Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Colored People
On behalf of the Cambridge Public Library Board of Trustees I want to welcome you to this evening's presentation. Before we begin I also want to recognize and thank Carol Withrow and the Cambridge Reid's advisory board for their many contributions to this evening's success. Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alfonse Fletcher University professor and director of the WPB Dubois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He holds degrees from Yale University and Clare College the University of Cambridge England. Including a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature. The list of his accomplishments runs in intimidating 16 pages a man of both the 20th and 21st centuries. Professor Gates has embraced new technologies in media in the dissemination of his
research. He co-edited the encyclopedia and carda Africana which was published on CD-ROM in 1999. He is the editor in chief of The Oxford African-American Studies Center the first scholarly online news magazine dedicated to the coverage of African American news culture and genealogy. He wrote and produced multiple documentaries including. African-American Lives. Wonders of the African world America behind the color line and Oprah's Roots he was named by Ebony magazine as one of the 100 most influential influential black Americans in 2005 and is one of the 25 most influential Americans by Time magazine. In 1997. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981. And apparently has an honorary degree from everywhere. In his
personal essay to Yale University. Skippy Gates wrote. My grandfather was colored. My father was negro and I am black as many of you now from his acclaimed PBS series African-American Lives. That statement was just the beginning. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has spent his life unearthing the rich and tangled history of African-Americans from his academic works such as figures in black. Words signs and the racial self. To the very personal narrative of Colored People and everything in between. Professor Gates has explored the ever changing truths and myths. Of our nation's and the world's understanding of African peoples and their legacies. The story of the gates and Coleman families of life in Piedmont West Virginia in the 1950s and 60s
and Skippy Gates evolution into the man before us today is both typical and unique. He grew up in a time of dramatic change that witnessed the legal integration of schools and accommodations and upheaval in social conventions and institutions. The decline of industrial America. And the assassinations of a civil rights leader a senator. And President. His biography and genealogy are inextricably linked. The new to the nuanced insights he brings to the subject of race in America. He is singularly able to transcend the invisible barriers between ivory tower and life on the streets between high culture and pop culture and between American history and African-American history. This morning I was privileged to hear Professor Gates speak to Cambridge Rindge in Latin students at our new main library.
I witnessed first hand his ability to engage an audience to distill complex issues without diluting them and to confront our troubled history with equanimity and appreciation of the absurd. We are fortunate to call him our neighbor and our friend. Please join me in welcoming Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.. Thank you. Thank you for that warm welcome. Thank you Susan for that marvelous introduction. I am. This is the first thing you know I just live. Everybody now knows where I live. And I want you know I'm in. Yeah I did think about moving this summer. But I decided that. I come from a long line of proud people. It wasn't to let anybody drive me out of my house. And my favorite neighborhood so I'm staying.
In fact I'm in discussions with Harvard to buy the house and renovated. So I'm really excited about that. But this morning I was able to walk down the street and go to the new library Susan's library and it was spectacular. You really have to see Isn't it great to live in a community that would spend 90 million dollars not for a football field but for a library. I mean isn't that great. Tony. And this is a fantastic honor. I mean Cambridge reads the fact that I'm a homeboy is my 19th year here. I figure people say oh man we read you. You know you round here all the time I see a Broadway Market in Starbucks. But the fact that you all would read my book and then be come out of an evening this late when you could be home watching. You know CNN who's a madman who was just quitting is on at 7:00 every night at CNN and talks about the immigrants a black in his name but you know who I'm talking.
