Alumni Notes

Losses/Memorial Minute

Calvin C. Hernton

Calvin C. Hernton, scholar, critic, poet, and revered teacher and colleague, went home to the ancestors on September 30, 2001.

He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 28, 1932, where he grew up principally under his grandmother’s tutelage. He received a BA in sociology from Talladeya College in 1954 and completed his master’s degree in the same field two years later at Fisk University.

While at Fisk, Calvin developed a keen interest in writing, particularly poetry. His skills as a writer, however, were honed in New York City when he moved there in the late ’50s. By the early ’60s he had begun to emerge as one of the powerful new voices of the black arts movement. His daytime job with the welfare department did not prevent him from writing and frequently giving poetry readings in the evenings all over the lower east side. He became a founding member and editor of the literary magazine UMBRA, which published the works of well-known black artists such as Langston Hughes, Ishmael Reed, and Alice Walker, as well as those of up-and-coming writers. From 1965 to 1969 he lived in London, England, where he continued writing in addition to serving as a fellow at the Institute of Phenomenological Studies.

On his return to the U.S., he was hired as a writer-in-residence in 1970 at Oberlin College. What he initially thought would be, at most, a two-year stint turned out to be a life-long association with an institution and a city which he grew to love very deeply. Those who knew him very well say that getting the job in Oberlin meant a lot to Calvin. For it provided him a steady income and the kind of stability that he had not experienced anywhere else. More importantly, it gave him the peace of mind to relentlessly pursue his love for teaching, research, and writing.

In 1972 when the College established African-American Studies as an autonomous academic unit, he became one of he main building blocks of the program. He was associate professor from then until 1980 when he was promoted to the rank of full professor. Although he was always the most senior colleague in the department, it was difficult to prevail upon him to become the chair. Somehow, Dean Clayton Koppes was able to convince him to take up the post for the first time in 1997. But alas, ill-health did not permit him to complete his full term. He retired from Oberlin in 1999.

Calvin was a prolific writer whose work spanned a variety of fields and genres. He published over four dozen articles in scholarly journals and popular magazines, several short stories, books of verse, plays, and one novel, Scarecrow. He authored a number of books on social and literary criticism, including white papers for White Americans, The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers, The Cannabis Experience with Joseph Berke, Coming Together, and Medicine Man. His best known work, of course, is Sex and Racism in America. First published by Doubleday in 1965, it has been translated into four languages and seen more than 14 reprints. Above all, though, Calvin saw himself first and foremost as a poet.

Among all the major contributions that Calvin Hernton made to Oberlin College, perhaps the most outstanding was the manner in which he influenced and mentored the students that worked closely with him. For him, mentoring was both a two-way street and a lifelong commitment. The idea was to learn as much from the mentee as he or she learned from you. Clearly, this was the case with several of his proteges. In this regard, I would like to specifically mention a couple of them here: Akiba Sullivan, currently a professor of English literature, and Avery Brooks, the nationally renowned actor and professor of theater. When Akiba was a student here she did her Honors thesis on Langston Hughes under Calvin’s supervision. After graduating she developed a course based on it which she taught for a couple of years here before going off to graduate school. Calvin subsequently adopted it as part of his regular offering and, by the time he retired, the course Langston Hughes and the Black Aesthetic had become his most popular class. This was the kind of symbiotic relationship with his mentees that Calvin cherished. The relationship between him and Avery Brooks, when the latter was a student here, likewise evolved into a lifelong collaborative effort that persisted until the passing away of the mentor. It is obvious that the protégé never forgot the role that his former Calvin played in his formative years here in Oberlin. It was beautiful to see the two of them work together on Avery’s ABC series “A Man Called Hawk.”

In the 30 years or so that I knew Calvin, I was always fascinated with what seemed to an obsession with dark glasses. The guy wore those shades all the time—sometimes even at night. Although I never had the courage to ask him why myself, I think I overheard Maya Angelou or one or other of his famous female writer friends explain the riddle of the dark glasses. Apparently he simply wore them because it made him look cool. With a middle name like Coolridge, I guess that explanation makes sense. Wherever he is in the land of the ancestor, I’m sure that Cool Calvin is taking all of this with his shades still on. Calvin, together with your wife Mary, your son Antone, and your two beautiful grandchildren, we want you to know that we are missing you terribly.

Yakubu Saaka is a professor of African American Studies at Oberlin. This Memorial Minute was adopted by a rising vote of the General Faculty of Oberlin College on April 16, 2002.

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