Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr.
Laughter breaks into his conversation as freely as heat rises in a chilly room. Yet when Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. is serious, his tone of voice, expressions, and gestures punctuate a surge of speech that quickens and retards to embellish his carefully chosen words. He was born and reared in Piedmont, W.Va., and earned his undergraduate degree at Yale, and graduate credentials at the University of Cambridge in England before embarking on a career as an English professor. Over the past 20 years he has published more essays, books, and articles — and amassed more academic prizes and honors — than most scholars his age have strands of hair.His critics accuse him of being too elitist, overextended, and too flamboyant. Meanwhile, fans fawn over to his prolific scholarship, his ingenuity, and his compassionate demeanor. Whether one loves or hates him, the fact is that in less than a decade, this erudite 48-year-old has transformed Harvard’s once ailing Afro-American studies department into the envy of scholars in all sorts of disciplines. As a screenwriter of three films, a contributing editor at the New Yorker, and a founding partner of Afropedia, Inc. — which owns the editorial content of the new Encarta Africana — Gates also is giving new meaning to the monikers “public intellectual” and “scholarly entrepreneur.” The following is excerpted from a conversation Black Issues editors had with Gates on the status of Black studies — at Harvard and throughout the academy — the changing image of African American intellectuals, and managing a high-speed intellectual career at the threshold of the 21st century.
You’ve said you wanted to do the Encarta Africana to fulfill the vision of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois. What lessons have you learned in fulfilling that vision?A lot of people ask us, “What are you doing for the Black man and the Black community?” People don’t understand that there are many ways to serve…. [Dr.] Anthony [Appiah] and I have spent three years killing ourselves to do this encyclopedia, from the time we first got the green light to do a demo to right now. That’s a lot of time when we couldn’t be in YMCAs, or be in Big Brothers programs, or something like that. But this [Encarta Africana] will reach millions of Black kids — millions, literally.
When you say “we” and “let’s” it seems to transcend the traditional scholarly academic realm. Is that something you set out to do?The answer is yes, but you can’t do that at every school. I had the same ideas at Duke [University], but nobody was interested….At Harvard, they have always had a tradition of public intellectuals. It has this different kind of relationship to the public arena than a lot of schools, so it’s ideal for the kind of people that we have been able to attract. [William Julius] Wilson and [ Cornel] West are very much public intellectuals, as are the Higginbothams and Larry Bobo. And then we have more traditional scholars like Werner Sollors, who is German, is a great scholar, and doesn’t have much of a public function. We wanted a department consisting of both kinds of scholars.All we want is smart people. We don’t care if they are left or right, ideologically…. It’s not about ideology. It’s about excellence, it’s about scholarship — and it’s got to be that way.I think that too many African American studies departments have tried to politicize themselves because they want to bridge the gap between the academy and the inner city, the academy and the community, just like snapping your fingers. You can’t do it like that. The scholar can do things that affect a large number of people, but there are processes of mediation….My point is that without new solutions provided by people like Wilson and West, and working with people throughout the country, we won’t know what to do to solve the problems inflicting the Black community.
