A Tribute to Professor J. Herman Blake by Ruth Wilson
There’s Always More Room at the Table
The idiom of kinship was the mode through which I experienced the world.
Sister, mother, brother, father, uncle, aunt, spouse, son, daughter, but the many knees bended underneath that table were seldom came solely from my mother’s womb or my father’s loins, but there was always room at the table. My parents, and their siblings in northeast and southeast Texas and in a small town in Tulare, California raised me. In our household, there was always more room at the table for one more.
J. Herman Blake was the first professor I had ever met, my first academic father. Growing up, in the South my family had a long line of dark chocolate hued men and women, working class men with specific skills who could fix everything inside and outside of the home and at our church, but they were not teachers in the school system. Herman Blake was the first African American professional I had ever met who so aptly walked through multiple cultural worlds in the American milieu. He conscientiously used his St. Johns Island language, his UC Berkeley idiom, and his New York-ese whenever he needed to make a point more succinctly. A skin color divide kept dark skinned citizens out of the leadership in the mainstream white school system, and even in the segregated schools. Herman’s physical presence in the academy suggested that there might be room at the table for a person like me. And I buckled down and wanted to do my best so that my other elders would take pride in my accomplishments.
During the summer of my junior year in high school, I visited UC Santa Cruz with a group of youth from the San Joaquin Valley on a tour of UC campuses. All of us qualified to apply for admission to the University of California, even though we did not know what that meant. Most of us had never seen any of the UC campuses; we just knew we wanted to go to college, a four-year college, somewhere. We toured the UC’s in southern California first; then, we headed north and stopped at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz.
Having spent the past two summers as a teenage music camp counselor in the Sequoia National Forest, and been raised in rural Tulare, a small town of about six thousand, Santa Cruz satisfied my desire to spend more time in nature without living in a metropolis. During that summer tour, we did not only tour of UCSC, we accepted an invitation to J Herman’s Sociology of the Black Experience class. Although a declared music and French major when applying for college, I knew from the first time that I sat in Herman’s class, which if my memory does not fail me was taught in the Fireside Lounge at Cowell College, that I wanted to come to UCSC and enroll in Dr. Blake’s class. There was a blend of students from many ethnic groups in the class, all of whom seemed riveted to the professor and enthralled by his lectures.
UCSC was my top choice, and I still remember the shrill scream of delight emitted from my throat as I read my letter of acceptance that I kept for years.
The Sociology of the Black Experience was one of my first courses. I loved the 10 autobiographies, biographies, and novels we studied that semester, I enjoyed the lecture, Cane was my favorite text, and I recalled its imagery as a sophomore one year later as I made my way through the south, headed to Beaufort, South Carolina for field study. As I adjusted to Beaufort’s humidity and heat at the end of summer, its shift to the chill of autumn and winter, and living with Mrs. Wilhelmina in a house where she boarded a new mother of 13 children, I came face to face with a memory: Working in a Head Start program in Beaufort, South Carolina reminded me of what my own kindergarten teacher Mrs. Coleman had done in the working class African American neighborhood I grew up in the early 1950s.
Mrs. Coleman was married to a policeman in Tyler, Texas. They lived in a two-story home about five blocks from our house, smack in the middle of the black community. The downstairs had been converted into a school, a kindergarten. Mrs. Coleman enrolled children who were potty trained. For many of us, that meant anywhere from nine months to two years. By the age of six, we learned our alphabet, our addition and subtraction tables, how to read, how to write cursive, and then advanced to the first grade well prepared to move forward in school. She was skilled, demanding, and commanded our attention. She was my ideal of a teacher. Mrs. Coleman left no child behind. Neither did Herman Blake.
To me, my mentor J. Herman Blake came from that same mold. He was my parent away from home, a mentor, and a professor. As a father figure, he, along with the fathers of my various roommates, formed a cadre of intelligent strong men, family men, caring about their own families, and extending their protection and care to every young person who came into their realm. He gave an air of never being too busy to listen or care for us. There was always room at the table for one more.
