Friday, August 7, 2015

Robert “Bob” Hemenway (1941-2015), Literary Scholar and Mentor - A Special Tribute from the Project on the History of Black Writing

The Project on the History of Black Writing is deeply saddened by the passing of Robert Hemenway. Best known for his work as a biographer of Harlem Renaissance writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, Hemenway established himself as a major literary scholar early in his career. His book, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, was named one of the Best Books of 1978 by the New York Times, and was winner of the Society of Midland Authors Award in Biography as well as the Rembert W. Patrick Memorial Prize of the Florida Historical Society. In this literary biography, Hemenway utilizes unpublished letters, personal manuscripts, and interviews of Hurston’s close friends to create an original, full-length study of Hurston’s life and literary career.

Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific American author of innovative and influential works, both creative and scholarly. Hemenway used Hurston’s scholarship, art, autobiography, and novels to emphasize her rich contributions and commitment to the history of black writing and culture. Today we recognize her centrality to the emergence of women, gender, and sexuality studies, as well as to the advancement of folklore studies in the United States. Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is one of the most widely read and discussed novels in American and world literature.  

Poet and novelist Alice Walker wrote, “Robert Hemenway's book on the literary life of Zora Neale Hurston is a major work, and one for which scholars and readers and writers will be extremely eager. They will also be grateful for his thorough research and sensitive reconstruction of Zora's life. It is for me a great book, because it gives back to all of us something invaluable that was nearly lost: reliable information and knowledge of the life of a great writer and unique human being. It is just such a joy to know that Zora's story is in the world, at last!”

Similarly, Harlem Renaissance scholar Houston Baker remarked that the book was “A landmark in American literary biography, drawing from virtual obscurity a singular life marked by outstanding works of art.”

In addition to his literary biography on Hurston, Hemenway served as editor of Taylor Gordon's Harlem Renaissance memoir, Born to Be, published “Folklore Field Notes from Zora Neale Hurston” in The Black Scholar, and contributed to the College Language Association Journal with his article “'Baxter’s Procrustes': Irony and Protest,” in which Hemenway analyzed a well-known story of African American writer Charles Chestnutt. 

Upon retirement, Hemenway left his personal papers to the University of Kansas, where they are housed at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library

A few months before his passing, the Project on the History of Black Writing announced its plan for a special Hemenway-Long scholarship to be awarded to an incoming graduate student focusing on African American and Ethnic writing. (Octavia Long was a 1909 African American graduate student of KU. Long's recovery continues the work to which Hemenway was and HBW remains committed).

Click here to read the University of Kansas's Tribute to Robert Hemenway and a statement from current KU Chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little.

Chancellor Hemenway leaves behind many friends, colleagues, and those who benefited from his mentorship, many of whom have reached out to express their sentiments. HBW is honored to collect these remembrances. More will be added as they come in. Read the powerful reflections on the life and legacy of Robert Hemenway below, starting with Alice Walker's tribute:

[by Nikky Finney]

I was living in Oakland, California, in 1989, completely romanticizing the notion of becoming a poet by managing a Kinko's Copies Center. I flew to South Carolina to attend a southern writer's conference and by sheer fate met fellow South Carolinian and brilliant novelist Percival Everett. He invited me to apply for a Visiting Writer's position at the University of Kentucky. I had heard of this faraway land called Kentucky -- by way of my sacred stack of Callaloo journals -- which was the journal's home base in the 1970's and 1980's. I applied and was offered the one year appointment. When I arrived in Kentucky I arrived to a land of million dollar horses, coal mines, and very few Black folks. In the middle of this -- there was this maverick teacher and administrator, chancellor Robert Hemenway.

Hemenway was passionate about the arts and was leading a sustained and eloquent charge, on campus and in the community, for more art projects everywhere, alongside the steady growth of the university. He was also leading the charge for the hiring of more women and more brown and black scholars and artists. Bob Hemenway's personal path was filled with equally inventive and diverse stepping stones. He was a proud and astute African-American literature scholar. He had written the foremost biography of the great and essential Zora Neale Hurston. He was so proud of this book. I was so delighted this book was in the world. This book was a North star for me as a young poet.

I'll never forget the first time Bob Hemenway called me into his office to welcome me to the University of Kentucky, as an Assistant Professor and not as a Visiting Professor. It was 1991. He did not sit behind his desk. He pulled his chair up alongside my own and spoke to me, eye to eye, with great skill and easy Hemenway-candor, assuring me that I had a place in the English Department at U.K. -- if I wanted to stay. He encouraged me to do my work and to not be dissuaded by critics and to let my work do the talking. He said something to me that no almost-stranger, and certainly no white male administrator, had ever said to me. "Nikky, let your bright mind always keep you above the fray." I was a neophyte faculty member. I left Hemenway's office that day wondering to myself if his honesty and straight-forwardness, if his ability to actually see me in the world, was typical of how all administrators spoke to new faculty members. Over the next twenty-plus years I would sadly learn the answer to that question.

