Saturday, September 30, 2006


Remembering Calvin C. Hernton

I feel compelled to pay tribute, however brief and modest, to someone who I consider an icon of Black American literature but who also influenced me personally in my thinking and in my general outlook on life. I first met poet and author Calvin C. Hernton as a student working through my studies as an undergraduate at Oberlin College in the late seventies and early eighties. Aside from being a fascinating professor, one of the few that actually tried to make us think, I will always be grateful to him for helping lessen the “shock” I experienced from the racial "dynamics" that I witnessed in US society. Being born and raised in Puerto Rico, I had little to no experience or wherewithall to deal with the overt racism that I encountered in what was my first experience actually living on my own for an extended period of time in the US. It can be bewildering, not to say daunting, to someone in the early stages of his adult life.

We became friends and crossed paths on several occasions over the years. I invited him and his companion Mary Gilfus to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands where he was struck by the casual touristic approach to such historic symbols of black servitude and oppression as the plantation ruins and sugar mill remnants that scatter the Virgin Islands to this day. Much later I was able to visit with Calvin in London during my years as a doctoral student in southern England. He was always lucid and full of provocative ideas and analyses of contemporary events. I enjoyed taking time off from my studies to visit and converse with him. I came to look upon him as a sort of sage or Medicine Man, as I am sure he would have become had he been brought up and lived all his life on the African continent.

Although not a household name like James Baldwin or Alice Walker, I hold Calvin in equal stature with the great Black American writers. 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. Although he is perhaps best known for his best selling book “Sex and Racism in America”, I would like to excerpt a few lines from his lesser known book “The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers.” The latter book, he said, “fulfills the burning need for a black male writer to speak out against the red bricks of slander and bigotry that are hurled at black women and the literature they produce.” The excerpt reads as follows:

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?

...also, a pair of poems:

(for the four Negro children murdered in Birmingham while praying to God)

Like his strickened face
Stroke of midnight.
Torn by crack of thunder
Or dissonance of vowel,
The deed, like agonized tooth
Fell from his mouth

And exploded.

In a dark room in a crumbling
Heart, the deed conceived its victims:
Ninety-one nails in the breast of Christ;
The deed made terror ripped open

Flesh and bone. No one knew,
Not even he himself, eight fragile bones
Would never walk from that debris.
I am the door. Hammer me down

Ninety-one and Four!

They were like chrysanthemums,
Tender flesh cracked by thunder –
Unknown to his grotesque face.

A revolution must draw blood.

In the manacled chamber of our egos
What we do not know about death
Comes alive; and though love agonized
There, when terror expires our frail hearts

Hate is a bitter madness.

For the four who died, without tears,
outside of cognition – their end
Is everlasting;
Their beginning is eternity.

To die young, before the rodent of exchange
Imperils the flesh, when you are innocent
And immaculate to the paranoid itch,
Is lambs blood
Is bread trans-substantiated
To galaxy.

If I were loin from whose pain
The ecstacy of these four little girls
Leaped, I would wail and weep,

Seek revenge; fly, with shotgun,
Through the streets.
Yet I know

When all this raving tortured love
And flagellating hatred
Is reckoned up to stars,
Those four will illuminate
The dark more than a billion heavens.

I wish I had died as they!
Before thunder in your face is
Done, you will too; there shall be
No shaking hands later on
And forgetting; blood will heave

In your chattered streets,

And God, the tornado
Shall rave down on you like an angered
Black fist, merciless

And violent!
Unto the blazing sun.

[Copyright © 1976 by Calvin C. Hernton]


I am not a metaphor or symbol.
This you hear is not the wind in the trees.
Nor a cat being maimed in the street.
I am being maimed in the street
It is I who weep, laugh, feel pain or joy.
Speak this because I exist.
This is my voice
These words are my words, my mouth
Speaks them, my hand writes.
I am a poet.
It is my fist you hear beating
Against your ear.

[Copyright © 1976 by Calvin C. Hernton]

Calvin Hernton passed away sometime between September 30 and October 1st, 2001. He is sorely missed.


Thanks for the Hernton information. I wish I had known him. I may have in the streets during days when we didn't trade names, discuss backgrounds, or projected futures. Thanks also for the History Is A Weapon link. There is a lot of good stuff there. Do people still say "Power to the People" in closing? Probably not, but habits are habits.

Power to the People
Wow, Dr. M., you just dropped by my blog for a soup recipe and that's how I found this site. Thanks for the intro to a poet I did not know.

You and I were at Oberlin at the same time (I was there 1979-81). Small world...
I was a former student of Calvin, and I was looking to print "Distant Drum" for my students. I'm a teacher in Honolulu-- a Filipina teaching Filipinos. Born and raised in NY, now here on my own quest to understand what it means for my great grandfather to work on sugar plantations here. In other words, Calvin was a part of my coming into consciousness too, a part of my liberation. I'm writing this as a testimony to the awesomeness of Calvin's spirit, but also as what he called "the indomnitable human spirit." ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE. Peace, Jo Almiron
Ah! The circle widens! Even from the beyond, Calvin is still working to bring our peoples together.

Glad to be of use, Johana (and others). Please count on me for any further help I am able to give you. Here in the Caribbean, the sugar plantation is at the center of our historical and colonial predicament. Since you are an academic, you might be interested in (and I strongly encourage you to) submitting a paper to the Caribbean Studies Association.

Note: Don't worry that the Philippines is not "in" the Caribbean (Neither is Brasil). Estamos hermanados en espíritu y en nuestra historia común. Keep up the good fight!
By the way, Johanna (sorry for misspelling your name) and others, if you want to contact me by other means, you will find my personal email here.
Having known him while attending Oberlin in the late seventies, I agree that Calvin had a unique and eccentric personality unlike typical mainstream bourgeois academicians. He was down to earth and when he spoke his baritone voice resonated in a way that captivated listeners. He had social gatherings at his home where he engaged in thought provoking conversations about a wide range of topics. He didn't sugar-coat his words and said exactly what was on his mind. He was a people's intellectual. He had no illusions about the dog-eat-dog nature of exploitative capitalist society. In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time with him. May he be forever remembered for his great mind and profound analysis of race relations and class struggle in the belly of the beast known to the world as the United States of America...Much respect Calvin! Ron Bunyon Jr '79
Hello, my name is Blake Hernton and I'm a 23 year old music education graduate student at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri from St. Louis, Missouri. I was wondering if anyone had more information about Hernton and his family for personal reasons. I have never met this man but can't help but think there might be a relation of some kind and would like to learn more about him.
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