As a professor and provost, Herman invited many thoughtful, committed intellectuals and world leaders into our UCSC realm: the renown author of Roots Alex Hailey, folk musicians Bernice Reagan and Sweet Honey in the Rock, Civil Rights activist Septima Clark, and Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton, along with many others. Students who attended these events in cozy UCSC lounges warmed by redwood logs burning in fireplaces were able to sit and breathe the same air as these world-renowned shakers and movers. As the secretary of the Black Student Union, I traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina to a student conference, and walked in paths that had been paved by Stokely Carmichael and many other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As UCSC students, we had the opportunity to see our society though a different lens, one that included attending courtroom sessions and observing the trials of George Jackson and Soledad Seven. I sat at the feet of the imminent Professor Roberto Crespi who forgave me for spending so much class time commuting to Salinas to follow the fate of courtrooms filled with political prisoners. It was years later when I realized the statue of these luminaries, what impact they would have on history, and how important it was to hear and see them as I grew into womanhood.
As if my venture into the Deep South was not enough, during my junior year, I went to South Africa to complete a six-month internship in a remote public health clinic in Tsakholo, Lesotho. Upon my return, slightly disoriented and in culture shock, I stayed with the Blake family, receiving room and board in exchange for chauffeuring their three brilliant and talented daughters to school in Monterey. The warmth and care I found in the Blake family provided the bridge I needed to slow my re-entry into the United States, a country that spoke highly of family life, but was a far cry from the tightly knit communities I had experienced in the American South, then in remote rural California communities, and in southern Africa and elsewhere during my travels in southern and Africa before returning home. There was always room at the table in Herman’s home.
One of Herman’s strong points was his ability to attract an amazing array of supportive people into his network. Herman lured Josie King to Oakes College from Richmond, California. Josie held office hours when students were most vulnerable, after five p.m. She hung out with us in the cafeteria, checked in with us in the dorm hallways, and selected soft, cushy furniture stuffed with tiny Styrofoam balls that invited us to just collapse into her office and sit close to the floor. There was always room at the table in Josie’s office. I think I fell asleep in her office and took naps there many times, naps that restored my strength.
I transferred to Oakes College after I returned from South Africa, added biology to my Community Studies major to embrace my growing interest in health care. Then I pushed myself to complete my double major and other pre-med requirements over the next five quarters. Looking back, I am amazed how Professor Blake and his colleagues, such as Professor Lincoln Taiz in whose botany lab I worked, Counselor Josie King, and Professor Diane Lewis created such a supportive environment fin which students could thrive.
Another one of the many incredible people J. Herman recruited to Oakes College was Professor Diane K. Lewis, the first African American woman to be tenured in the UC system. She took the time to read one of my papers and asked me to come to see her during office hours. When I arrived for my appointment, she placed in my hands a detailed critique of my term paper; but explained that she had done this because she felt I could do better, and then requested that I revise it. When I took a look at her marks on my paper, and realized that I had not been paying attention to my work as I had been trained, and I became more diligent and mindful of my writings. That exercise changed my opinion of what I could achieve. I am thankful that Professor Lewis saw me in ways I could not see myself, as someone who could and should pursue graduate school, something at that time I did not know existed. In fact, I didn’t know what a doctorate was or how one acquired it; but I learned.
While living at the Blake household, I also served as Herman’s driver to Oakland while he conducted interviews with the late Huey P. Newton as they prepared To Die for the People. Herman seemed always be travelling that year: raising money for the college, giving speeches, attending workshops, and being a provost. During his absence, and with his permission, I spent many hours in the detached building overlooking the San Lorenzo River in his amazing study, which was filled with volumes of books and recordings. In those quiet, wonder-filled moments, I imagined how my life would be if I became a provost, a professor, a parent, and a spouse—roles I had never really thought much about. What a privilege is was to imagine there might be room for me at this table too.
Professor Blake’s life and accomplishments continued to impress me as I made my way through the university and beyond. After UCSC, I worked for a year in the Merrill Field Office then applied to medical school and graduate school.
As a young a black youth coming through a school system absent of any racial minority male or female instructor certified to teach in any discipline other than physical education, for the first time I was able to imagine that the professoriate could be for someone like me. I liked what I saw, and it seemed to like me. Herman and his colleagues at UC Santa Cruz provided an environment where I could work to fulfill my dreams.
Thanks to Professors Crespi, Taiz, Lewis and J. Herman, by the end of my fifth year, I was able to reframe the vision of my future, apply to graduate school at Stanford and UC Berkeley, and medical school at Howard and Stanford. Due to financial reasons, I was unable to accept Howard’s offer, and because Stanford was unable to imagine that I (or any other student at that time) could do a joint degree in medicine and anthropology, I had to choose the one program that offered me the resources to study and achieve a doctorate. I chose the medical anthropology program at Stanford.