I'll never forget the last time Bob Hemenway called me into his office. I thought it was to let me know he was leaving for the job at Kansas. The word on campus was already out. I believe it was 2004. By then I had a second book out. I had received tenure (one year early). I had moved up the ranks and become Associate Professor. I was hopefully well on my way to establishing myself as an American poet. I was devastated to know that he was leaving. But I wanted to congratulate him on his new position. I had also come to his office to thank him for the belief he had shown in me and in my work. He opened his arms and gave me a huge hug and said, "Okay, what's next for you?" I had come to congratulate him -- and here he was still focused on my career and my work.

In 2012, after winning the National Book Award for Poetry, I was invited to deliver the opening lecture in the Hall Center for the Humanities series at the University of Kansas. I knew Bob Hemenway had retired as Chancellor three years earlier. I hoped I might see Leah and Bob while I was in town but I wasn't sure. I knew his health might make that moment questionable. I wanted to call them and invite them to the talk but I didn't want to impose on their time. I decided to call them after the lecture. Thirty minutes before my talk was to begin the organizer leaned and whispered to me that someone was waiting in a backstage dressing room. I leapt to my feet. I found Leah and Bob in a small gray dressing room sitting at a table. I hugged Leah tightly. She whispered to me, "He really, really wanted to come and hear you." I gave Bob Hemenway the biggest bear hug. He was much smaller than he had been the last time I saw him. His body was trembling a little. But the light in his eyes was still fueled by the rocket power of his gigantic heart. His I-love-Zora eyes were still as clear as headlights.

To this day I do not believe I would have been so generously accepted into the arms of the academy had it not been for Dr. Robert Hemenway's steadfast faith and support. I do not know what he saw or heard in me but he saw and heard something, in non-traditional me, that rang true. He helped cut a path through the forest for me. I don't know if I would have remained in the academy this long, twenty-four years, as artist and professor, had it not been for his strategic and encouraging visionary words. The landscape of the academy can be so risk-averse and predictable. Those of us, both scholars and artists, who have travelled a very non-traditional sometimes radical path, need administrators with great faith, courage, and mettle who might offer us that chance.

Thank you Bob Hemenway for offering me that chance.

Nikky Finney is a poet and is the John H. Bennett, Jr. Endowed Professor of Creative Writing and Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of Rice, Sister, Vision (1995), The World is Round (2003), and 2011 National Book Award Winner Head Off & Split. In 2012, Finney made her first appearance at KU where she delivered a lecture on "Making Poetry in the Anthropocene Age." Bob Hemenway was present for the occasion.   


[by John Edgar Tidwell]

Robert E. Hemenway played a large role in my coming to a research one institution.  As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, I reviewed his Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography for the Minnesota Daily, the country’s third ranked student newspaper at that time.  Perhaps filled with a sense of self-importance, I, with temerity, sent him a copy of my posting.  He graciously responded with a two-page, single-spaced reply.  The first page was filled with praises for my efforts and for my promise in the field.  But page two was chastisement, pure and simple.  He proceeded to “correct” me on the many things I had gotten wrong.  After a stern tongue-lashing, he ended on a supportive note: he invited me to apply for an assistant professorship at Kentucky, where he was serving as department chair.  I successfully applied for the position and was introduced to Charles Rowell, who had just moved Callaloo to this new home, and to that effervescent, sassy talent, Sandra Y. Govan. The four of us accomplished a number of things, none more important than the program “Taking Poetry to the People.”  We went to community centers in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Lexington and held a series of four programs in each one.  The highlight of the activities was to bring in a famous poet to read.  Nikki Giovanni and Haki Madhubuti were among those who came to thrill members of the community with their distinctive poetic styles.

Bob, I will miss your vision about how to erase the boundaries separating “town and gown.”  I will miss the support you always cheerfully gave to people of color, generally with no fanfare.  I will miss your wit and charm and graciousness.  When we were reunited here at Kansas, you once told me that ninety-nine percent of the job of Chancellor was simply “to show up.”  Well, Bob, you did more than “show up.”  Your very presence crucially made the difference.  You leave us with wonderful memories but also with hearts heavily burdened by loss.  Our task now is to pick up the torch you used to blaze trails for us.  Continuing your precept and example will be difficult to do, but it is the best gesture we can make to express our gratitude for all you have done for us.  For a life well-lived, I can only say, in the words of the traditional Black sermon: “Well done, thy good and faithful servant.  Well done.”

