35 Million Ways to Be Black

The intellectual impresario talks about slavery, his quest to make “Roots for the 21st century,” and the need for “moral revolution within the African American community.”

Accompanying Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates Jr. across the Harvard University campus is like following a beloved small-town mayor. “Hi Skip!” “How’re you doing, Skip?” “How’s that leg of yours, Skip?”—for he is on crutches today. And he has a kind word for everybody. A young woman approaches and greets him warmly; he gives her a friendly kiss on the cheek; they laugh and chat; we walk on, and he jokes, “Sexual harassment!” Then, barely missing a beat, exuberantly, with her still in earshot, “She’s harassing me!” Typical Gates: to be laughingly relaxed about things that Americans often find hard to talk about.

Nowhere does he do that more than with the vexed issue of race. The 56-year-old Gates is the newly-named Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard, as well as the director of the university’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. For a decade and a half, ending in 2006, he also headed Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies, assembling what is widely regarded as the world’s most distinguished collection of scholars, both black and white, of race relations. The first black person to receive a Ph.D. from Britain’s Cambridge University, Gates has an impressive string of scholarly publications to his credit. But, as much as any living American, he is a public intellectual—and intellectual impresario—as well. He has made several series of films for PBS and written a string of profiles for The New Yorker. He is the editor or coeditor of numerous anthologies and of a large encyclopedia, both print and electronic, of African and African American life. He is also a past or present member of everything from the Pulitzer Prize Board to the committee that advises the Postal Service on new stamp designs.

Our conversation takes place in Gates’ house, only a few blocks from his Harvard office. Today he is sitting in a recliner, his right leg propped up. It is encased in a strange metal framework whose arms actually penetrate his skin and go into the bone. Over many months, he has adjusted this frame a millimeter or two each day to force his leg bone to grow longer, repairing a childhood touch football injury whose treatment left it two inches too short. When, in West Virginia in the early 1960s, the first doctor to examine the 14-year-old Gates heard him express his ambition (at the time Gates wanted to be a physician), he told Gates’ mother the boy was an obviously unbalanced “overachiever”—a code word for a black person who didn’t know his place. The doctor misdiagnosed the injury as psychosomatic.

As we talk, Gates scratches his leg, fields phone calls, and greets people who bring food, mail, papers he needs to inspect or sign. A short, lively man with rimless glasses, mustache and goatee, his conversation seems centrifugal, like a spinning fireworks pinwheel that shoots sparks in all directions. It is hard to imagine him ever at a loss for words.

Mother Jones: This spring is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by Britain. As you know, British West Indian sugar planters fought this move with particular tenacity. The British are making a huge fuss over this anniversary. Should they?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Yes. The reason why it was such an exciting thing is that it was a movement organized both by secular intellectuals, people who were in the spirit of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and by religious figures—Methodists and Evangelicals. They broke down those boundaries. So for me it’s fascinating as a movement because of these stark contrasts between these two groups of people who wouldn’t talk to each other on a lot of other issues. Plus, ending the slave trade was contrary to British economic interests. For all its limitations and hypocrisies—British slavery itself, of course, still continued to exist—I still think it was a great moment in human history.

MJ: What about the role of the West Indian slave rebellions in finally ending slavery there, in the 1830s?

HLG: [Gates proudly points at the wall, to a portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, the greatest of all slave rebellions.] That’s my man! Yes, of course, this was enormously important: the threat of slaves rebelling, slashing someone’s throat and destroying property—whether that meant burning the plantation house or making human property valueless by running away. I think that had an enormous amount to do with ending slavery in the West Indies.

MJ: Let’s look at a more recent step forward, the transition to one-person/one-vote democracy in South Africa in 1994. What made that finally happen? And how big a step was it?

HLG: Well, people like F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid president, and the people around him—those guys didn’t just wake up one day and get the Holy Ghost. They could see the writing on the wall. I imagine them sitting around in some gentlemen’s club, with some of the richest people in South Africa, who said to them: “Look, we can make this transition and preserve our wealth too! Let’s pick the right guys, make them billionaires, and then let Mandela out of jail. We kept him alive for this reason all these years, didn’t we? He’ll be very radical on race, very conservative on economics—what more could we want?” And of course that’s just what happened. I don’t mean to sound cynical. I’m not. I stayed up at night, and I woke my children up, to watch Mandela walk out of prison on TV. It was a great day, but it was complex. These things always are.

