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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."

| Wed Mar. 14, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

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.

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