Oh yeah. Did I dream it or did he say he's going to he's going to stop right now. I woke up and I thought Damn that's a fantasy. Well anyway good luck to him I hope he wins public office or whatever. But this is great. It gives me an opportunity to read colored people. I haven't read it publicly for a few years so we're supposed to get 30 minutes 30 minutes right. OK you give me the 5 thing. Want to read you three excerpts. And then where are you going to come up and would take questions. You can ask whatever questions you want but this is a great great honor for me. So thank you. I do want to read from the preface. I want to tell you I wrote this book. I went to the Rockefeller Foundation has a research center on Lake Como Lalgudi Como it's near Milan and it's a bolides Hill. And you know you're there for six weeks I think in my day you were there for six weeks and I
said that I was going to write an introduction to the collected essays of Zora Neale Hurston because you need a project that you can actually do in six weeks. So I had all this material ones or Neale Hurston and every scholar there the the Rockefeller Center is in a villa in your house in the villa. There are about a dozen scholars I can't remember how many were there. I drank too much wine all day long because I was in Italy right. I can't remember. But you have your own study and the studies located outside of the villa. And mine was called the Badoo to which means the view in Italy because it was a silo shaped building and it looked out on the lakes where they took these two lakes met. So it had this fantastic view this fantastic Vista. And as I was walking up this hill. Toward my study on the first day I looked out across the lake and I saw a man dragging a fishing boat. And I immediately immediately a memory flashed. In my
mind and it was of my Uncle Jim. Nimo in the book and he was pulling a fishing boat. Now as you know I grew up on the Potomac River Piedmont is halfway between Washington and Pittsburgh. And he loved to fish and you know that from the book and he loved to hunt. And as I was wanting to write this essay to start this introduction this is about Zora Neale Hurston. I was so moved by how much the picture the sight of this man pulling this vote this boat into the water reminded me of my my Uncle Jim that I went into the voodoo to and in those days and now right on the computer. But in those days I wrote actually until about two years ago I wrote everything in longhand on yellow legal paid. Legal paper and I sat down July 10th 1992 and I wrote a letter to Magny gates and Lysa Gates telling them that I was walking up the hill to a study called the voodoo tower and one day this is the first draft of this book will be in some library and people can
actually read this. And I was so moved by this recollection of my favorite uncle that I wanted them to know about him. And I looked up. In a couple of hours had written 25 pages. And I thought wow this feels pretty good. And the next day I went back. Then the break for lunch you know and I said about wine you know like it was Italy so you can't possibly have la vino. So this is a I didn't write anymore that day. But the next day early on I got up I had espresso I had like the same bra. I like hard boiled egg. I like bread. I like butter and jam and fresh oranges. And I got up the next day had that breakfast flew up to the producer. And I wrote another letter to make it myself. And at the end of the six weeks I had written this whole book. The first draft of this whole book was all in the form of letters to Maggie gates and lies. Gates actually wrote it for weeks. I lost about 15 pounds. Now I don't know how I lost about 50. You know you're just in the zone. So
after two weeks I had to get out buy a new wardrobe down in Milan. You know how would. I need a clothes. You don't have to look good. And when I got back I would. In those days what would we do. I would Xerox the legal pads and then FedEx. The originals to Joe and my secretary back here in Harvard Square. And when I came back I told her don't send them to me. I don't want to see him. I don't want to stop the flow because I didn't know when it was going to run out and when I came back she gave me this you know a 400 page manuscript all typed. And each chapter was dated July 10th July 11th July 12th. And it was all in the form of letters. So I had also had to make copies or send it to my agent. Tina Bennett that Janklow announcement. And when I got back she said you know this is this is going to be good but you have to take it out of the epistolary form the letter form because she said how old are your daughters. And I said you know 10 and 12 and they said she said this book is full of sex. People are going to think you're a pervert.