A while ago I had dinner at Richard Holbrooke’s house. The editor of Foreign Affairs was there, the editor of the New York Times, etc., a small dinner for a black South African leader. Off the record, it was ______, who’s a friend of mine. And I said to him, in a nice way, “It appears that the redistribution of wealth is focused primarily on creating a small group of oligarchs who are from the elite of the African National Congress.” And he just shamelessly said that it was a necessary step and that over time wealth would trickle down. And I said to him [laughs], “Damn, ______, how much money do you need? South Africa’s going to blow up one day!” In my Africa film series we visited one of the new cinderblock houses they’ve built. A metal roof—in all that heat—no running water, no electricity. I mean, hello, this is housing reform? Huge, huge inequalities like that remain.

MJ: Both abolition and ending apartheid were moral crusades. Do we need one in the United States today?

HLG: Our people have lost their way. The new moral crusade should be dedicated to bridging the class divide that has emerged within the African American community. We now have two self-perpetuating classes: my friends’ kids . . . and a whole lot of others, who haven’t had educational opportunities, haven’t benefited from affirmative action. We have the largest black middle class in our history, but the percentage of black children living at or beneath the poverty line is very similar to that on the day Dr. King was so brutally assassinated. Excuse me? If King came back he would die all over again.

MJ: So how do we solve this problem?

HLG: First we have to recognize that the cause of poverty is both structural and behavioral. And the first thing about the behavior part is that we need a moral revolution within the African American community. Look—no white racist makes you get pregnant when you are a black teenager.

MJ: So why are things like that happening?

HLG: Look at black immigrants landing here in Boston from Haiti who can’t even speak English! After ten years, they own taxi medallions. So it’s not simply a matter of racism. I mean these people are as black as anybody, but they have an immigrant mentality. We need to instill an immigrant mentality back into the African American community. Really, the values under which my generation was raised in the ’50s were immigrant values even though we weren’t immigrants. The greatest thing you could be was a college-educated Negro. My daddy would say right now if we called him on the phone, “You have to be 10 times smarter than the white boy.” He didn’t say, “Woe is me!” or “The white man is the devil!” He said, “You can make it, but you have to be 10 times better and show up ready to work.” If we could do that in the ’50s, four years before Brown v. Board of Education, for goodness sake, and if the Haitians and other West Indians can do it, then we can do it too. It has nothing to do with race. Yes, there’s racism out there, but losing these values has been much worse. I’m not sympathetic to anybody who talks endlessly about how we are victims.

I think we start with education and with the black equivalent of Hebrew schools. Now, my Jewish friends say that Hebrew schools are the worst institution ever created. But when they have children they send them to Hebrew school. Without Hebrew school there wouldn’t be a Jewish people. Anthony [Appiah, Gates’ former Harvard colleague, now a professor at Princeton] and I got grants from foundations, and we started after-school programs teaching computer skills and black history in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cleveland. If kids hung in there we would give them a certificate from the Du Bois Institute at Harvard saying that they had successfully completed the course. They had to do a PowerPoint presentation. And at graduation all of their family would come and they were all women—big mamas in church hats. The first time I went in I got tears in my eyes.

MJ:What else would you do in schools?

HLG: Instill respect for teachers. If I saw Miss Smith, the only black teacher I had in Piedmont High School, right now I’d call her Miss Smith. She’d be 150 years old, but that’s what I’d call her. We have lost values like that. Now, I don’t want to go back to segregated neighborhoods, but I want to re-embrace those values—for the parents as well as the kids. We need two-tier programs: We need to make it possible for unwed mothers who are teenagers or who are illiterate to learn to read and write with their children. So that instead of trying to pluck a child out of an unhealthy environment, a non-reinforcing environment, you change the family environment at the same time you are teaching the child. Why not? I think literacy is everything. Frederick Douglass said, “The first slave to read and write was the first to run away.”

MJ: What other sorts of values are crucial?

