Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

A Beautiful Black Mind: Calvin C. Hernton

May 31st, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

Calvin C. Hernton

Calvin 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. Thomas G. Mathews, a former student

I want to underscore that I never actually met Calvin Hernton; and for years I 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:

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African American Students, African Americans, Black Feminism, Black Students, Calvin Hernton, Higher Education, My Favorite Blogs, Oberlin College, race

3 Responses

  1. Catharine Smith Jones

    Ajuan Mance
    I am writing in the “wee” hours of the morning as Calvin wrote. Thank you for your beautiful and kind words about my friend, mentor and brother, Calvin C. Hernton. I am overjoyed to see that others appreciate and miss him as much as I do.
    For the last 15 years of his life, I would gander to say that I was nearest to him as his own skin. I left his side less than 24 hours before his transition

    Currently, I looking for papers, essays, poems on the impact of Calvin and his work on the lives of others for two projects. One will be an anthology and the other a literary magazine. If you and others are interested, send inquiries and/or submission to

  2. Poetry for a Friday Evening | A Slant Truth

    […] learned that he was also an exceptional and influential teacher at Oberlin College. Ajuan Mance, of Black on Campus describes his influence: My high regard for Hernton’s legacy, however, is more deeply influenced […]

  3. Lisa Maris-Shaab

    Calvin Hernton was an amazing man. I was lucky enough to have him as a professor at Oberlin College in the early and mid-90s…and to get to know him as an advisor and to stay a little in touch on and off for years after. As a student, I was always looking for teachers who seemed to walk their talk and talk their walk– people whose manner reflected their philosophy and philosophy reflected their manner. Real and true. Calvin was real and true…he didn’t accept anybody’s orthodoxy. He taught African-American literature and of course we covered the amazings and the greats, people like Richard Wright and James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and his friends, Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed…but he also made sure we knew there were black science fiction writers out there, Octavia Butler comes to mind, and writers of popular fiction not necessarily identified by academia as “literary fiction” but still powerful voices…he wanted us to hear ALL the voices and know just how many there were and how diverse. If you were creative and you had something to say, you had a voice, and he made it clear that it wasn’t up to us to censor anyone’s voice. We could recognize the virtuosic, sure, separate it out and focus on it, but his point was that it was the act of creating that made art valuable, not whether or not it was deemed “important.” In this sense, he was a true populist and humanist. He referenced jazz and gave lectures that at times were exactly that, wild genius improvisations. He blew me away with his impassioned and impromptu lectures and defenses of black women writers…more than anything, what came through was his sense of personal accountability, his sense that it was his job to stand up for women BECAUSE he was a man, to speak out against sexism and to own and move past the ways that women had been discounted and abused in the past and present. He was cool and out-there and still kind of looked like he bopped when he walked, even as he moved into his 60s, even in his fat parka made-for-Ohio winter hiking boots, with the everpresent sunglasses…He was old-school cool but always forward looking, and he just didn’t discriminate. He had the fire and the crazy poetry and the book about sex and race, and the 50s and 60 and 70s on-the-scene and of-the-scene-bonafides, but I noticed that his humanity was what led the way. I watched his rapport with the buttoned-up,clean-cut, straight-outta-the-black-church guy in the class who he was advising and mentoring…the mutual respect between this old hip fiery guy and the young straight guy was palpable and it was all about a real true human connection. That’s what made Calvin Hernton REALLY cool– he had this great big heart hiding behind the sunglasses and you could just feel it when he talked to you. He was a mentor to me, probably more in the way of how to live than anything else– as a white woman, I can’t testify to any of the ways that he taught me how to deal with being black in a still-racist world..that wasn’t my struggle. But he showed, in the way he lived and what he said, how to be real in an often-fake, facade-laden world. He was a little bit of a father-figure and little bit an exuberant tough brilliant uncle, a definite crush, and more than once, very human and amazingly kind… but mostly he was the real thing all the way.