John Edgar Tidwell is Professor of English at the University of Kansas. He is co-editor of the recent book My Dear Boy: Carrie Hughes's Letters to Langston Hughes, 1926-1938 (2013), and editor of After Winter: The Art and Life of Sterling A. Brown (2009). 


[by Trudier Harris]

San Francisco. MLA. December, 1975. Bob Hemenway and I were two of the participants on a panel devoted to the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston. The panel occurred as Bob was putting the finishing touches on Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, for which he signed a copy for me after the book appeared in 1977. Alice Walker, who wrote the “Foreword” to Bob’s biography of Hurston, was in that audience in San Francisco. It was a lively time that portended an equally lively response to Bob’s biography of Hurston and the re-vitalization of scholarly interest in everything she did. Over the nearly 40 years after that panel, Bob and I encountered each other in various scholarly and social settings, including during a job search later in the 1970s. I always remember Bob’s infectious laugh and his often-surprising sense of humor. Whether at MLA or Kentucky or Kansas, Bob always greeted me warmly and was always unassuming in the scholarly reputation he held. Perhaps “down to earth” is indeed the best description—as long as those who hold his memory dear continue to convey what a fabulous and fabulously committed scholar he was to African American literary studies. While his administrative responsibilities may have taken him in a slightly different direction in his later years in academia, he remained—for those of us who knew him in the “old days”—an impeccable scholar and a constant friend of the discipline. I treasure my interactions with him as well as with his sister, Pam Simpson, who shared a year with me at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. May all of us who believe in the integrity of the work we do lift a glass of champagne to celebrate the life and legacy of the wonderful Bob Hemenway.

Trudier Harris is University Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of English at the University of Alabama. Formerly the J. Carlyle Sitterson Distinguished Professor at UNC Chapel Hill, UNC honored Harris in 2014 by creating the Trudier Harris Distinguished Professorship. Her most recent books include Martin Luther King Jr., Heroism, and African American Literature (2014) and The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South (2009).

[by Carmaletta Williams]

I met Zora Neale Hurston through Dr. Robert Farnsworth, my graduate professor at UMKC during a directed study when he assigned Robert Emery Hemenway’s Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. I met Bob Hemenway when the Lawrence, KS AAUW wanted to introduce their new Chancellor to the community with a program they had titled, “A Conversation with Zora and Bob.” When one of my colleagues told me of their plan, asked if I would do my one-woman show as Zora Neale Hurston then have Zora engage in a conversation with her literary biographer, my response was, “What in the world would make you think that I would perform as Zora in front of the man who knows her best.” Ann Wiklund’s response was, “We will pay you.” So I did.

After dinner, I got in my Zora garb to prepare for the night’s “entertainment.”  I tried to channel Zora and asked her to give me the performance that was needed that night; to tell the stories that that audience would enjoy; and to please, please not let me make any mistakes in my conversation with her literary biographer. After Zora entered the front of the room, the body mike (she moves around a lot so a stand mike would never do) immediately stopped working. I was trying so hard to stay in character and not look at the Chancellor. That problem kind of got resolved, people in the back said they still couldn’t hear, so Zora blamed it on Sterling Brown and the performance continued. The new Chancellor and I, as Zora, sat for the “Conversation” part. I don’t remember all the questions he asked Zora or her responses, but there is one that has always stuck with me. The Chancellor said, “There is something I have always wondered about, but the answer has never come to me, so now I guess I have the chance to ask you the question: Why do you think you have been so unproductive in your later years?” She thought a few seconds, then Zora responded, “Well, I think that the Good Lord gives us all so much work to do and when that work is done it doesn’t mean that we have to stop living, only that we stop producing.” He shook his head affirmatively and said, “I thought that might be what you would say.” That night was magical for me. It signaled the beginning of knowing a man who would be very kind, encouraging, thoughtful and committed to advancing student education in all disciplines, with a special commitment to the humanities. Robert Emery Hemenway “Walked the Walk” of literary scholarship and he set others, including me, on that journey.

Rest in Peace, my Friend. I know you and Zora are really hitting some straight licks with crooked sticks around a bonfire.

Carmaletta Williams is former Professor of English at Johnson County Community College (retired), where she also served as Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. She is co-editor of the recent book My Dear Boy: Carrie Hughes’s Letters to Langston Hughes, 1926–1938, with KU's very own Dr. John Edgar Tidwell.

