a tribute from Zachary Sklar

I didn’t know Herman Blake well, but he changed my life more than
anyone else in my four years at UC Santa Cruz. As a sophomore, I took
his marvelous multi-media class in The Black Experience and was
profoundly moved by it. Forty-five years later, I still remember
vividly the impact that the Edwin Hawkins Singers and Herbert Kohl and
Jonathan Kozol had on me. And just last week I screened a scene from
the film Nothing But a Man, which I first saw in Herman’s class, for a
screenwriting workshop I lead in Harlem–and it had the same effect on
the young Harlem writers as it had on me back in 1968. But The Black
Experience was a big class with TA’s, so I never got a chance to get
to know Herman personally.

In 1969, when Doug Brown, one of the first two “California boys,” told
me about Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, I was intrigued. Someone
had dropped out of the program, and Herman was looking for a last-
minute replacement. I met briefly with Herman once. I recall feeling
intimidated by his intensity and passion, but he warmly welcomed and
accepted me. And then I was off to South Carolina with Ed Flaherty,
who was to be the other “California boy” on Daufuskie for the quarter,
and Carol Dutton, who was to join Terri Murphree, Penny Weinberg and
Claudia Schaffer to work with Dr. Donald Gatch in Bluffton.

My parents were Communists and had raised me with an awareness of
racism, poverty and class differences. But I was basically a sheltered
middle-class Jewish kid from L.A. who had never been exposed to
anything like I would experience on Daufuskie Island. It was as if
we’d stepped into a different century and a different world. Daufuskie
was an island cut off from modern mainstream America, connected only
by an Office of Economic Opportunity boat that went twice a week to
Savannah, Georgia. On the island there were only a couple of cars and
no paved roads, no modern plumbing–only outhouses–and most homes had
no electricity. Ed and I saw firsthand the lies and machinations of
the developers who were scheming to turn Daufuskie into a golf resort/
plantation. We worked with kids whose childhoods were vastly different
from our own–the first day we were there one of them was shot in the
arm in a hunting accident, and every time we visited Dr. Gatch we saw
kids suffering from malnutrition and parasites.

On the mainland, we heard the racist jokes of the white school
superintendent we approached to get better equipment for the one-room
school and the threats of local Ku Klux Klanners who hated Dr. Gatch
and his black patients. Back on Daufuskie, we helped build fences for
vegetable gardens. We danced and laughed and drank at the Piccolo Club
juke joint. We listened to the remarkable stories of old-timers like
Mrs. Viola Bryan, whom we lived with, and Sarah Grant, who was both
midwife and undertaker for the island. And we helped bury Doonie
Wiley, dressing his stiff body in a suit and tie, sitting up late into
the night at the wake, then helping dig the grave in a freezing rain.

For me, Daufuskie was a coming of age, the moment I grew up and became
an adult. When I returned to UCSC after 10 weeks on Daufuskie, I was a
different person and the adjustment to college student life wasn’t
easy. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I’d experienced, and
Herman helped guide me through that process as adviser for my senior
thesis, which was about Daufuskie.

I am very grateful to Herman for having the vision, the courage and
the faith in humanity to send 19-year-old kids to Daufuskie Island and
so many other places as part of the Cowell Extra-Mural Project. I only
hope that the experience for the residents of the communities was half
as good as mine. More than any book, any class or any professor, my
experience on Daufuskie changed me forever. I’ve carried it with me
all these years, and in everything I do I try to keep the perspective
and understanding of life that I gained on that tiny island in 1969.

I consider myself very lucky to have met, worked with, and been
influenced by Herman Blake. All I can say is, “Thank you, Herman.”

Zachary Sklar
Daufuskie Island, 1969
Cowell College, 1970