asked family, friends and colleagues from the various areas of Wall’s life to speak at the memorial service. Mary Schmidt Campbell, the president of Spelman College and a longtime friend, is among the speakers, who also include Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway; Ricardo Kahn, cofounder of the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, where Wall served as the first Board of Trustees president; and C. Roy Epps, president and CEO of the Civic League of Greater New Brunswick, who is Camara Epps’s dad and Wall’s former husband.
“I wanted to share a comprehensive look at her life so people can get a feel for who she was in every area,” Camara Epps said.
Wall, a former chair of the Department of English who received her B.A. from Howard University and her Ph.D. from Harvard, cofounded the Rutgers English Diversity Institute (REDI), which is designed to motivate students of diverse backgrounds to attend graduate school and ultimately pursue careers in academia. She was the founding chair of the Crossroads Theatre Company and a leader of Rutgers’ Institute for Women’s Leadership, where she worked to encourage diversity in higher education.
A recipient of the Warren I. Susman Award for Excellence in Teaching, Wall received numerous fellowships and awards, including being named a Board of Governors Professor of English in 2006 before she was named the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English in 2008.
Her books include Women of the Harlem Renaissance (Indiana University Press, 1995) and Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition (University of North Carolina Press, 2005). She also edited several volumes of literary analysis of writer Zora Neale Hurston.
Dr. Cheryl A. Wall Memorial Fellowship
To honor Wall for years to come, the Dr. Cheryl A. Wall Memorial Fellowship has been created to provide $2,500 annually to doctoral students conducting research in African American or Black literature, Black feminism or interdisciplinary studies. Fundraising to endow the memorial scholarship is ongoing.
In addition, a Cheryl A. Wall reading room also is under construction at the Paul Robeson Cultural Center on the Rutgers-New Brunswick Busch campus and is expected to be dedicated in September.
Earlier this year, Camera Epps began transferring nearly 2,000 books from Wall’s personal library to the Robeson center, including collections of works by Hurston, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Octavia Butler and others, as well as books written and edited by Wall.
Wall’s legacy is nearly immeasurable, Shockley noted in a recent essay, but the events and efforts planned at Rutgers will pay tribute to all she accomplished.
“She not only studied and published Black feminist thought, she embodied it,” Shockley wrote. “And while she could have focused more single-mindedly on her own research, she instead devoted significant time and energy to editorial projects in service of the field of African American literature and wrote endless letters supporting the hiring, publication and promotion of younger scholars who would continue the work she and her cohort had begun.”
Planning for the memorial events, fellowship and reading room has been on Epps’s mind every day these past two years.
“I will be happy to be able to fulfill this for my mom,” she said.