[by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

I met Robert E. Hemenway at the University of Kentucky in the early 1980s and found him to be an affable scholar with whom I shared a sustained interest in the legacies of African American writers and in critical explanations of cultural heritage.  The key word is "affable," because Hemenway's personality made talking with him seem quite as effortless as breathing.  He gave me an autographed copy of Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, his seminal study of a major Harlem Renaissance figure, and we had a bit of correspondence regarding his association with Callaloo.  It was not unusual to share laughter and witty remarks with him at MLA conventions, and it was a genuine pleasure to be enlightened by his insights at one of the Hurston Festivals in Eatonville, Florida.  His serving as Chancellor at the University of Kansas enabled him to be very supportive of projects dedicated to African American critical inquiry and scholarly research. Like all who knew him personally and professionally, I am saddened by his death and obligated to remember his agency in expanding the archives of knowledge.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. is former Professor Emeritus of English at Tougaloo University (retired) and Honorary Professor, School of Foreign Languages, at Central China Normal University (Wuhan). Ward is a literary critic and Richard Wright scholar. His recent works include co-editing The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011), The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (2008), and serving as editor of The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008).

[by Sandra Govan]

                                                  Dr. Robert (Bob) Hemenway:
                       On the Passing of a Grand Son of African American Literature

Bob Hemenway and I met in 1979.   We were both attending a College Language Association (CLA) meeting hosted by Howard University in Washington, DC.  I was still in the Institute of Liberal Arts graduate program at Emory University but I had already begun regular attendance at CLA and thus had made conference friends.  The Howard CLA meeting was my third conference and my first CLA presentation.  I was so excited!  So much so that when I saw Dr. Russell Brooks talking to some stranger in the hotel lobby, I brazenly disrupted their conversation to get a good hug from Russell—a suave, handsome, kindly yet mischievous older scholar from Kentucky State.  After our hug, Russell turned to me and asked, “Bright Eyes, have you met Bob Hemenway yet?” thus introducing me to the man he’d been speaking to.

Bob took it from there.  Almost immediately he began quizzing me about my paper, my status, my dissertation topic.  When he learned that I, too, was investigating a woman writer from the Harlem Renaissance, Gwendolyn Bennett, he asked if he could read some of my work.  He said if I “did not mind” (!) he would read for me and offer some feedback.  Then he asked me whether I was on the job market, or close to being there yet.  I was so stunned; so flattered!  Of course I said, “yes” to his proposal to be my silent reader immediately.  After he read the materials I sent him when I returned to Emory, he wrote me a letter suggesting strongly that I send my resume to the University of Kentucky because he was “going to build a community of scholars focused on African American literature.” And he did.

Charles Rowell was already there with the journal, Callaloo.  Bob told me that UK was recruiting yet another Black scholar, the redoubtable Dr. Edgar Tidwell whose work focused on Sterling Brown. The whole process, from our chance meeting, to joining the faculty at UK, and to growing under Bob’s leadership was a fantastic experience.

I found Bob to be exceedingly generous with his time and his energy.  He was also encouraging and engaging. He got me involved with a community project that paired me with a Black woman from Lexington and had us travelling the far hinterlands of Kentucky with the Black Postcard Project.  He wrote letters of support for the grant applications I made. He worked to the best of his ability to assure I did not feel isolated in Lexington.

But apart from assisting me to make a name for myself in the profession and apart from welcoming me into his home to feed me and to share his family time with Leah, his wife, and all his children named for Black writers or characters, probably the single most significant thing Bob did for me was to introduce me to a formidable woman scholar making her mark in the profession.   Thanks to Bob’s intro, Dr. Trudier Harris became one of my best friends, inside or beyond our professional lives.
Bob Hemenway had extraordinary insights and a special sensitivity.  We will miss that wry humor, that gentle smile, that quizzically raised eyebrow, and the genuine humanity of the man.

Sandra Govan is Professor Emerita at UNC Charlotte. She is enjoying retirement, occasionally working for the North Carolina Humanities Council, and writing when and what she chooses. Although retired, Dr. Govan continues to contribute to the field. Her most recent works include “The Starter House” in 27 Views of Charlotte:  The Queen City in Prose and Poetry (2014), “Disparate Spirits Yet Kindred Souls: Octavia E. Butler, 'Speech Sounds,' and Me" (2013), and the coauthored essay “Gwendolyn Bennett:  The Richest Colors on her Palette, Beauty and Truth” (2010).


In 1999, Bob Hemenway, then Chancellor at the University of Kansas, made a generous offer that enabled the Project on the History of Black Writing to make KU a permanent home for its archives. As a result of Hemeway’s ongoing support from 1999 to his retirement, HBW became a thriving center for traditional and digital scholarship, professional development and graduate training.  From all of us at the Project on the History of Black Writing, you are loved, Bob, and will be sorely missed.  


  1. A small correction ---Jerry W. Ward, Professor of English Emeritus at Tougaloo College not Dillard University, and Honorary Professor, School of Foreign Languages, Central China Normal University. Dillard University has not, as far as Ward knows, given him emeritus status. In the 21st century, it is crucial to be accurate.

    1. We apologize for the error, Dr. Ward, and have corrected the post.