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Jane Slaughter
Interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard professor
From: Progressive v62, n1 (Jan, 1998):30
Full text used with permission.

Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. is chair of Harvard's Afro-American Studies department. The San Francisco Chronicle calls him "lead player, coach, and general manager of Harvard's 'dream team'" of black intellectuals. Adolph Reed Jr. calls him "a freelance advocate for black centrism." Gates is regularly heaped with praise and scorn as he moves beyond his academic field, English literature, into the public arena.

He will host a BBC/PBS series titled, In Search of the Lost Wonders of the African World. He co-edited the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, destined to be assigned reading for hundreds of thousands of college freshmen. He co-authored The Dictionary of Global Culture. He discovered Our Nig, the first novel in the United States published by a black person. He received a MacArthur "genius" grant. He regularly interviews the famous and powerful for The New Yorker (most recently Elizabeth Dole). He has recruited top black scholars to join him on the Harvard faculty, creating some jealousy and fear that the "dream team"--which includes Cornel West and William Julius Wilson--will become another "Tuskegee Machine," dominating black scholarship as Booker T. Washington's faculty did a century ago.

No wonder that Time magazine put Skip Gates on its list of "Twenty- Five Most Influential Americans."

I first met Louis, as I knew him, in 1965, at church camp in our native state, West Virginia, when I was sixteen and he was a year and a half younger. Although I did remember that round and smiling face, I didn't connect little Louis to the world-renowned scholar until I read his memoir, Colored People. I was in it, just barely, identified as "a white girl" who was dating Louis's friend Eddie, the only other black teenage boy at camp.

I interviewed Gates in his office at Harvard, on the eve of his trip to Timbuktu. As we got going, he talked about Eddie and me, and the hostile climate toward interracial couples at that time.

"We just couldn't touch white girls. That was the big to-do. You couldn't dance with them. You couldn't do any of that stuff, which drove me crazy because, you know, I was a vibrant little guy. So there's old Eddie being Sidney Poitier two years before "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" with you, and I said, Wow, check this out.'"

Q: You've been outspoken about defending affirmative action.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Affirmative action to me is reparations for sexism, reparations for racism. But it's being dismantled. That's scary, and it's depressing. And the most depressing aspect is that a black man is the swing vote on these issues often--that's Clarence Thomas. It really pisses me off, and you can quote me. His attitude [toward the liberals, feminists, and black intellectuals who opposed his nomination] is, "You messed with me, and you didn't kill me. You should have killed me. Now I'm going to kick your ass forever."

What you want is a level playing field. Once you're in there, you want the same privileges, the same opportunities as the white boys. Just like white women do. We all want that. No one has profited more from affirmative action than white women. No one. I remember when none of these places had white women in them--not the board room, not the university. There'd be a handful of white women, and they were all treated like Home Ec majors. We forget that. And that's good affirmative action. Affirmative action really was saying, "We want to diversify the ruling classes in this country. The elite. We want women, we want black people, we want people of color, we want gay people," instead of the white-male privilege that obtained in this country for a couple centuries. That's what it was about. That's why it's come under such an onslaught from Newt and Company.

It's like they were hibernating for a few decades, and they woke up one day, they walked into a room, and they go, "God, how'd these women get in here, how'd these black people get in here? We're gonna shake the tree and all of y'all that can hold on to those branches, you're welcome to stay. But ain't no more of you gonna get in, and if you fall down, your ass is going back to where it was y'all came from."

Q: Your background is as a literary theorist. Back in 1985 you wrote that it was not your 'task as a critic to lead black people to freedom. My task is to explicate black texts." You said that if Jesse Jackson kept his nose out of literary criticism, you'd let him speak for you in the political realm. But you seem to have changed your mind about that. These days, you do comment on all sorts of political issues, from the First Amendment to anti-Semitism. You're taking on the mantle of public intellectual. What made you change your mind?
Gates: I still feel what I said in 1985 is true, that you don't have to be politically engaged to be an academic--no matter if you're black, if you're lesbian, no matter what. I don't think it necessarily comes with the territory. If you want to change the world, you don't think of getting a Ph.D. in English as the most direct route to doing that.

But a handful of black people who teach at places like this have a tremendous amount of public visibility and they have a lot of power, a lot of potential authority Particularly for someone who has my administrative role. In addition to being a professor, I'm chairman of the department and director of the DuBois Institute. I'm called upon a lot to make pronouncements about things, often things I don't know anything about. So I try and use that access, that bully pulpit, carefully and wisely.

It used to be there was one black leader. Now we have all sorts of pockets of leadership--Wall Street, the medical profession, academics. We're much more dispersed than we used to be in the 1960s. There was a pyramid. There was King at the top, there was a bunch of people under him trying to bump him off, but everyone believed in that pyramidal structure. Now, there are more peaks and valleys. You have little mountains of power, and I'm on one of those mountains, the academic mountain. There's a lot of us there, and we're all called upon to speak out in different ways. We don't have to agree. We don't coordinate our opinions with each other. There's much more diversity allowed.

Q: From your position on one of the mountains, what impact would you like to have on American culture or politics or both?
Gates: First and last point of reference is the creation of a great center of African and African American Studies. That's what I was trained to do. I have to take care of business so that it's endowed, so that 100 years from now, your great-granddaughter and my great-granddaughter are having this conversation. And that's a lot of work.

After that, if there's anything left over, figuring out with Cornel West and William Julius Wilson and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and my other colleagues how race and class really work in America.

I don't think anybody really knows that. See, I think Marx got some stuff greatly right, got some stuff magnificently wrong. There's not going be a socialist revolution. OK, how do you humanize capitalism? How do you de-race it, de-sex it, how do you overcome centuries of sexism and centuries of racism, in the process of humanizing a global, highly technological, multinational corporate capitalism, which is here to stay? That's the challenge.

