Stephen E. Henderson

In Search of Blueprints: The Making of an African American Literary Critic … Stephen E. Henderson : a Symposium on African American Literary and Intellectual Thought. Program in African American Culture, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, 1993.

African American, Cultural Activism, Literary Theory

Stephen E. Henderson


Dr. Stephen Henderson was an HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) scholar who developed a literary analysis of Black literature based in African-derived aesthetic epistemologies and helped organize and facilitate several African and African American folklorists’ initiatives in the 1970s and 1980s.

Henderson was born in 1925 to James and Leonora Sands Henderson, a poor family in Key West, Florida. His mother was of Bahamian descent and his father was from Gullah country in Savannah, Georgia. He grew up listening to calypso and Junkanoo music and reading Paul Laurence Dunbar. Encouraged to be college-bound by his staff sergeant, with whom he had served in the army for two years at the end of World War II, he enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta. There, he studied English and sociology and gained an education designed to give him, as a Black man, a special sense of identity and leadership. Earning his BA with high honors (1949), he later attained an MA (1950) and a PhD (1962) in English and Art History from the University of Wisconsin.  

While earning his graduate degrees, Henderson joined the faculty of Virginia Union University as an English professor. From 1962 to 1969, he chaired the English Department at Morehouse College in Atlanta and then served as Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for the Black World (IBW) for two years. The IBW was an interdisciplinary, multi-voiced think tank which, after the assassination of Dr. King, sought to envision and develop Black Studies curriculum and policies that incorporated solutions integrating the arts, humanities, and political strategies to address the concerns of the Civil Rights Movement.

From 1971 until his retirement in 1992, Henderson taught at Howard University as an esteemed Professor of African American Studies and English. Among his students were several leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and many future writers of significance. For more than a decade, he also directed Howard University’s Institute of the Arts and Humanities, during which he organized several national and international conferences on Black folklore, culture, and Black writers across the Diaspora. The folklore conferences gathered many scholars with interests in folklore who had been working in isolation and birthed the Association of African and African American Folklorists (AAAAF). 

As a scholar, Dr. Henderson identified a blues aesthetic which he suggested was about being able to recognize and fully live and deal with contradictions. Framing blues as poetry and music, he also defined a Black literary aesthetic that was attuned to the analyses of the content and structures of Black folklore in African Diaspora literature. 

Among his publications of relevance to folklorists are:

Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic Reference (1973)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)