Now you know. And I said sex in a sex in this book. Look my my adolescence. Ladies and gentlemen was long on desire and short on consummates. There was no sex in it. There was the light would be sex. But she said if I read it and I said no you're APS-C right. And all that remains of the original epistolary form is as you so eloquently said the preface. And I want to read that to you first. Dear Maggie in Lizer I've written to you because a world into which I was born in a world that nurtured and sustained me has mysteriously disappeared. My darkest fear is that Piedmont West Virginia will cease to exist if some executives on Park Avenue decide that it's more profitable to build a completely new paper mill elsewhere. You know when you grow up in a small town there are only two places in the world elsewhere and home elsewhere is the capital. It doesn't matter if it's five miles away or New York City
is elsewhere there to build a completely new paper bill elsewhere than to haul one a century old. Then they will close it just as they did down in Cumberland Maryland which is where the gators are from. With the Celanese and Pittsburgh plate glass and the Kelly Springfield tire company our town will not die. Our town will die. But our people will not move. They will not be moved because for them Piedmont West Virginia snuggled between the Allegheny Mountains and Tolmach River Valley is life itself. I've written you because of the day when we were driving home and you ask your mother and me just exactly what the civil rights movement had been all about. And I pointed to. We lived in Lexington and before we moved to Harvard Square and I pointed to a motel on Route 2 and said that at one time I couldn't have stayed there. Your mother my ex-wife was white. Your mother could have stayed there. But your mother couldn't have stayed there with me and I looked up in the rearview mirror. They were strapped in the back and they just looked at each other roll their eyes like oh my God you know who's good who's going to believe that ever existed
right. And you kids looked at us like we were telling you the biggest lie you ever heard. So I thought about writing to you about that. And I've written for another reason. I remember that once we were walking in Washington heading for the National Zoo and you asked me if I'd known the man to whom I'd just spoken. And I said no and he volunteered that you found it embarrassing that I would speak to a complete complete stranger on the street. It called to mind a trip I'd made to Pittsburgh with my father. On the way from his friend Mr Azi Washington sister's house. I heard Daddy speak to a colored man and saw him tip his hat to the man's wife. Daddy liked nice hats Caterpillar hats for work Dobbs heads for Sunday. It's just something that you do he said. When I asked him if he'd known those people and why in the world he had spoken to them last summer. I sat in the sidewalk cafe in Italy I in Milan and two were and three or four black Italians walk casually by as well as a
dozen or more black or Africans. Each spoke to me rather each nodded his head slightly or acknowledge me by a glance ever so slightly. When I was growing up we always did this with each other. Passing boats in a sea of white folk. Yet there were certain negroes who would avoid acknowledging you in this way in an integrated setting. Especially if the two of you were the ones doing the integrating. Don't go over there with those white people. Are you going to do as Jim Crow yourselves. Daddy must have said that to be a thousand times. And I think by that that he meant that we shouldn't cling to each other out of habit or fear or use protective coloration to evade the risks of living like any other human being or use clannishness as a copout for exploring ourselves and possibly making new selves forged in the crucible of integration. Because your black ass he laugh is integrated already but there are other reasons that people distrust the reflex the knive the glance the
murmur in greeting. One reason is a resentment at being lumped together with 30 million African-Americans whom you don't know and most of whom you will never know completely by the accident of racism. We have been bound together with people with whom we may or may not have something in common just because we are black quote unquote. Thirty million Americans are black and 30 million is a lot of people. One day you wonder what do the misdeeds of Mike Tyson have to do with me. So why do I feel implicated and how can I not feel racial recrimination when I feel racial pride. Then too there were negroes who were embarrassed about being negroes who didn't want to be bothered with race or with other black people. One of the more painful things about being colored was being colored in public around other colored people who are embarrassed to be colored and embarrassed that we both were colored and in public at the same time. As if to say Negro you police disappeared so that I could get my own white people as if to say I'm not a Negro like other negroes as if to say I'm a human