Race was what African Americans traditionally bonded around. But as race becomes less and less a common denominator, what holds us together?Common culture. Richard Wright predicted in 1937 that Negro literature, as he put it, would disappear once the civil rights movement reached its culmination. The only reason it existed, he said, was because of segregation.Well, look at Tony Morrison. In an interview now, she will say, “I am a Black writer first. I’m an African American writer first. I don’t want to be just a raceless writer.”Well, I’m saying that is a marked difference between Tony Morrison and Richard Wright. The point is that we choose willingly to embrace Black American culture…. I haven’t met that many Black people who really want to be raceless and take Black culture and give it all up…. I think the other thing most people want is not to be called an Uncle Tom or Aunt Jane. They don’t want somebody telling them that they are not Black enough. We went through that in the 1960s, with somebody jumping in your chest and telling you that your dashiki wasn’t long enough and your Afro wasn’t long enough. I think that was one of the worst moments in the history of our people. And it’s one of the reasons that I try to embrace the widest diversity of ideologies that I can possibly embrace. …
Could this have happened at NYU or UCLA or Berkeley or somewhere else like that? Or is there something about Harvard that makes a person give up a kingdom and come to the republic of Harvard?I think that the fact that Harvard has so many resources and a lot of cache makes it very attractive. Harvard has the highest average faculty salary in the United States … and they have very few distinctions between people. So essentially, everybody makes the same amount of money and you don’t have the jealousy over money.To have Cornel [West] leave a kingdom to join a republic, that is bad…. He was the chair of Afro-American studies [at Princeton University] and had his own department. He gave it up to come here and just be a faculty member. That’s a bad thing. And if Cornel gave up a kingdom, [William Julius] Wilson gave up an empire!Secondly, all of these people get a lot of play. It’s a very democratic group of people. We like each other, we cover each other — you know, it’s great.
Is it an example of the old maxim that you would be surprised how much can get done if nobody cares who gets the credit?I’m an intellectual entrepreneur. I love building institutions. I think that if DuBois had more of Booker T. Washington’s institution-building capacity, his legacy would have been more powerful. And if Washington had had more of DuBois’ intellectual capacity — well, you know what I’m trying to say. If each had more of what the other one had, it would have been better for all of our people.
Did you model this Afro-American studies department after something else in academia?Yes, I modeled it after the program in Afro-American studies at Yale, between 1973 and 1981, when [Dr.] Charles Davis ran it. That was really my proving ground.I loved this guy and I wanted to be just like him. But his was a program, not a department, which meant that you couldn’t get your own tenure. And I knew that was a bad idea because you don’t have any control. At Harvard, we can tenure anybody we want, as long as we all vote for it.Then I studied the history of disciplines in the academy. Kids nowadays, when they first come in here, they think that God or Plato created the chemistry department or the sociology department. Most of the departments are less than 100 years old. Some are still highly controversial, like sociology. There are still people who think that sociology is not a real field….My point is that when people complain about the creation of a new discipline, they call it bogus. They forget that all disciplines have a history. So when you study those histories, you realize that all of them were controversial in their time….The fact that Black studies was young and new didn’t mean that it was dishonest or bogus. It just meant that it was young and new, and that it was arbitrary. You know, there is nothing inevitable about sociology or chemistry. They were all part of some larger field and then got singled out. Just like Afro-American studies was a part of a lot of other disciplines — we just extracted the Black element out of there.
So then in the evolution of academic disciplines, is there a consensus out there that Harvard’s approach is the model?Not everybody agrees with that. This is just one of the models. I like our model. I think you have to be a department. I think you have to be nonideological. We also have a community component and a social policy component. But as important as I think that is, the only way you’ll have a great academic department at a university is to have scholars, people who write books. That is the final measure: writing books and your excellence in teaching — in that order. We may not like that, but that’s the way it is.
So how do you decide what is the right balance when you’re thinking about what people you want to bring into this department?The twin pillars of Afro-American studies in the humanities are history and literature; in the social sciences, sociology and political science — here it is called government. So we have two brilliant sociologists, Bill Wilson and Larry Bobo. We have me and Werner Sollors teaching literature, but Cornel and Anthony teach literature, too. So we are in literature like crazy….Then we wanted music, so we’ve had the Quincy Jones visiting professorship of African American music and we have been looking at people and we hope to make a permanent appointment very soon…. The history of art, that’s very, very important to us…But we have a rule here. You have to publish at least two books, or you can’t come…. When you show up at this place, you’ve got to be ready. It’s like playing with the [Chicago] Bulls. At Harvard, when you stand up in the faculty meeting and speak, you have to know what you’re talking about. You have to be a serious scholar. And nobody is interested in any excuses….So we have an intellectual plan. We’re not just trying to find that individual who is smart and bring him in. They have to fit into the larger structure.
