Social critic, poet, novelist
Though less well known than some of his African-American contemporaries, Calvin Hernton was a writer who stood at the center of several of the cultural developments during the Vietnam War era. Hernton's groundbreaking Sex and Racism in America (1965) was a frank look at the role sexual tensions played in the American racial divide, and it helped set the tone for much African-American social criticism over the following decade. His expansive, ambitious poetry was widely read, and he shaped a younger generation of black thinkers after becoming a professor of literature at Oberlin College in 1970s. An original thinker, Calvin Hernton has been underappreciated for his role in stirring the cultural ferment of the 1960s and 1970s.
Calvin Coolidge Hernton was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 28, 1932. Raised mostly by his grandmother, he attended Talladega College in Alabama, graduating in 1954. He went on for a master's in sociology at Fisk University in Nashville, writing his thesis about letters to the editor and newspaper editorials that had appeared in the wake of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott spearheaded by Rosa Parks two years earlier.
Worked in Welfare Office
After finishing his master's degree, Hernton held a series of one-year teaching appointments at small, historically black Southern colleges and universities: Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1957-58, Alabama A&M College (now University) in 1958-59, Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1959-60, and Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1960-61. He married Mildred Webster in 1958, and the couple had one son, Antone. Filled with growing literary ambitions, he headed for New York City in 1961 (he had already lived there briefly in 1956 and 1957) and took a job as a social worker with the New York State welfare department. During this period, Hernton interviewed black and white co-workers in both the South and North, gathering material for what would become Sex and Racism in America.
Hernton also wrote poetry, some of which was anthologized in the 1962 collection Beyond the Blues: New Poems by American Negroes. In 1963 he was one of the founders of Umbra, a New York literary magazine that nurtured the careers of writers such as Alice Walker and Ishmael Reed as well as publishing new works by established writers. Hernton himself was an impressive figure as he read his own poems in the circles that developed around the publication. "He reached zones that we in the Umbra Workshop were then only moving towards," poet Joe Johnson told the Oberlin Review. "We all wanted to make fierce personal statements. Hernton was there.... We heard Hernton singing what we were talking about." Hernton's "Jitterbugging in the Streets," a long poem on the theme of white indifference to violence against blacks, was widely reprinted and was read by Hernton with a jazz accompaniment on the Folkways-label album New Jazz Poets.
In 1965, Sex and Racism in America was issued by the major Doubleday publishing house. That book, which was eventually translated into seven languages, had a unique status somewhere between sociological text and crusading polemic. "There is a sexual involvement, at once real and vicarious, connecting white and black people in America that spans the history of this country from the era of slavery to the present," Hernton wrote. With the oppressive system of slavery and its aftermath as a backdrop, Hernton divided his study into four parts, exploring the sexual psychologies of black men, black women, white men, and white women, respectively.
Traced Sexual Tensions to Slavery
"No writer I have come across except Hernton has had the temerity to so frankly tackle that old bugaboo S-E-X as it relates to life, liberty, and the pursuit of integration," black poet Langston Hughes was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune. Hernton explored the motivations of members of each of his four categories; white women reacted to their own oppressed status, Hernton argued (for example), by simultaneously becoming attracted to black men and taking out their own frustrations upon them. White male slave owners, Hernton contended, created a myth of perfect Southern white womanhood, with the result that they both stereotyped black men as potential sexual predators and turned to slave women to satisfy their own needs.
Hernton's ideas were controversial. "Many people were outraged by that book," Ishmael Reed told Margalit Fox of the New York Times. "He went into a section of the American experience that you were not supposed to talk about." But Hernton's theories were amply buttressed by his numerous interviews, and the book became widely read and discussed. The sexual themes of later books by militant black writers, such as Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, may well have been influenced by Hernton's work. Hernton followed up Sex and Racism in America with a collection of sociological essays, White Papers for White Americans.
With talk about his ideas in full swing, Hernton made a 90-degree turn that was characteristic of his curiosity and varied interests: he headed for London, England, and studied there for four years with the radical psychologist R.D. Laing. This period of time bore literary fruit in a series of writings that Hernton later penned on the subject of drug use, and also in the novel Scarecrow, a violent and surreal tale set in the middle of a transatlantic voyage. Back in the United States in 1970, Hernton spent a year as poet-in-residence at Ohio's Central State University in Wilberforce.