being. Just let me be for much of my adolescence and adulthood. I thought of these people as having betrayed the race. I used to walk up to them and call them brother or sister. Loud and with a sardonic edge when they look like they were trying to escape as we used to put it. When I went off to college I would make the conversion of errant classmates a serious project a political commitment. I used to reserve my special scorn for those negroes who were always being embarrassed by someone else. In the race someone too dark someone too loud as we would put it someone wrong as we would put it. Someone who dared to wear red in public. Loud and wrong. We used to say that about each other all the time that niggers loud and wrong. You see loud carried a triple meaning speaking too loudly dressing too loudly and just being too loud. Now I know that when I was a boy many negroes would have been the first to censure other negroes once they had been admitted
into all white neighborhoods or schools or clubs. An embarrassment to the race. Phrases that sort were bandied about. Accordingly many of us in our generation engaged in strange antics to flout those strictures like eating watermelon in public eating it loudly and merrily and spitting the seeds right out into the middle of the street. Red juice running down the sides of Archie collecting on your iTunes or taking the greatest pride in what we used to call the royal kink. Afro my Uncle Harry used to say he didn't like watermelon. After he. Well my uncle here used to say he didn't even like watermelon which I knew was a lie because I used to see him walk down slices of watermelon when I was a little kid before he went off to seminary in the early fifties at Boston University. But Uncle Harry came around just like you came around the pain and God and Jesus black and all the séraphin and the Cherubim too. And I from another direction have gradually come around also and stop trying to tell other negroes how to be black. Girls. Remember when your mother and I
woke you up early on a Sunday morning just to watch Nelson Mandela walk out of prison and how it took a couple of hours for him to emerge and how you both wanted to go back to bed. And then when that didn't work to watch cartoons instead. And how we began to worry that something bad had happened to Mandela on the way out of that prison because that DeLay had been so long. And when he finally walked out of that prison how we were so excited and teary eyed and Mandela's nobility his prince of illness his straight back. His unbowed head. I think I felt that there was the negro as Pop might have said there was the whole of the African people as regal as any king. And that feeling I had that gooseflesh sense of identity that I felt at seeing Nelson Mandela or listening to my Hellyeah Jackson sing or watching Muhammad Ali fight or hearing Martin Luther King speak is part of what I mean by being colored. I realized that sentiment may not be logical but I want to have my cake and eat it too which is why I still not speak to black people on the streets and why it felt so good to be
acknowledged by those Afro Italians who passed my table at that cafe in my life. I want to be able to take special pride in the Jessye Norman Aryeh of Muhammad Ali shuffle Michael Jordan slam dunk a spike lee movie at Thurgood Marshall legal opinion Toni Morrison novel James Brown doing the camerawork above all I enjoyed the unselfconscious moments of shared cultural intimacy. Whatever form they may take when no one else is watching we know white people are around like Joe Lewis is quites which my father still talks about as part of the fixed repertoire of stories that texture our lives. You've seen his eyes shining as he describes how Lewis hit Mac smelling so many times and so hard in how some reporter asked him after the fight. Joe what would you have done if that last punch had knocked smelling out. And how old Joe responded without missing a beat. I don't run around behind him to see what was holding him up. Even so I rebelled at the notion that I can't be part of other groups that I can't construct identities through elective
affinities that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that I'm one of my gravestone. Here lies in African-American so I'm divided. I want to be black to know but black to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time. But to do so in order to come out the other side. To experience a humanity that is neither a collarless nor reducible to color. Bach and James Brown. Sushi and fried catfish. Part of a part of me admires those people can say with a straight face that they have transcended any attachment. To a particular community or group. But I always want to run around behind them to see what holds them up. I am not every negro I'm not native to the great black metropolis is New York or Chicago or L.A. saying nor can I claim to be a citizen of the world. I am from and of a time and place. Piedmont West Virginia. And that's a world apart