Oakes’ 1975 Commencement was one where students with large extended families could be expected to feel welcome. At commencement, I was surrounded by all of my immediate family members, along with many of the “other” mothers, “other” fathers” and sisters and brothers I had collected along the way. Nobody turned my family way, nobody looked askance at what my father wore than day, or seemed to notice his discomfort at attending such a “high falluting” affair in the fields just below what was then College Five.
I learned that the university was for me from Dr. Blake and the faculty and staff at Oakes. I learned it for all of my brothers and sisters, and their generations. There were professors at the university that would reach towards those of us with our arms outstretched and pull us through. Granted, not all of the professors thought me worthy of their time: I specifically remember being told by my inorganic chemistry instructor that I should never take another science class. Fortunately, I did not listen too well and had been convinced that I was “brilliant” by Professor Crespi, who hailed from Harvard and Puerto Rico. Instead, I listened to Professor Crespi and didn’t give up. I moved forward to organic chemistry passed it, them completed my double major in biology and community studies.
Herman created a community of support for us, and by watching him, I learned and remembered how to reach back and help others. I desired to assure that every one of my six siblings completed a higher degree, and then I wanted to reach towards others in my community, and I did, and I continue to do so.
UCSC provided the option of student taught courses, which created an opportunity for me to teach UCSC’a first gospel choir course, for which students received credit, validating the strengths that were a part of our rich cultural experience, normalizing that experience at the university, which allowed us to feel that our cultural soul music was as important as the European classical orchestral music that I had also mastered, and whose professors filled so much of the music department’s curriculum. At UCSC there was room at the table for Gospel Music, even though a student taught it.
As a member of his household I had a bird’s eye view of the challenges one can have as a professional with a family. I knew Herman loved his family, and he wrestled with the difficulties he faced that did not seem to self-correct with ease. As I observed those difficult times, about which Herman did not discuss with me, I suspected that life as a professional would not be lined with silver and gold. There would be challenges that would test my soul. One has to keep on standing, by faith, and hope for better days for all, not just for oneself.
Thank you Herman for having the courage to build a legacy, not just a career. Thank you Herman for having the courage to speak up, the patience and faith to push firmly, and the persistence to include more voices around the table where decisions were being made in the academic committees and boardrooms. Thank you for caring enough to keep on keeping on, when the going got tough and seemed like it would never change. Thank you for standing firm and pushing on.
I still feel the care with which Herman selected our texts for the Sociology of the Black Experience class. I still use Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi. I still have the edition I purchased for that course. I think of how he shared so much of himself with his students, how we all felt that there was always room at Herman’s table.
In closing, I thank Professor Blake for not only his achievements as a professor, teacher, scholar, administrator and friend. I am also grateful because he used his knowledge of oppressed peoples’ struggles to build a college that met their needs, and by doing so, he met the needs of thousands of students who never realized that they could have a voice in shaping a college, from its architecture, the color of the walls, the counselors, the faculty and staff. As we walked through the grounds and the halls assigned to Oakes College, we walked in a universe that affirmed and embraced us at every corner, and that was a very, very rare universe for students of any color in America in the 1970s.
Although the buildings of Oakes College had not been completed when I graduated, the spirit of what was to come had been manifested. We all had faith that the mortar and bricks of Oakes would come forth, and so it did.
From Herman I learned to keep on pressing on, keep on pushing on. His encouragement was a continuation of the perseverance I had heard all my life from my mother and father, and the prayer band at the Cream of the Valley Church of God in Christ. “Never give up.” “Press On.” “You can make it.”
Through his terms of service at Tugaloo, Swarthmore, University of Indiana at Urbana- Champaign, Iowa State, and now at University of South Carolina, we have kept in touch over the years.
Professors Blake and Lewis were the drum majors whose interests in my career helped me to spread my wings and do more than a young girl from a rural community in the Central Valley had the capacity to imagine.
For the college Herman and his colleagues created, for their patience, their kindness, their fortitude, and their excellence in scholarship and professional demeanor, I am forever grateful.
May the Lord bless and keep you J Herman. May He shine his face upon you and give you peace and grace.
Live on! Live on! Stay strong!
Ruth P. Wilson, Ph.D.
Oakes College, 1975