HLG: Nuclear families. Working two jobs, like my daddy did: He’d work in the mill all day, then go be a janitor. Careful planning. Deferred gratification. One of those Haitian cab drivers asked me once: “I’m thinking about buying a house and living in one part of it and renting out the rest to pay the mortgage—do you think it is a good idea?” And I go, “How long have you been in this country?” And the guy says, “Two years.” He didn’t spend his money on a Cadillac, he didn’t spend it a Lincoln Continental, he bought a house that was a means of making income! That’s the key. The only reason we are having this conversation is because my mother believed that I could succeed if I worked hard enough and we saved. Leo Durocher would have two outs, bottom of the ninth, maybe be down two runs, have two men on, and he would put Willie Mays at bat and would say, “Willie, I need you to hit a home run, you can do it.” “Yes, Mr. Durocher.” He would knock that home run out. He was hypnotized—and I was hypnotized by my very own private self-esteem machine that was Pauline Augusta Coleman Gates, and we have to figure out how to bottle that and have some for everyone.

MJ: Recently you’ve been in the news for your new TV series tracing the ancestry of prominent African Americans, and you’ve got a new book, Finding Oprah’s Roots: Building an African-American Family Tree. Why this sudden interest of yours?

HLG: It’s not sudden at all. I did that series, to be perfectly candid, to find my own family tree. [He points at the kitchen wall, to a small, framed diagram of his family tree.] I really wanted the very best people ferreting out my ancestors. And I had no idea that those three great-great-great-grandfathers even existed. One of them even fought in the American Revolution! As a free Negro, which is amazing. I have a copy of his pension application that was granted on July 10, 1823. On July 11, 2006, I was inducted in the Sons of the American Revolution. The more I found out about that branch of the family, the more inspired I was and the more self-confident I can feel in this world. It’s probably romantic, but I think knowing about the sacrifices of the people with whom you share DNA, learning how they endured, how they transcended something like slavery, has to be inspiring. I know it is for me. I keep that family tree in the kitchen because every day I come down here and I grind my little coffee beans and I get the Times and I stand at that island and I look up at the names. Every day. How did my ancestor John Redman even get into the First Virginia Regiment of Light Dragoons and train to fight on horseback with a saber? Knowing that he did makes me feel more comfortable with myself.

MJ: What about black Americans who can’t find this kind of documentation?

HLG: You can find virtually everybody black back as far as the 1870 census. Why 1870? That’s when the ex-slaves first have surnames. But if you find your great-great-grandfather in 1870 and it says he’s 50, that means he was born in 1820 and you’re back to 1820 already. For an American that’s pretty damned good, you know? I’ll take that. I got the idea for this series, not because of the genealogy piece but because of the genetics piece. I wanted to do Roots for the 21st century, Roots in a white coat. And I thought that the emotional climax of the series would be when I unveiled the identity of the tribe from which someone’s ancestor had descended. But that wasn’t the climax, the climax was the family tree. “My great grandmother did that…and she had been a slave?” People cried.

[A nurse comes in and begins checking on Gates’ leg, dabbing disinfectant where the metal spokes enter his skin. He immediately pulls her into the conversation. What could she tell about him if interviewed? “I could go on for chapters!” she says cheerfully, and keeps on working.]


MJ: In a couple places in your writing, you talk about the pleasure and necessity of being bilingual. What do you mean by that?

HLG: Look at these black college students today. They’re worried about somebody black jumping in their face and saying, “You’re not black enough. You’re a Harvard kid, a turncoat, a traitor, you speak standard English, you get straight A’s—those are all white things.” And they had to put up with that all their lives, probably. I give a speech to the black freshmen at Harvard each year, and I say, “You can like Mozart and ice hockey . . .”—and then I used to say “golf,” but Tiger took over golf!—“and Picasso and still be as black as the ace of spades. You know, there are 35 million black people in this country and there are 35 million ways to be black.” When I say that, I get a standing ovation. That’s what I mean by being bilingual: comfortable in your skin, comfortable with all parts of who you are.

  • Adam Hochschild, the author of eight books, is a cofounder and current board member of Mother Jones and an instructor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley.

Members like you

Mother Jones is a nonprofit, and stories like this are made possible by readers like you. or to help fund independent journalism.