In none of these books [he gestures toward his crowded shelves] is this figured out. We have to do it. I mean we and people like us, people like you, people like me. I want to create a place where really smart people can interact. It's something I think I can do. I might not get to the mountaintop with them, but I want to pave the way and provide the trucks.

Q: You mention that the way President Clinton's "national conversation on race" is set up presupposes that we're still back in the 1950s and 1960s.
Gates: Before the Civil Rights Act was passed, we were at war, so there was more of a sense of urgency about projecting the image of a unified group of subjugated people. Now, if you're black and in the upper- middle class, you can live like white people.

Still, could I have been Rodney King? Of course. Am I still subject to pernicious white racism? Of course I am. But can I live where I want, marry who I want, travel where I want, make as much money as my imagination? Absolutely. In contrast, there are people living out on the streets. Forty-five percent of all black children live at or beneath the poverty line, almost identical to the figure the day King was killed. Yet the black middle class has quadrupled.

You have these twin paradoxical realities working against each other, and that's the tension that forced me to move from the position of defending the right of a scholar to be isolated and solipsistic, to now feeling compelled to speak out about some issues. I think it's welcome to have the American public talk about racial differences and discrimination, but the real issue is scarcity. That's an economic issue masking itself often in America as a racial issue. That's a conversation that no one is yet ready to have.

Q: You're talking more about class than you used to.
Gates: Yeah, I'm surrounded by Cornel West and William Julius Wilson; I don't have a lot of choice. My argument is that you have the black middle class and working class, and then you have this black underclass. And class is as important, often it's more important in one's daily life, than race, even within the black community.

The issues that are most pertinent to my friends are very different than what is pertinent to the actual daily-life choice of someone living in Roxbury or Harlem. My friends don't want to lose their middle-class status through white racism. Or they worry about the glass ceiling-- feeling that they don't have equal access to the perquisites of middle- class success.

I think the best thing that we can hope for is to change the bell curve of class, to invert a popular metaphor. Under a capitalist system there's going to be rich people, and there should be a big middle- class/working-class bulge, and then there should be a small group of poor people. That's my fantasy.

And I want enough social safety net so that nobody has to go without medicine and food and shelter. I think the state should provide for people that can't provide for themselves. I think that the state should train people. I think that we owe everybody an education. I think that people who are lazy should be punished, right? I don't like that. I don't think that people should be rewarded for not working, if they have a choice. But I think that we have to provide for the people that can't work.

I'm saying that a more humane form of capitalism is about the best I think we can get. Which might sound very reformist or conservative, but that's basically where I am.

Q: And you're very upfront about it. Why do you reject any more radical possibility?
Gates: I never was a socialist. Never. When I was nineteen, I went to live in Tanzania, because it was a socialist country, and I wanted to see socialism. It was the closest thing to African socialism, called ujamaa. It means unity in Swahili. I lived in an ujamaa village, and it was boring to me.

I just think that fantasy is dead. But I never embraced it. I like individual initiative. I think Bill Gates has the right to make $50 billion, if he's smart enough to figure all that stuff out.

I think we should have laws that keep people from being exploited. We have laws already about monopolies and anti-trust. But I don't think that you can limit what an individual can do. You work hard; if you can do it, knock yourself out. That's what this country was built upon, and I think it's good. What I didn't like, and in fact what the civil-rights movement was based upon, was that we didn't have the same access. I looked at a tape of King the other day, talking about what happened in 1865 when the Civil War ended. People in the Reconstructionist Congress were demanding forty acres and a mule for the newly freed slaves, and everybody talked about how un-American that would be, to redistribute the land. Yet at the same time, they were opening up the West. If you could run there and put a stake down, it was yours. But they didn't let us run. What we wanted was what everyone else had access to.

Q: I liked your article in The New Republic in which you criticized the hell out of the people who are pushing hate-speech codes on campus.
Gates: People do bad things, things they know that are bad, for what they feel at the moment were good reasons. One is to institute speech codes. Trample all over the First Amendment, the right of free speech, because we decide that using certain language hurts our fellow human beings--it demeans their humanity. While that might seem like a good idea, the long-term consequences on the right to free expression are far greater than whatever immediate hurt or pain a woman would feel for being called a bitch or a black would feel for being called a nigger. If we're talking about actual physical harm, laws against that exist already. It's not worth it to me to assuage the pain by killing off the First Amendment.

Speech codes are symbolic acts. They let a group of people say, "This symbolizes that we at the University of Wisconsin are not the sort of community where we would tolerate someone saying the word 'rigger."' Well, big deal. But there are other symbolic consequences, like what's the effect on freedom of inquiry. I think we're all bigger and more secure than that. I think we have to allow people to say even unpopular things and nasty things in order to protect the right of us to attack our government and say whatever's on our minds.

Q: When you write about the people who are pushing hate-speech codes, you criticize them for wanting "not to resist power, but to enlist power-- in this case, the power of the college administration." You contrast that with the activists of the 1960s--you were one--who defined themselves in a "proudly adversarial relation to authority." But wouldn't you say that "enlisting power" is your outlook as well?
Gates: Yes, but the way we do it is different. Audre Lorde and I were friends. She said, famously, "You can't dismantle the master's house using the master's tools." I believe you can only dismantle the master's house using the master's tools. Essentially I like the shape of the house, I just think it needs some more rooms in it, maybe a couple more wings. That's a very different kind of strategy than theirs.

You don't hate me for being a capitalist, do you?.


Jane Slaughter is a labor journalist in Detroit.

© 1998, Jane Slaughter.


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