But is it all going to be in the humanities?No, half in the humanities and half in the social sciences. We’re going to do a search for a political scientist next year. We’ve got two sociologists, and we just tenured [Dr.] Randy Matory — who became the first Black person to make it up through the ranks in 30 years here at Harvard. He’s in anthropology and he writes on Arabic culture in the Old World and the New World. So, ideally, we have half in the social sciences and half in the humanities.
So when are you going to add the next woman to this team?Well, that’s crucial — the most urgent. We played a major role in recruiting Lani Guinier. She’s on the board of [the DuBois] institute. But we plan to search for someone for our African American art professorship, and I’m sure we’ll find a woman there. We’d like to have had some department women. I mean, that’s what the goal is. It’s illegal to say, “[Wanted:] White or Black women,” and so what we try to do is find the best person in a given field.
Can the long arm of this institution reach to the HBCUs and the community colleges — and in some kind of way get them involved with the solution-oriented mix?Well, I think that with HBCUs it’s easier than with community colleges, so let’s talk about them.Cornel and I called for, in the “Introduction to the future of the Race,” working with historically Black colleges through these internship programs. I think that would be great if we get these kids cross-pollinating each other and forming a leadership class beyond the Ivy League on the one hand, and beyond the historically Black colleges and universities on the other…. We hope that some HBCU interns will end up coming to graduate school here and some of our kids will go to graduate school in places like that…. If people realize that if they just partner with one another instead of viewing everybody as a threat, together we could have more power.But I’m not interested in showing up and having somebody tell me that our political game is too conservative, because I’m going to walk away…. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in working with people who are more like us. People who are not going to say, because I like to wear suits, I’m not Black; or since my wife is White, I’m not Black. I don’t put up with that. That, to me, is vulgar.
A lot of people worry that you are spread so thin, and you’re doing so much. How do you do all of this?First of all, they’re right — because there are not enough of us, and there are not enough hours. But I exercise, I really try to take care of myself…. Like my father says, I love me. That is my family mantra…. Also, I’m very disciplined. If you have my constitution, you feel like you’re always behind. I don’t feel like I’m a failure, but I feel like there’s so much stuff that I haven’t done. And it’s no false modesty, it’s just what drives my engine — that and the fact that I’m trying to run and keep up with the great marathon runners….I work almost every day. I write in the morning. And if I haven’t started by noon, it ain’t going to happen because then I come over here and take care of my administrative duties. … And I never work at night…. Basically, people know my schedule and I’ll say I’m just not free in the mornings….I tell everybody who comes here, “You work for Harvard. You have multiple employers, but your first employer, and most important, is Harvard. So you have to satisfy the obligations of Harvard…” Wilson has this other life, Cornel has this other life, Anthony has his other life — we all do. Writing is mine. That is the thing that I like the best. And building — I love the fact that you can have an idea and actually see it come to fruition.
What about the future? Are you going to do this for the duration?I can’t imagine leaving Harvard. I have a kind of funny life now where I can do other things. I can sneak out and sneak back in. So I could flirt with making films and then I can come back. I can be a journalist and I can come back.
And be a celebrity?I think that the biggest surprise of my career is that a scholar of African American studies could have a life as a public figure. That is amazing to me.It’s not true of only me. Look at Bill Wilson. That’s a bad brother. And you know Cornel is going to get one of these medals. The point is, it’s a phenomenon larger than the individuals, and I think a lot of people in the field don’t realize it. We’re just going on about our business in the broader field of Afro-American studies, and our critics in the field don’t have to be like us, but a rising tide lifts all boats.If Harvard is investing millions of dollars in Afro-American studies, all these other schools will, too. Their peer institutions will, because they can’t afford not to…. And there’s enough room for all these other Black studies departments.You can’t just go any more and hold a gun to some White guy’s head and expect then to write a check. Those days are over. You have to make people realize that the issues that affect Black people around the world, are not peripheral to the life of the mind.
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