No one owned Robert Coleman-Senghor, the Sonoma State University professor and former mayor of Cotati who died at the age of 70. He gave his life to SSU and, not surprisingly, died at SSU, beloved by many students and colleagues.
Born in Louisiana and raised in Berkeley, he was both a Southerner and a Californian. An African-American intellectual, he refused to be pushed into an academic ghetto or to teach just black literature or black culture, though he knew both intimately well from experience, deep reading and uncommon listening to people he met everywhere he traveled. He followed nobody’s orders but his own, belonged to no circle except the circle he created for himself, his family and friends, and he adhered to no set of beliefs except those that he forged out of his own inborn love and rage.
A member of the English department since 1972, Coleman-Senghor didn’t complete his Ph.D. and never wrote any of the books he talked about writing, though he expressed brilliant ideas on the role of literature in American society, the proper function of a university and the corrosive power of racism in our culture.
At times, he seemed to take on the black man’s burden that he chose to inherit from a host of black scholars including W. E. B. Dubois. He made it his mission to point out hypocrisy, sham, and the enervating deceits of everyday American life. Fearless and unsentimental, he seemed to have no illusions, and so he never had illusions to lose. With those who were disillusioned, he could be impatient.
Never silent for long, or self-censoring, either, he would pause now and then to weigh the words that emerged from his lips. In death, he seems like one of the larger-than-life characters that inhabit Zora Neale Hurston’s magnificent novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Like them, Coleman-Senghor give birth to whole worlds through his lips.
A memorial service for Coleman-Senghor will be held at SSU on Friday, April 29, 2-5pm. For more information call the English Department, 707.664.2140.
Jonah Raskin is a Bohemian contributor and professor at SSU.
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