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  • Phyllis Klotman (1924–2015)A Memorial Tribute

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Phyllis Klotman, 1983.

Photo by Arthur Banks III

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Phyllis Rauch Klotman, professor emerita of the Department of Afro-American Studies (now the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies), founded the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University in 1981 in the hopes of providing a place for the collection, preservation, and study of black film. During her impressive tenure as director until 1999, Klotman formed outreach programs, created film festivals for black filmmakers, launched the newsletter that would eventually become Black Camera, and established the foundational collection of the archive. Klotman died at her home in Manhattan on March 30, 2015. The following testimonials are proof of her tremendous contributions to the BFC/A as well as her pioneering spirit, which helped throw into focus the serious study of black film.

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From left to right: Julie Dash, Monique Threatt, Phyllis Klotman

Phyllis Klotman: Full of Grace

Phyllis Klotman was a pioneer. Some would even call her brave. In the early 1970s, she was one of the first faculty hires initiated by Herman Hudson, founding chair of the newly established Department of Afro-American Studies at Indiana University. She was, for many years, its only non-black faculty member. Given the national turbulence that accompanied black students’ demand [End Page 8] for hiring black faculty, and instituting Black Studies, it was not surprising that some students questioned whether a “white oppressor” was capable of teaching such courses. One of the most hilarious accommodations that students made after taking Phyllis’s courses during this anxious time was to declare that she was not really white but a “tragic mulatto,” a term that they learned in her early black cinema course that described women caught between the divided worlds of black and white identity. Phyllis took such responses in stride as she pushed forward to build a curriculum of film courses in the department, drawing students from across the campus. For Phyllis, trained as a literary scholar, researching and teaching about black film also ignited and reinforced her vision of an archive and research center to serve as a repository for preserving black film history and the culture that produced it. The center would also be a place for scholars to research that history and fortify this emerging subdiscipline of black film studies. She and Dr. Hudson proposed and received approval from the College of Arts and Sciences to house the Black Film Center/Archive (BFC/A) in the Department of Afro-American Studies.

As the BFC/A took shape, Phyllis pursued and convinced prominent people in the film industry to become sponsors. That brilliant move not only connected working actors, writers, and directors to the BFC/A; it also helped to confer legitimacy and international status. She knew the expanded possibilities for fund-raising, donation of papers, films, and artifacts as well as special campus visits and interviews this would bring. Phyllis, a world-class lobbyist, wooed celebrities into her vision for bestowing deserved recognition on a long-neglected aspect of American film history. When she was ready to step down after eighteen years as director, she tapped me as her interim replacement, telling me—a newly tenured associate professor—that I was the best equipped to lead the now-acclaimed archive. What was more amazing, and rare, was that after my appointment was approved and became permanent, she passed the torch and stepped away, never pressing me to adopt her ideas, but trusting me to introduce my own.

Phyllis made herself indispensable to her colleagues by taking on service duties in the small but growing department and by being an advocate for the field. She worked along with fellow faculty members John McCluskey Jr. and Frederick McElroy in designing one of the first master’s degree programs in African American Studies at a major research university. She is also remembered for her service as Dean for Women’s Affairs and putting a stop to the humiliating spectacle of women competing in a tricycle race during Indiana University’s famed Little 500 week, while men competed...


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