When Prof. Kenneth A. McClane ’73 was about six years old, Langston Hughes, a famous African American literary figure, said to McClane’s father, “I hate to say this, but it looks like your son is going to be a poet. God help him and you.”
Even today, McClane’s passion for language and expression is clear to all who meet him. His face, unlined, disguises his 52 years, as do the enthusiasm, laughter and dramatic hand gestures that characterize his conversation.
“He has a very strong voice,” said Linda Brown, English department chair. “It’s a voice you can read in his poetry, a voice with a commitment to social equality and to social justice.”
McClane, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature, has been a professor at Cornell for 27 years, after earning his A.B., M.A. and MFA here as well. He teaches small sections of undergraduate students in Verse Writing, as well as four poets who enter the MFA program each year.
“Ken has a tireless amount of energy,” said Lamar Herrin, director of creative writing.
Arnold Seong ’04 said that McClane’s Verse Writing workshops were the best he has ever been in. “One of the pleasures of working with McClane is that he has a wonderful poetic sensibility.”
“He’s very concerned about students and how students feel about their work,” Seong added.
McClane’s commitment to the University begins with teaching but extends to a variety of areas, including being on the presidential search committees that selected both former president Hunter R. Rawlings III and President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’76, many of the deans’ search committees, involvement in the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy (CRESP) and a position among the graduate faculty in the Africana Studies and Research Center.
His involvement in the search for the University’s next president was a significant time commitment and often required him to travel all over the United States. None of it changed his dedication to his students.
“He did not miss class. He did not miss an office hour,” Herrin said.
Brown also praised his availability and dedication. “He’s really well-known for being willing to make sure … students can reach him.”
“If I’m asked to do it, I should,” McClane said of his various commitments. His ambition to make the community better and stronger comes from his parents, who felt a sense of obligation to others and who took in freedom fighters during the struggle for civil rights.
McClane grew up on 147th Street in Harlem. His father was a doctor who also taught at Columbia Medical School. His mother had been trained as a pharmacist, but was not able to practice because women were not permitted to at the time. They lived in Harlem by choice, not by necessity.
“It was, in some sense, a very privileged background,” McClane said. “There was a real sense that you owed communities things … We were always involved.”
McClane was among the first two black students at the prestigious, private Collegiate School in Manhattan, an all-male, conservative environment that differed greatly from his experiences at home.
“I felt, from age six, that I was going from one ghetto to another … Much that I learned at Collegiate would get me in trouble,” McClane said.
Understanding and using language became a very necessary tool for succeeding in two distinctly different environments.
The McClanes’ involvement in the community led them once to host Martin Luther King Jr. at their summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. McClane was only eight at the time and aware of the importance of this man, but was not fully able to appreciate his influence until he saw a transformation in the people around him who were reacting to King.
McClane attended the College of Arts and Sciences as an undergraduate, which had attracted him because of its Africana Studies and Research Center, which was among the first of its kind in universities nationwide.
“It was very important for me to have an institution where I saw myself mirrored … There was a level of commitment to the world, people who in some sense represented what my parents had always done.”
Although some students may complain that Cornell can often be too large and somewhat unfeeling, McClane found in Cornell an environment in which he could thrive. “One’s real complexity here can be realized … It was the first place that really celebrated me. Being a writer was something sacred.”
It was at Cornell that he first began to write. In an outrage over students enjoying themselves by “traying” down the slope during the Vietnam War, he wrote a few angry poems attacking such behavior and read them aloud to a large audience at a poetry reading. The overwhelming response was embarrassment for him. From this experience, he learned the importance of expression.
McClane is still his own toughest critic. “You’re only as good as the last thing you wrote. You’re dishonest if you get any vainglorious sense of yourself. Hopefully you’ve said some things that are true.”
“Every once in a while I write a line that I’m really proud of. [It’s] a miraculous event. I wish I wrote more,” McClane said.
On having met so many of the people he admires and being honored for his writing, McClane said, “These good things — I really don’t believe them. I wrote the things I had to write because I couldn’t do anything else.”
Archived article by Stephanie Baritz