Calvin C Hernton


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(1934–2001), poet, novelist, essayist, and educator.

Born 28 April in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Magnolia Jackson, Calvin Coolidge Hernton came of age as a writer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His poetry, novels, and essays reflect not only his education in the social sciences (a BA from Talladega College, 1954, and an MA in sociology from Fisk, 1956) but the issues predominant at that time as well. Hernton worked as a social worker in New York (1960–1961) and cofounded Umbra magazine in 1963. Hernton studied under R. D. Laing from 1965 to 1969 as a research fellow at the London Institute of Phenomenological Studies. He began his teaching career as an instructor in history and sociology in South Carolina (Benedict College, 1957–1958), Florida (Edward Waters College, 1958–1959), at the University of Alabama (1959–1960), and at Louisiana's Southern University (1960–1961). From 1970 to 1972, he was writer in residence at Oberlin College, where since 1973 he has been tenured as professor of Black Studies and creative writing.

Hernton's major nonfiction works are Sex and Racism in America (1965) and White Papers for White Americans (1966). In Sex and Racism he argues that the complex intertwining of sex and racism begun during slavery persists. According to Hernton, this phenomenon originated with the white male's choices: to elevate the white female beyond sexual desire and to seek the black female for sex, in reaction to his puritan discomfort about sex; and in guilt over his actions, to view the black male as desiring the white female. Hernton explains that this sexual “involvement [is] so immaculate and yet so perverse, so ethereal and yet so concrete, that all race relations tend to be, however subtly, sexual relations.” In White Papers, a collection of personal essays exploring sociological issues, “Grammar of the Negro Revolution” stands as an early analysis of the nonrevolutionary middle-class aims of the civil rights movement: “The Negro is not yet willing to run the risk of a total assault on the culture, to find that many of the things for which he has fought, and is fighting, will no longer be available, within the socioeconomic and political framework that now characterizes this nation.” Written before the development of feminist theory, Hernton's analyses in these two essays presage the critique African American feminists would make in the 1970s of the unracialized, middle-class biases of the feminist “revolution.”

The theme of the sexual nature of racism can be found in most of Hernton's work. His novel Scarecrow (1974) explores the fatal psychosexual problems of voyagers on board the Castel Felice to Europe; and in the free-verse poems of Medicine Man (1976), individuals contend with a variety of physical, social, and emotional entrapments in an unloving world. Hernton's poetry as well as his essays on James Baldwin have been anthologized; his most recent critical work includes The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers (1987) and “The Poetic Consciousness of Langston Hughes: From Affirmation to Revolution” (Langston Hughes Review, Spring 1993). Hernton's early and acute analyses of the complexities of the history of race relations in America and his insistence on the constructed nature of those relations place him as a significant contributor to African American theory.


Subjects: Literature.

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