A Tribute to Dr. J. Herman Blake from Desne Crossley Porter ’76, Attleboro, MA
Professor Blake—“J. Herman,” we called him—taught me to think. It is a privilege some 39 years later to have a venue for honoring and thanking him for all he has meant/means to me and to so many of us. Thank you, Dr. Blake, for the helping me/us hone skills like perseverance, analysis, research, remembering, questioning, listening, accepting “no” with grace, and being respectful across diverse backgrounds. Thank you for the lessons in exercising my outrage and in standing down quietly—and knowing when each is appropriate.
Prof. Blake would see me from his office window, walking below with a clumsy painter’s canvas or art portfolio and ask me to come up and tell him how everything was going. Just like that. I was a studio art major, not a scholar nor an Oakes student, and didn’t expect him to care. He was an unlikely mentor, but a mentor summa cum laude he was to me. He led my favorite course, a team-taught one, “The Role of Violence and Non-Violence in Decolonization.” Of course, memory is generous, so they say, and I have been known to exaggerate, but this is how I remember it: Just to eek by, students had to read a minimum of 12 texts; info from maybe 50 volumes was expected if you were really committed to unpacking the topic; and, some 100 texts comprised a secondary, highly recommended, reading list. Wow.
All kinds of young adults, most of us still awkward with a new awareness of accountability—some 60 of us—took the course that spring. It was like the United Nations, circa 1975. We commonly continued arguing passionately just outside the classroom after the two-hour class. Prof. Blake would swing past us, pointing to one, “You—present next Tuesday,” and to another, “…and you, the rebuttal on Thursday.” Instead of cowering in dread, we were fired up. We couldn’t wait to get up in front of the class and stand our ground. And, because everyone’s budding intellectual prowess was on the line, we prepared carefully, and with urgency. J. Herman’s class was a place in which I felt like a “real adult”—maybe even with something to say. There were short, five-page papers to write weekly, I think. The final exam was a long, team-researched paper answering a question (something like): “If everyone’s ‘revolution’ succeeds, will there be a reason for continued racial or ethnic identity?” J. Herman instructed us that both “yes” and “no” positions were acceptable. We would be measured on our research, collaborative skills, and ability to make a cogent case. Wow. Double-wow.
Collectively and individually, the class thrilled over the prospect of crushing the arguments of competitive, in-your-face classmates. I went on about “The Role of Violence and Non-Violence” ad nauseam to my dad. (Thank you, God, for patient parents.) Dad’s reply was quiet, measured, and grounding: “You’re becoming a brilliant young lady, with a sharp wit, but your tongue is like a sword, and you must learn to keep it sheathed.” (I still hear Dad’s voice echoing these words in my head a million years later.)
I say all this because it illustrates Prof. Blake’s teacher-scholarship, his ability to relate to all of us, to lead all of us. He created a non-threatening, highly stimulating environment, and then asked us for the moon! We did our best to deliver. How could we let him down? How could we let ourselves down?
Now, we deliver our gratitude. Endless thanks, Dr. Blake. “Keep on keeping on, J. Herman!”