A Beautiful Black Mind: Calvin C. Hernton
Calvin C. Hernton
My last post about Black feminism reminded me of Calvin Hernton, his scholarly and academic achievements, his personal and intellectual transformations, and his exceptional body of work. What better time to commemorate his legacy than on a day like today, when he and his work are so present in my mind.
I first became aware of Calvin Hernton while I was writing my dissertation. Part of my project involved exploring the strategies used by African American women to write past the persistent gendering of Blackness as male (by people of all ethnicities). His exploration the interactions between gender and race in U.S. Black literature in The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers was very helpful to me.
My high regard for Hernton’s legacy, however, is more deeply influenced by my encounters with Black men who knew him as a teacher and mentor. Hernton touched the hearts and minds of many students during his 28-year career as an African American Studies professor at Oberlin College, but he holds a special place in the hearts of his former Black male students, many of whom experienced him as the only Black man to ever teach them at the college level.
As a Black woman professor, I am especially touched by how deeply his views on Black women writers influenced some of the young Black men in his classes. A Black attorney I know spoke reverently of the influence Herton’s own story of transformation from a male-centered view of Black politics and anti-racist activism to a broader more inclusive vision that recognized the value of Black women writers’ critiques of sexism in novels like The Color Purple, The Women of Brewster Place, and The Bluest Eye.
Another Black former student, now an economist and researcher, includes this passage from The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers, on a tribute page he has created in memory of his professor, explaining that, “One thing that stands out in my memory of Calvin was his unwavering and principled stand against sexism, especially that ‘within the race,’ as he would say”:
Because much of the writing of contemporary black women is critical of black men, both in the literary sphere and in real life, the men find it unpalatable. But black writing owes its very nature to the oppressive conditions under which blacks were and are subjected in America. The function therefore of black literature has always been, as Langston Hughes so declared, to illuminate and elevate the condition of black people. It is altogether consistent with the heritage of black writing that black women write about the meanness they have experienced and still experience at the hands of black men as well as white men. It is inescapable that women writers seek to illuminate and elevate the condition of black women, their whole condition. How is one to participate meaningfully in the struggle between the races if one is the victim of subjugation within the race?
–quoted on Caliban, a blog created by Dr. Mathews, a former student
I repeat that I never met Calvin Hernton; and for years I actually knew little of his work beyond his writings in my scholarly field. As my knowledge of his impact as a teacher has grown, however, I find myself feeling closer and closer to him, aligning myself with his legacy, aspiring to use the relationship between teacher and student in much the same way that he did, to create, challenge, and transform myself and my students, always with integrity, and always for the better.
Calvin Hernton Links:
- Remembering Calvin Herton by Dr. Mathews
- Calvin C. Hernton (1933-2001) — short bibliography
- Calvin Hernton — short biography
- Calvin Hernton — detailed biography on Answers.Com
Posted by Ajuan Mance