Oberlin College is losing one significant figure.
Professor of African American studies Calvin Hernton, who is known nationwide for his books, poetry, articles and lectures, will be retiring this spring after 29 years at Oberlin College. The African-American Studies Department and Afrikan Heritage House will be having a recognition ceremony honoring his accomplishments this weekend.
In a conversation this week, Hernton reminisced on his career in literature. Particularly fond was his recollection of writing a "philosophy of life and aspirations statement." The statement was an application requirement for graduate school admission into Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.
"When I got to Fisk, everyone knew me. Everyone was waiting to see who wrote this philosophy piece. By 17, I was already headed somewhere," Hernton said. He graduated from Fisk in 1956 with an M.A. in sociology.
Hernton also remembered his first book, Sex and Racism in America, as his most passionately criticized work which marked the beginning of his now almost 50-year writing career. "In New York, people were mutilating the books. They would take the books and slash them in public," he said. "The first fan letter I got accused me of writing filth. It said I was going to hell and the person offered to help me go to hell if I ever came to Texas. I was naive enough to be hurt by this letter," he said.
Countering the negative outcry was a large influx of supporting letters from black women of all walks of life profusely thanking Hernton. "I got letters from women constantly thanking me - women who were never included in African-American literature. This was very encouraging but sad because I knew there was a great deprivation of these women. It was so heart rendering that I would cry reading mail," he said.
People asked why he wrote Sex and Racism in America and those who didn't ask assumed Hernton carried deep inner strife. "I still get strange letters making assumptions about my life," he said. Hernton gave a more simple explanation for his writing. "I wanted to open up discussion," he said.
Hernton came to Oberlin five years later as Writer In Residence in 1970. After two years in residence he was hired as Associate Professor of Black Studies and eight years later was made a full professor.
Since then, Hernton has taught a variety of courses in creative writing and literature. This spring Hernton will be teaching three courses involving African, African-American and Caribbean literature and is feeling rather heavy about leaving. "I've benefited from working with students. I've published two articles with students. I've learned a great deal and I hope it's reciprocal," he said.
Since entering Oberlin, Hernton published a variety of poems, six of which are Oberlin Negroes, Oberlinian Quartet, Ohio Klan, Ohio Mysel and Oberlin, Ohio. He discussed one of many projects that he has put off over the years, a plan to write a series of poems on Oberlin.
Although looking forward to finishing some of his many unfinished projects, he still has feelings of sadness. "I'm mixed. I'll miss students and colleagues. On the other hand I have so much stuff that I want to do and now I can do it - stuff I started 20 years ago and didn't finish. So I'm looking forward to that."
Looking back, Hernton is satisfied with the work he has accomplished. "I think my writing is appreciated by many people."
Calvin Hernton: A respected member of the academic and literary committees, African American Studies professor Calvin Hernton will retire at the end fo the year. Hernton has been a fixture at Oberlin College for 29 years. (photo by Stephen Menyhart)
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 7, October 30, 1998
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