Henderson, Stephen E. 1925–1997
Stephen E. Henderson 1925–1997
Stephen E. Henderson, a renowned scholar and writer, was instrumental as a voice for a new interpretation of African-American literature and culture during the 1960s. Henderson provided the first formal interpretation of African-American poetry that he termed “militant,” meaning that African-American poetry was written by African Americans, for African Americans, and as such, was a radical departure from white culture. Henderson encouraged African Americans to claim their selfhood, celebrate their identity, and refuse to give way to those who wanted to impose white standards on black culture.
At just over five feet tall, Henderson did not have a dominating physical presence. Instead he held sway over his audiences, his readers, and his students with a quiet, engaging voice. He did not act the part of a dispassionate academic, but immersed himself his teaching and writing as if he were the object of his own consideration. To discover the black consciousness was, for Henderson, nothing less than to discover himself. He imbued this energy in his works and, in so doing, sparked a fire that ignited a new form of criticism, dialogue, and debate within the black literary community.
Henderson was born on October 13, 1925, in Key West, Florida, the son of James and Leonora (Sands) Henderson. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army toward the end World War II, Henderson, known as Steve to his family and friends, enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English and sociology from Morehouse in 1949, graduating with high honors. He then pursued his graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, where he was awarded a master’s degree in English in 1950.
After completing his master’s degree, Henderson began his academic career as a professor of English at Virginia Union University in 1950, a position he maintained until 1962. During his time at Virginia Union, Henderson completed his postgraduate work at the University of Wisconsin, earning a PhD in English and Art History in 1959. His dissertation, reflecting his formal literary education was titled “Study of Visualized Detail in the Poetry of Tennyson, Rossetti, and Morris.” At the age of 32, Henderson married Jeanne Holman on June 14, 1958.
In 1962 Henderson left Virginia Union to accept a position as the chair of the English department at his alma mater. Morehouse was also the alma mater of numerous significant African American leaders, including internationally known theologian and author Howard Thurman, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and philosopher Alain Locke, who was a student at the same time as Henderson. At Morehouse, the nation’s largest historically black college, Henderson began to formulate his groundbreaking ideas about black culture and arts into what became known as the Black Arts Movement. In a memoriam following his death in 1997, E. Delores B. Stephen, who was a young English professor during Henderson’s tenure at Morehouse, wrote in The Journal of Negro History, “Perhaps if I had know then what I was learning about the roots of the blues and the milieu of such poets as A. B. Spellman… I would have been keeping a journal as I
Born on October 13, 1925, in Key West, FL; died on January 7, 1997, in Langley Park, MD; son of James and Leonora (Sands) Henderson; married Jeanne Holman, June 14, 1958; children: Stephen E., Jr., Timothy A., Philip L, Alvin Malcolm. Education: Morehouse College, BA, 1949; University of Wisconsin, MA, 1950, PhD, 1959. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1944-45.
Career: Virginia Union University, Richmond, professor, 1950-62; Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA, professor, 1962-69; Institute for the Black World, Atlanta, 1969-71; Howard University, Washington, DC, professor, 1971-92, Institute for the Arts and the Humanities, director, 1973-85.
Awards: Danforth research grant; Southern Fellowship Fund grant; American Council of Learned Societies, General Education Board grant.
worked with him and witnessed activities that he saw as capturing the essence of what we now call African-American culture.”
Henderson’s time at Morehouse was an explosive period of change for the African-American community as the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement emerged. Henderson considered his own quest for increased exposure to and understanding of black culture and arts as a parallel movement of liberation. In 1968 he was invited to deliver an address at a two-day symposium at the University of Wisconsin titled “Anger and Beyond: The Black Writer and a World of Revolution” along with co-presenter Mercer Cook. Henderson’s address, “’Survival Motion’: A Study of the Black Writer and the Black Revolution in America” was later paired with Cook’s address, “African Voices of Protest” to be published in 1969 as The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States.
In his introductory remarks to The Militant Black Writer, Henderson wrote, “To write black poetry is an act of survival, of regeneration, of love. Black writers do not write for white people and refuse to be judged by them. They write for black people and they write about their blackness, and out of their blackness, rejecting anyone and anything that stands in the way of self-knowledge and self-celebration. They know that to assert blackness in America is to be ’militant,’ to be dangerous, to be subversive, to be revolutionary….” The book garnered positive reviews and received national attention. With The Militant Black Writer as his introductory work, Henderson continued his arguments in articles appearing in numerous publications, including Negro Digest, Black World, African American Review, and Ebony.
In 1969 Henderson began a two-year stint as a senior research fellow at the Institute for the Black World in Atlanta. In 1971 he became a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., teaching in the departments of English and African American Studies. Two years later he published Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic Reference. In this, his seminal work, Henderson argued that the new breed of black poetry built on the forerunners of the Harlem Renaissance, characterized by the work of such writers as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Sterling Brown. There was new emphasis to take on the language of the streets, referred to by Henderson as “Soul Talk.” Understanding the New Black Poetry was heralded as the first formalized articulation of a theoretical understanding of African-American poetry and sparked new debate and dialogue in the world of African-American literature.
While at Howard, Henderson served as director of the Institute for the Arts and the Humanities from 1973 to 1985. As such, he organized numerous national conferences that highlighted the work of African American writers and scholars. He also lectured across the United States and Africa. In 1992 the effects of Parkinson’s disease pushed Henderson into retirement. Five years later, on January 7, 1997, Henderson died at his home in Langley Park, Maryland. He was 71 years old. He was eulogized on January 14, 1997, in the Rankin Chapel at Howard University. Noted scholars and artists, including Dr. Andrew Billingsley and Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, paid tribute to him. Henderson is survived by his wife and four children.
(With Mercer Cook) The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States, University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.
Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, Morrow, 1973.
Henderson, Stephen E., and Mercer Cook, The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States, University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.
CLA Journal, March 1973, p. 390-91; June 1997, p. 517-20.
Jet, February 3, 1997, p. 18.
The Journal of Negro History, 1969, p. 298-300; Fall 2000, p. 319.
“Howard Legends,” Howard University, www.coas.howard.edu/English/hu.htm. (April 8, 2004).
“Stephen E. Henderson,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (April 8, 2004).
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