C. Hernton, scholar, critic, poet, and revered teacher and colleague,
went home to the ancestors on September 30, 2001.
was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 28, 1932, where he
grew up principally under his grandmothers tutelage. He received
a BA in sociology from Talladeya College in 1954 and completed his
masters degree in the same field two years later at Fisk University.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 Calvins 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 Averys ABC series A Man Called Hawk.
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 timesometimes 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, Im 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.
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.