Mentored Avery Brooks
The following year, Hernton was hired as writer-inresidence at Oberlin College in Ohio, and in 1973 he became professor of black studies and creative writing there. The post was beneficial both for Hernton, who found that the position gave him newfound stability, and for his students, who included future Star Trek: Deep Space Nine star Avery Brooks. In the 1980s, Hernton carried mentorship to a new level by writing television scripts for another Brooks series, A Man Called Hawk.
Hernton also published several books over the course of his teaching career at Oberlin. Scarecrow was issued in 1974, as was The Cannabis Experience: The Study of the Effects of Marijuana and Hashish. Medicine Man, a collection of his poetry, appeared in 1976. In 1987 Doubleday published Hernton's Sexual Mountains and Black Women Writers: Adventures in Sex, Literature, and Real Life. That book was again ahead of the curve; Hernton explored the reactions of African-American women writers to abusive treatment, and his work was praised by members of the growing black feminist movement.
At a Glance...
Born on April 28, 1934, in Chattanooga, TN; died of cancer on October 1, 2001, in Oberlin, OH; son of Magnolia Jackson; married Mildred Webster, May 28, 1958 (deceased); married Mary O'Callaghan; children: Antone (first marriage). Education: Talladega College, BA, 1954; Fisk University, MA, sociology, 1956; attended Columbia University, 1961.
Career: Writer. Benedict College, Columbia, SC, instructor in history and sociology, 1957-58; Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College (now University), Normal, instructor in social sciences, 1958-59; Edward Waters College, Jacksonville, FL, instructor in sociology, 1959-60; Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, Baton Rouge, LA, instructor in sociology, 1960-61; New York State Department of Welfare, New York City, social worker, 1961-62; Umbra (magazine), New York City, co-founder, 1963; London Institute of Phenomenological Studies, London, England, research fellow, 1965-69; Central State University, Wilberforce, OH, poet-in-residence, 1970; Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, writer-in-residence, 1970-72; Oberlin College, professor of black studies and creative writing, 1973-99.
Remaining active at Oberlin until his retirement in 1999, Hernton wrote a new book of poems, The Red Crab Gang and Black River Poems, served as illustrator for Muntu, a book about African culture, and collaborated in editing a collection of stories by author Chester Himes. In 2000 he participated in a major conference on hip-hop music that was held at Oberlin. He died of cancer at his home on October 1, 2001, survived by his wife Mary, whom he had married after the death of his first wife in 1982. Although Sex and Race in America remained his best-known work, he thought of himself as a poet first and foremost.
(Contributor) LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, editors, Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, Morrow, 1969.
Scarecrow (novel), Doubleday, 1974.
Sex and Racism in America, Doubleday, 1965.
White Papers for White Americans, Doubleday, 1966.
Coming Together: Black Power, White Hatred, and Sexual Hangups, Random House, 1971.
(Contributor) D. L. Grummon and A. M. Barclay, eds., Sexuality: A Search for Perspective, Van Nostrand, 1971.
(With Joseph Berke) The Cannabis Experience: The Study of the Effects of Marijuana and Hashish, Humanities, 1974.
(Contributor) Rosey E. Pool, ed., Beyond the Blues: New Poems by American Negroes, Hand & Flower Press, 1962.
The Coming of Chronos to the House of Nightsong: An Epical Narrative of the South, Interim, 1963.
Medicine Man, Reed, Cannon, & Johnson, 1976.
The Red Crab Gang and Black River Poems, Reed, Cannon, & Johnson, 1999.
Glad to Be Dead (play), 1958.
Flame (play), 1958.
The Place (play), 1972.
(Illustrator) Muntu: African Culture and the Western World, Grove Press, 1991.
Davis, Thadious M., ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, Gale, 1985.
Chicago Tribune, October 17, 2001, p. 9.
New York Times, October 10, 2001, p. D8.
Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Summer 2002.
Oberlin Review, May 7, 1999.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), April 14, 2000, p. Friday-22; October 4, 2001, p. B7.
"Calvin Hernton," Biography Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (February 28, 2005).
—James M. Manheim