Barbara Chase-Riboud became a popular writer almost overnight with the publication of Sally Hemings, which sold more than one million copies and won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best novel by an American woman in 1979. Ten years later, Echo of Lions sold 500,000 copies and confirmed Chase-Riboud’s reputation as a solid historical novelist who likes to bring historical figures out of undeserved obscurity. Her original literary vocation, however, was in poetry. From Memphis and Peking combines a strong sensual appeal with the expression of a desire to travel through time, in the form of a quest for ancestry, and space, in an exploration of the cultures of Africa, America, and China. In 1988, Chase-Riboud won the Carl Sandburg Poetry Prize for Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra, a tortured unveiling of the Egyptian queen’s public and private lives.
Even before she became a poet, Chase-Riboud was a sculptor with an international reputation. Her remarkable ten-foot-tall sculptures are highly regarded for their incorporation of traditional fiber and weaving techniques that reflect African symbols. She received many fellowships and awards for her work, including a John Hay Whitney Foundation fellowship in 1957-1958 for study at the American Academy in Rome, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1973, and a Van der Zee award in 1995. Her several honorary doctorates include one from Temple University in 1981. In 1996, she received a Knighthood for Contributions to Arts and Letters from the French government.