Jacques L. Hymans (1937-99)
AHA Staff, March 2000
Jacques Lodewijk Hymans, a popular, longtime professor of history at California State University at San Francisco, died on December 29, 1999, of heart failure at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. He was 62.
Hymans was a pioneer teacher and researcher in the academic field of African history. Until the early 1960s, when Hymans began his career, Africa had not been considered a suitable subject for serious historical inquiry. During his life he contributed significantly to the removal of that prejudice and helped introduce African history to higher education.
Hymans received his BA in 1958 from Stanford University. Later that year, in France on a Fulbright award, he discovered nationalist ferment among African students. This experience led him to pursue doctoral research in African history.
Hymans's doctoral thesis, presented to the University of Paris and later published as Leopold Sedar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography, was one of the earliest serious academic treatments of a major African political thinker. His major research interest throughout his career remained the life and thought of the poet and president Senghor, the first president of Senegal and the first African member of the Académie Française.
Drawing on extensive personal contact with Senghor, who called Hymans his "white shadow," he advanced the then-revolutionary idea that African nationalist thought and the concept of "negritude" were fundamentally tied to the writings of late 19th- and early 20th-century European thinkers such as Maurice Barrès.
After receiving his PhD in history from the University of Paris in 1964, Hymans taught at Northwestern University and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before accepting a position in 1968 at the California State University in his hometown, San Francisco.
Hymans pioneered the teaching of African history as a university subject in Africa itself, as a U.S. State Department Exchange Professor at Lovanium University in the Congo (Zaire) from 1966 to 1968.
Hymans was an innovative teacher. His classes were among the most popular in the history department, and he consistently won university-wide teaching awards. He also served for over two decades as the faculty adviser to the university chapter of Phi Alpha Theta.
In recent years Hymans became an advocate of the use of new media in historical scholarship. As an illustration of the potential value of new media, he worked with a group of his students to produce a short documentary video, A Bridge of Sweetness, about the life of Senghor. He presented this video and explained the pedagogical theory behind it at the recent World History Association meeting in British Columbia.
Hymans had a strong belief in intellectual accomplishment beyond his own discipline. He reinvigorated the university's chapter of Phi Beta Kappa as president and secretary and received an award for distinguished service in 1999. He also served on the board of the Lowell High School Alumni Association over the past decade, fundraising for his beloved debate society and spearheading the effort to found a research center for excellence in teaching.
Hymans was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1937. He immigrated to this country with his family in 1940, settling in San Francisco. He is survived by his wife, Myrna; his son, Jacques; and his brother, Herbert.