Larger than Life

Celebrating Joanne Gabbin


by Martha Graham

Joanne Gabbin, center, during a performance at the 2004 Furious Flower Poetry conference at JMU in 2004.

SUMMARY: As a teacher, mentor, poet, scholar and friend, Joanne Veal Gabbin has helped create a place for thousands of students to find their own success.

By Martha Graham (’03P, ’08P, ’12P)

It's easy to find words to describe Joanne Veal Gabbin: gregarious, warm, enthusiastic, animated, positive, determined. It's far more difficult to find words big enough to describe what she means to JMU, to her professional community of artists and poets, and to the women who have gathered around her as sisters.

But the grateful JMU community will find and speak those words when it comes together Friday, Jan. 27, in a celebration hosted by Sisters in Session to honor the scholar and sister who is larger than life to so many.

Aside from her long list of accomplishments, the impact of her life has been something far more important. She sums it up herself: "The most important thing you can do as a human being is practice your humanity."

And she has done that all her life—as a teacher, mentor, poet, scholar, friend.

When she first arrived in Harrisonburg with her husband, Alex, in 1985, Gabbin thought it would only be for a year. Bob Holmes, then-dean of the College of Business, had invited Alex to be a visiting professor. At the time, both Joanne and Alex were teaching at Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania. "We were happy at Lincoln," Joanne says. But Holmes was persuasive, and they decided to give it a try despite reservations of moving to a Southern city they knew little about.

Gabbin joined the English department in 1985, formally bringing the study of African-American literature to the university. She built a strong and vigorous Honors Program, which became a college in July. Out of her work in Honors grew JMU's renowned Furious Flower conferences, which have become grand literary pilgrimages for established and emerging voices alike—and brought poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove and Nikki Giovanni to campus. In 2005, Gabbin established the Furious Flower Poetry Center—the first such center at an American university—and is the center's executive director. As a part of her vision as director, the center has an annual reading series, runs a summer poetry camp for children, conducts teachers' seminars and collegiate summits, and creates educational materials to understand and appreciate African-American poetry.

Along the way, Gabbin wrote books, including Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition, winner of the College Language Association Creative Scholarship Award. She has received 40 awards for teaching excellence, scholarship and leadership, and in 2005 she was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent.

Especially dear to Gabbin's heart is the Wintergreen Women Writers' Collective, a group she organized nearly 30 years ago to promote collegial scholarship and support among African-American writers.

Gabbin, however, is quick to acknowledge that her own opportunities to achieve were paved by many individuals who preceded her and helped her. In 1969, she was given a full fellowship to earn her master's degree at the University of Chicago. "I was very assertive," she says about walking into the director's office without an appointment. "It was also the times. This was 1969—the year after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It was a time when universities … that had not welcomed blacks as students started rethinking [admissions policies]. … I was on the shoulders of a lot of young people who would never get to college…and [who] made a place for me."

Joanne Veal Gabbin's legacy is the same—creating a place for thousands of students to find their own success.

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Published: Thursday, January 26, 2017

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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