a world of difference. So this is not a story of a race but a story of a village a family and its friends and of a sort of segregated peace. What hurt me most about the glorious black awakening from the late 60s and early 70s is that so many of us lost our sense of humor. Many of us thought that enlightened politics excluded it. In your lifetimes girls I suspect you will go for you will go from being African-Americans to people of color to being once again colored people. The linguistic trend toward Condon's condensation is strong. I don't mind any of the names myself but I have to confess that I like coloured best. Maybe because when I hear the word I hear it in my mother's voice and in the sepia tones of my childhood. As artlessly and as honestly as I can. I have tried to evoke a coloured world in the 50s and Negro world of the early sixties and the advent of a black world of the later sixties. From the point of view of the boy
that I was. When you were old enough to read what follows. I hope that it brings you even a small measure of understanding. At long last of why we see the world with such different eyes and why that is for me a source both of gladness. And regret. And I hope that you'll understand why I continue to speak to colored people that I pass on the streets. Thank you very much. OK Callie how am I doing. How many minutes. I have. Five. Ten. I got to read two to two other parts. Ok I'll cut this one now. If only Maggie could have seen mamma when she'd stand up to read the minutes of the previous meetings of the PTA because in 1957 mama was elected the first colored secretary of the PTA. I used to get dressed up after dinner and we walked down to the
high school with mama over in the orchard. I'd sit near the front so I'd get a good view and then Betty Kimmel the PTA president would ask mom to read the minutes and Mama dressed to kill in that gold dress the one on the big pay off TV show would stand up and read those minutes. It was poetry pure poetry she'd read each word beautifully. Each syllable spoken roundly but without the hypercorrection of negroes who make again rhyme with rain before Mama started reading the minutes colored people never even joined the PTA. But she was a leader. They were still scared but they wouldn't let mama down. They had to represent color as they say and just get on with it. And so they dress up to the women and traipse on over to the PTA just to see mama read her minutes just to represent the race. Just let those white people know that we was around here to just be proud that one of us could do it. No more beautiful woman than my mama existed. So it seemed to me when she read aloud her own careful
script she had shiny black sparkling eyes a light inside would come on when she performed. Stylish stylish. All the men used to say that standing on the bank corner while mom and I walk by head held high and acknowledging the riffraff without being too interested or too rude about it. My mom and Nusi look good. As a child I was secure in her knowledge of things of how to do things and function in the world of how to be in the world and command respect in her courage. I was safe. She was even afraid of dogs like I was not even brownie the drain spaniel or spotty The Wilsons crazy Barker or even Muggsy the brindle was standing on his two hind legs and ripped open the shoulder by flight jacket. When I was eight years old but most important of all from Piedmont and from me. She didn't seem to fear white people. She simply she simply hated them. Hated them with a passion that she seldom disclosed. There were rare occasions when I would look into her
face and see there a stranger. In 1959 when I was nine Mike Wallace and CBS aired a documentary about the Black Muslims. It was called the hate that hate produced. And these are just about the scariest black people that I've ever seen. Black people talk right into the faces of white people telling them off without even blinking while I sat cowering in the corner of our living room. I happened to glance over at my mother. A certain radiance was slowly transforming her soft brown face as she listened to Malcolm X calling the white man the devil a man she said quietly at first. All right now see continued much more heatedly. All this time and I hadn't known just how deeply my mother despised white people. It was like watching the Wicked Witch of the West emerge out of the transforming features of d'Arthur. The revelation was both terrifying and thrilling. The same thing would happened several years later with the Martin Luther King riots were shown on television. The first colored secretary of the Piedmont PTA watched the flames with dancing eyes but
