J. Herman Blake Tribute by Rita Coleman, Cowell ’75

I think the first time J. Herman and I encountered each other, he was observing me on the dance floor at a UC Santa Cruz party with my low cut bell-bottom pants that revealed my belly button.  I could see him shaking his head perhaps wondering why these black students seemed to want to party so much.  The early 1970’s were serious political times and there was a lot of business to take care of.  At that moment little did he know that I was a diligent student and most of the time strictly business.  But every now and then I needed to let it go, let it out on the dance floor.

I never actually took a class from “J. Herman.”  And it never occurred to me to ask why we always called and referred to him as “J. Herman” even though he carried that deep, southern “ ‘fessor Blake” air about him.  Whenever I saw him strolling around campus, I thought, “There goes a very learned scholar, with deep convictions and connections to his southern roots.”  Wisdom seemed to ooze from his pores, like he had survived ten or fifteen lives even before he attended graduate school, before he walked among us at UC Santa Cruz.

I was one of a few Black students attending UC Santa Cruz in the early 1970’s who did not transfer to Oakes College when J. Herman became Provost.  As a result, I saw him infrequently.  Yet every interaction with him was profound encounter, a teaching moment, and a special occasion.

I remember the night when we, a small number of Black students on campus, were transported in the dark of night to a home where we were told that we would meet a special guest.  We all wondered about the mystery involved and who could be the special guest.  It was Bobby Seale.  What an unbelievable opportunity, an incredible evening J. Herman provided us.  He had a way of teaching us more outside of the classroom than inside.  It was a mighty education.  He used his power as professor and later Provost not to further his personal CV but to educate.  As Provost at Oakes, the faculty and staff he hired, the speakers (and students like Huey Newton) he brought to campus all focused on cultivating our minds, creating solid citizens that he would personally launch into the world.

J. Herman served as the quintessential mentor.  It didn’t matter if you were an Oakes student or not.  I turned to him when I began the graduate school application process.  I remember sitting with him in his office discussing the pros and cons of what to say and not to say in my personal statement.  He actually made a call to Neil Smelser at Berkley to inquire about a few issues.  I know the application experience as well as my successful attempts would have been totally different had J. Herman not been there to guide me.

I organized the first Black Graduation in 1975.  There were 21 participants in caps and gown walking down the aisles and onto the stage as Earth, Wind and Fire sang, “That’s the Way of the World.”  The event sprang out of a dispute that boiled over at the Cowell College graduation ceremony-planning meeting.  I suggested that our campus gospel group sing and the idea was dismissed because as it was described, “We don’t want to offend anyone who is not religious.”  I thought of the many Black students, first college graduates in their families and wondered how we could be culturally affirmed.  We speculated about whom, on very short notice, could serve as our commencement speaker.  Who did we always turn to when we needed words of wisdom and encouragement?  Our very own Professor J. Herman Blake, of course.  He laid down the mantel challenging us to take our education out into the real world to do something other than add another line to our resumes.  Our parents were grateful that we had someone in our lives to spur us on.  It was bittersweet.  We were so thankful to be graduating yet we were about to leave our beloved, “J. Herman” Blake.

As an alumna of UC Santa Cruz, J. Herman continued to mentor me during my first few years of graduate school.  He warned me about some of the pitfalls and mine fields in graduate school, steered me away from tenuous connections and continued to keep track of me.  In fact, he arranged for another poignant meeting, this time with Alex Haley during one of his visits to Cambridge, MA.

Recently while clearing out some folders, I found a handwritten (in ink) note on one of those beautiful Oakes College cards from J. Herman.   He wrote to me on February 10, 1978 in response to some inquiry I must have made:

Dear Rita,

Thank you for your good letter.  I have been thinking a lot of you as I read about the horrible winter that has hit Boston.  I hope things go well for you. 

I would love to see you again and soon.  It would be good to have a long uninterrupted period when we could talk about some of your ideas for the future.  I have some definite thoughts about administration and will be glad to share them with you.  The other options bear some explanation, which we can go through…let me hear from you soon.

Keep on keeping on—through all that snow and gunk.  Whenever things get you down think of us here who love you and support you fully.  Be strong.  Herman

I was astonished that J. Herman found the time to write me and even more amazed that 35 years later I still hold onto these words, to that note.  I will always cherish the time, the energy, the love that J. Herman poured into me and other UCSC students and alums to ensure our success especially during our tough days in graduate and professional school programs.

As I retire after 32 ½ years in the academy, I know I wouldn’t have even thought about becoming a professor if it hadn’t been for J. Herman.  What a role model!  He let me know through his demeanor, his commitment, and through his rooted scholarship that I could blossom into a scholar and remain true to myself.  I didn’t have to become another person, sacrifice my identity or my culture to live and exist in the academy.

J. Herman,

Had your UCSC tribute not coincided with the celebration of my 60th birthday, I would be present hopefully on the first row to sing your praises.  But it is because of your lasting legacy that I am able to celebrate both this milestone birthday and my career with joy and a sense of lasting fulfillment.  The dream you set before me and pushed me out to pursue was realized and then some…and I am grateful that I was able to pass your caring and devoted mentoring to a new generation of young women and men.  I thank you with all of my heart and congratulate you on a life and career well lived.

Lerita (Rita) Coleman Brown
Cowell ‘75