Tribute to J. Herman Blake from John R. Rickford, J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of Linguistics and the Humanities, Stanford University, Stanford, California. 1.22.13
Professor J Herman Blake had a profound, positive and lasting impact on my education, my teaching, and indeed, my life, from my first contacts with him as a UCSC student in1968-1971 to our subsequent relationship as professional colleagues and friends. To say in this space all that he’s meant to me over the past 45 years would be impossible, but I’d like to highlight the experiences of: (a) Taking his Sociology 116 course; (b) Serving as his Teaching Assistant at Mills College; (c) Spending a quarter on Daufuskie Island, S. Carolina, through his Cowell Extra-Mural Program; (d) Incorporating lessons from Blake when I in turn became a professor.
(a) Sociology 116: I met Professor J. Herman Blake in my first year at UC Santa Cruz (1968-69), having arrived here as a relatively clueless freshman from Guyana, South America. I took his Sociology 116 course on “Ethnic and Status Groups,” and to echo the sentiment that Frank Smith expressed in HIS tribute, Herman changed my life.
Soc. 116 covered the history and sociopolitical experience of major ethnic groups in the US, from Scandinavians and White Anglo Saxon Protestants to Jews and African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, Chinese and Japanese. Blake was an engaging and electrifying lecturer, using his wide vocal range and his penchant for dramatic pause to support his exposition and narrative. He also supplemented his lectures with music—recordings of powerful spirituals like “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” jazz performances, and vocal renditions of his own. The course was an intellectual eye-opener and emotion wrencher for many of us. Some called it the “crying course,” as each ethnic group learned of the pain and suffering of their group, or were blown away to learn of the experience of other ethnic groups, like the relatively recent internment of Japanese Americans in California and Western states during World War II.
The course also had a personal element for all of us, as Professor Blake assigned us to talk to our parents and grandparents and trace our own ethnic heritage, supplemented with historical and sociological facts about the ethnic groups involved. That led me to detailed correspondence with my father in Guyana, who, while voicing concern about my growing engagement with issues of political and social justice in the US, shared with me the stings and arrows he had experienced as a colored man in a British-run accounting firm. As it turned out, my father died in September that same year (1969), and not having the money to fly home for his funeral, I never got to see him again. I especially value the personal and family information he shared with me, all because Professor Blake urged and required us to find out about our forebears. It’s an exercise I’ve used in my own teaching.
(b) Serving as Herman’s Teaching Assistant at Mills. Professor Blake also taught a similar course at Mills College, the highly-regarded women’s college in Oakland, whose graduates include Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who took his course. He gave me the exceptional opportunity to serve as his Teaching Assistant for this course one quarter. Not only did I learn a TON about teaching from working with him closely on this course, but on the weekly drives between Santa Cruz and Oakland we talked a lot, and I learned a lot about life. With my father gone, and an emptiness in my life, I especially appreciated his mentorship and counsel.
(c) Daufuskie. In Spring 1970, Frank Smith and I took a Greyhound bus to Savannah Georgia to begin a quarter long stay on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina as part of Professor Blake’s Cowell Extra-Mural Program, which was rapidly gaining in popularity. As usual, we had to sign up for independent study units with UCSC faculty (in my case in Linguistics, Sociology and Anthropology) and produce research papers to fulfill those obligations. The Gullah language and culture of the this Sea Island community—so similar to my native Guyanese creole and to other places in the Caribbean—was something I would write and lecture about for decades, and still do. But our concurrent, indeed our primary responsibility, was to serve the community. For Frank and I, the major work we did in this respect was serving as teacher aides in the two-room schoolhouse in which Pat Conroy and Mrs. Johnson between them taught grades 1-8, but following Herman’s dictum to serve in every way possible, we also mended fences, helped to sow and till fields, drove the island truck to help islanders transport their groceries from the dock to their homes, enumerated the local population (just over a hundred African Americans and six to eight Whites), helped people with their taxes and correspondence with government agencies, accompanied students in Conroy’s classroom on a historic trip to Washington, D.C., and organized a “People Get Ready” program to show slides from it, and bring old and young together for an evening of soulful poetry and song. The experience was absolutely mind-blowing, and I kept a journal of notes and poetry from it that I still enjoy reading. Among the plusses of it, were the rich, sometimes lifelong relationships we forged with youths and adults from the island, and the deep respect we developed for the local culture and wisdom there. The experience also taught us the true meaning of community service, and humility. And because Professor Blake stayed in touch by phone and mail and through an electrifying in-person visit, he was able to offer counsel and inspiration whenever we had doubts and questions. It was an experience I will never forget, and it provided the basis for my 1971 senior honors thesis, “De Train Dey Riding On is Full of Dead Man’s Bones: Language, Death and Damnation in a Two Room Schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina.” Thank you, Herman.
(d) Blake’s influence in my teaching and mentoring. In the years since graduating from UCSC, Professor Blake and I have remained in close touch, and my respect and admiration for him have only increased. Among the many positive influences he has had on my own teaching and mentoring are these.
I have urged generations of students to do recorded interviews with their “old people” to find out about their family history before it is too late, building on the model of Blake’s Sociology 116 course.
While serving as Director of African and African American Studies at Stanford, I initiated a series of Spring Break “Learning Expeditions” to expose students, staff and faculty to places of interest within the African Diaspora, beginning with (surprise!) Daufuskie and the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands, and including Jamaica, Ghana, and Belize. Although somewhat different in conception, these were definitely modeled on Blake’s Extra Mural Program. And on the very first one, he arranged for us to visit a dramatic Usher Anniversary March on John’s Island in which some of his relatives were active participants.
Finally, and most importantly, most pervasively through all my teaching and mentoring over the past forty years, I have been influenced by Herman’s generosity, his indomitable faith in the goodness and intellectual potential of all his students, and his willingness to go to bat for them when they ran into difficulties or challenges of ANY kind. As an example of his generosity I can cite the time when I was trying to hitch hike to my brother’s home in Oregon, unaware that a major snowstorm was brewing and that I was neither dressed nor otherwise prepared for what lay ahead. Luckily, the first driver to come by when I stood at the freeway entrance in Santa Cruz was Professor Blake. When he learned of my plans, he drove me straight to SFO airport, and bought an airline ticket for me to Portland. Herman helped many other students out of actual and potential fixes even bigger my mine, and I have NEVER forgotten the lesson. When my colleagues are ready to give up on a student I usually am not. And although I can never match Professor Blake in this respect, I have tried, over the years, to be guided by the words of the spiritual that he loved and embodied, “His eye is on the sparrow, And I know he watches me.”