mama was practical as well as proud. Her attitude was that she and Daddy would provide the best for us so that no white person could put us down and keep us out for reasons of appearance color aside. The rest was up to us. Once we got in those all white places like school which desegregated without a peep in 1955. Remember this is the year after Brown v. Board the year before I started first grade. Otherwise she didn't care to live in white neighborhoods or be around white people because white people she said were dirty. They tasted right out of pots on the stove only some kind of animal were the lowest order of trash whatever taissa out of a pot on the stove. Anybody would manage do that. Even colored people without manners knew that it was white people who didn't know that. If you're cooking momma would say and wanted to check your seasoning. You take the big wooden spoon you use for stirring place some stew or whatever it is in a cup or a small bowl and then with a separate spoon or fork. Have a taste tasting right out of a pot was almost as bad as drinking after somebody
on the same side of the cup or glass right after them on a Coca-Cola bottle without wiping their lips off real good. I'd rather go thirsty myself my uncle Raymond would say. By the mid-sixties he was also given the preannouncing. I'd rather white people call me nigger than call me black. If Uncle Raymond had to choose between being called black and drink out of the same bottle after another human being. I'm not sure what Uncle Raymond would have done. One thing we always did was smell good. Partly because we like sense partly because white people say we smell bad naturally like we had some kind of odor gene. How come you niggers funkin up the place. Even we crack that kind of joke a lot. So one thing colored people had to do around white people was smell good and not have ash on your elbows or knees. We used to call a crust. Moisturizing cream we called Krust eradicator and mama always made sure that we brought some. When we went over to the swimming pool so as not to embarrass
the race. But it was white people who smelled bad. Mama always said. When they get wet. When they get wet she said they smell just like dogs. Now I do hate the smell of wet dog. I have to confirm. But I don't think White people smell like that when their hair is wet and I have done a lot of sniffing of some wet hair to white people in my time. At first as a child I had a mission to test my mama's hypothesis. Hello my name is Skipper. I'm taking a survey. Can I smell your wet hair. Actually my technique was subtler but only slightly I remember sidling up to my favorite classmate Linda Hofmann one day at the swimming pool which had integrated that same year 1959 1955 nostrils flared trying to breathing as deeply as I could. Prepared for the worst. What's wrong with you. She asked this business the rose fever. Schiedam believe me and my mother would not have believed the result of my researches even if I had shared
them with her that these doggie smelling white people should cast olfactory aspersions upon us. Was bitter gall to her. White people couldn't cook. Everybody knew that. Which made a complete puzzle why such an important part of the civil rights movement had to do with integrating restaurants and lunch counters. The food wasn't good anyway. It's the principal thing daddy's buddy Mr. Isaiah Washington what you assert they don't know nothing about Caesar the my aunt Margaret would say I like my food sees it and she sees and see that it is a key to unlocking to unlocking the culinary secrets of the Coleman family. It said a slab of fatback or a cup full of bacon drippings or a couple of ham hocks and a long simmering time. Are absolutely essential to a well cooked vegetable. Cook. Tell us Don mama used to say cooking till he's dead. We'd learn to say
much like. When I went out to Yale I first taste tasted a steamed vegetable. I thought the thing was raw. The Colemans were serious about their cooking and their eating. It was this eating on the run meals that lasted for hours with lots of good conversation thrown in. Happiest I ever saw my aunts and uncles in the Coleman family which was when they'd slowly eat their savory meals watching everything down with several glasses of ice tea. Especially at the family reunion on Christmas day up at Big mom's house. Eatin good are plenty of fat and cholesterol was held to be essential to proper health and peace of mind. Now there were plenty of Colman's nine brothers known as the boys and four sisters the youngest of whom had died when she was a day or two old Sunday in Piedmont was everybody's favorite day because you could eat yourself silly. Starting just after church Mamadou and going to church on Sundays except to read out her obituaries in another part. I say mama read she would write the obituaries for all
black people who died in them Tolmach Valley did go to church and read them. She was the first image of a writer and took me years to realize that she cook while we were in Sunday school. Rarely did the menu vary. Fried chicken mashed potatoes bake corn or corn pudding. Green beans and potatoes with lots of onions and baking drippings and a hunk of ham gravy rolls. And a salad of iceberg lettuce fresh tomatoes grown up in Uncle Jim's garden a slice hard boiled egg scallions and wishbones I-talian salad dressing. We'd eat mama's Sunday dinners in the middle of the day and keep nibbling for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Why people just can't cook good. Aunt Margaret used to say that's why they need to hire us. Thank you very much. One more. Come on up call.
