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Thomas, Joyce Carol



  • Existence: May 25, 1938 - August 13, 2016

Biographical Information

Thomas was born on May 25, 1938 in Ponca City, Oklahoma. She was the fifth child of nine in a family of migrant cotton pickers. During her youth, Thomas spent much of her time working in the cotton fields alongside her parents. Because of the migratory nature of her parents' employment, Thomas often missed the beginning of the school year in order to work. Despite this misfortune, however, Thomas became an avid reader.

She recalls her early infatuation with language in an interview, saying, "My older brothers used to read to me and I'd get very quiet. I would become totally engaged with the words. When the minister preached, I heard poetry. In Sunday school and Bible study, I heard poetry. Even the town drunk spoke in poetry that only I could decipher." When Thomas was 10, her family moved to Tracy, California and began picking vegetables. As a result, Thomas met a number of Mexican immigrant workers from whom she learned Spanish.

Thomas attended San Francisco City College and the University of San Francisco. She later earned a BA in Spanish at San Jose State College in 1966. In 1967, she earned an MA in Education from Stanford University. After graduation, Thomas became a middle school Spanish teacher in Palo Alto, but eventually accepted a faculty position at San Jose State College in 1969.

When Thomas left San Jose in 1972, she worked at a number of different universities, including Purdue University, Contra Costa College, the University of Tennessee, and California State University. While at Purdue, Thomas taught classes in English such as the Literature of Black America, and Creative Writing.

In addition to her work as an educator, she also became a published author during the 1970s. Several volumes of her poetry were published beginning in 1973, and four of her dramatic works were produced in San Francisco and Berkeley during the late 1970s. In 1982, Thomas published her first major work of fiction, Marked by Fire, a book that won the National Book Award and the American Book Award. Since her successful initial effort, Thomas has written and edited numerous other books and collections. Joyce Carol Thomas died in 2016 in California.