Of her death, Maya Angelou wrote, “my life has been enriched because of Sylvia Boone, and I know more about love, laughter, mercy and peace because of Sylvia Boone.”
Seven years may have passed since the death of Sylvia Ardyn Boone, but judging from the reactions of her contemporaries, she has left a legacy at Yale that will not be soon forgotten.
Boone, a Yale art historian specializing in imagery of women in African art, became the first black woman to be granted tenure at Yale in 1989. She died in 1993 at the age of 53, after teaching at Yale for more than 14 years.
A weeklong celebration of her life and career at Yale started last Saturday and will end tomorrow. A plaque was hung in her honor Wednesday in Timothy Dwight College, where she served as a residential fellow for 10 years.
In addition to the plaque-hanging, the week included a program about Boone’s life and work, discussions about her scholarship and contributions to New Haven.
“Sylvia was proud to be the first woman of color to get tenure at Yale but prouder still that it would encourage other women, Latino and black,” TD Master Robert Thompson said in an e-mail. “In TD she is remembered forever.”
Boone, born and raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y., began her career at Yale when she taught the residential college seminar “The Black Woman” and was a visiting lecturer in the African American studies program in 1970.
At this time, women were still a novelty at Yale, and minority women were few and far between.
Vera Wells ’71, a former student of Boone and her literary executor, took “The Black Woman” and asserted what a difference the course made in her experience at Yale.
“When I came to Yale, there were only nine black women. Yale was just starting to have more minority students,” Wells said. “We felt isolated, and that was part of her interest in her black woman seminar.”
From her first year until her death, Boone’s career at Yale is noted by her constant pioneering both in her field and in seeking recognition for her efforts to improve the status of women and blacks.
She resumed her graduate studies at Yale and received the Blanshard Prize for her dissertation, “Sowo Art in Sierra Leone: The Mind and the Power of Woman on the Plane of the Aesthetic Disciplines” in 1979.
In 1979, she joined the Yale faculty as assistant professor of history of art. Boone became an associate professor in 1985 and received tenure in 1989.
Boone organized the Chubb Conference on Black Women early in her career and drew speakers such as Shirley DuBois, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Henry Clark and Maya Angelou in effort to celebrate black femininity at Yale.
Her contributions extended to the New Haven community. She played an integral role in organizing the 150th anniversary of the 1839 rebellion of the slave ship Amistad in the New Haven Harbor.
In academic circles, Boone is recognized as a leading scholar of ideas and conceptions of beauty in African art.
Her courses included classes on African art, female imagery in African art, masquerading and masks and women’s arts.
Yet despite all of her concentration on women, her friends attest that she was not a feminist.
“She was a pre-feminist. Her ideas, lifestyle, and philosophy were much broader than a classification,” said her friend Elizabeth Mitchell, who attended the plaque hanging.
Ann Robinson, the curator of the Little Red Schoolhouse Museum in New Haven, which held a Boone exhibit, said Boone’s legacy lives on through the activities that commemorate her life. Several local elementary school students came to see exhibit.
“I found such an enthusiasm for learning through the experience of the museum,” Robinson said. “The children showed me how Sylvia is still alive; she is still inspiring.”
— YDN Staff Reporter Najah Farley contributed to this story