Come on up I'm going to end with telling you about the worst day of my life. Come on the good buddy. It was 1987 and I'd been in and out of town conference so I got the news. I'll never forget the slow walk down the corridor of the hotel to the hotel door. From a distance I could see the pink message slips taped all over the door. It had to be death or it's imminent. I thought and it had to be Mamo messages from the Dean from the police from the Department from my wife from my father from the hotel manager from the police again call home. She'd been in the hospital for a checkup and she seemed to be doing fine. The White Lady sharing the room with her said that she was talking one minute slumped over the next. They kept her alive on a machine. She's up she's down she might not make it through the night. She's a little better she's worse she won't not even through the night. I flew out to Pittsburgh the nearest airport at dawn and rented a car from there weeping all the way. Sharon then the kids drove down from
Ithaca. I was a professor at Cornell at the time. At the hospital. Mama kept looking up at me and then at this big blue gray machine trying to ask something with her eyes she'd be fully awake and conscious and then they'd have to jumpstart her heart again. She come back as if she'd just been asleep asking the same question with her eyes we'd go we'd come over the course of the day to my family finally got there about 9:00 that night. She'd waited to say goodbye. It was about midnight when we agreed not to shock her heart anymore. Rocky my brother by now an oral surgeon had assumed charge. I told her how much I loved her and she had smiled that deep down smile something to take with her. On the road. Nimo and mama are buried near each other in the new highly esteemed and otherwise all white cemetery just outside Kizer behind the hill overlooking Mr Bump Saville's trailer park. It probably bothers mama to be looking down at
Nemo every day unless she's forgiven him for not calling her to say goodbye. When Big mom was dying. It's a kind of Sematary that seems fake to me with all the headstones bronze and flat parallel to the ground exactly the same size. We got the deluxe model and jazzed it up as best we could. It's got a little poem on it and a bar really flower. Maybe it should have just said Miss Pauline because everybody would know who that was. I hate that cemetery not because of the lack of aesthetic appeal not because it's integrated but because what Nimo used to call the power. Just isn't there. When you go up to when you go up on radicle Hill a past where Sherri Lewis used to live in the gate and take the dusty road to the colored cemetery. Now that's a cemetery. All the markets had different shapes and the graves are laid out whopper jawed upkeep varies so some graves look pretty disheveled. Not daddy pawls and my mother's father not Daddy pawls of course and not big moms either. This is where the old souls. Come to hide.
Resting till the day of the Lord. Falling out of falling out over graves like I once saw Mr. booty do when I was a boy. Listening to mama perform her eulogy. Please please he said just one more look don't take her yet. Just one more look was all he said shouting and whooping and hollering and falling out over his mother's grave. You see you had a chance at the colored funeral. He had a chance to work out your grief. He didn't have to be in a hurry with it either. You could touch it. Play with it. Talk to it letting it work itself up in its own time. Momma said she didn't want to have one tear jerker funerals with Craig Pangur sitting in the mourners pew then crowding around her grave. She wanted a close casket 10 minute ceremony at the max and don't let Nimo officiate. That was when she was younger. She picked out her dress and wig hat the jewelry and the shoes. When she got old by the time my mother died at the worst of her dejection and alienation from herself her family the Colemans seemed to be coolly distant somewhat embarrassed by her eccentricities and depression. They were tired of her. It almost
seemed she was tired of life. I think by the end she wanted to die. Nor did she believe in an afterlife. She just wanted to release it said the modern Episcopal milktoast service that we had from mama. I passionately wish that her funeral had been like the one for Miss many or the one for papa Charlie or the one for my great uncle book which happened back when I was five. Now that was a nice funeral. The sermon was loud and long demanding that you break down. He's with the Lord today walking in grandeur past Brooks and hand in hand with his mother Miss Lucy Clifford and his kind old father Mr. Sammy I know you want him back. But the Lord had need of him up there. Maybe it was to sing the tenor parts of the spirituals or maybe to attend the fires maybe to polish the silver up nice or to keep the gold real shining. I know you'll miss him. You will miss him too. But we'll meet again soon at the pearly gates on that great day of the judgment when we cross over. He'll be waiting there for us welcoming us into the fold. Man did those sermons feel good said good
and hurting. And then they'd sing that killer song. People falling out all along when I'm gone the last mile of the way. I will rest at the close of the day. And I know there are joys that await me. When I've gone the last mile of the way. And mamma had risen to read her piece looking all good sounding all fine and modest. I wanted to fall out like that too. I wanted that blue black preacher who had substituted that time for Reverend Monroe and had blown his tired ass away. I wanted him to get up on that pulpit and preach a sermon of the drybones like he'd done for Uncle bow. People still dated things by that sermon. Hey that was two years three months fourteen days seven hours and five minutes after Brother bluegills. Preached a sermon of the driver and one of the heavenly gospel choir to sing a lot of long sad songs and I wanted people to fall out. I wanted the church to be hot with the windows closed. Those paper colored funeral home fans spreading this theme rather than cooling things down. I wanted to start college to wilt and straight in to kink
up and go back. I wanted the kitchen's crinkling up and that crackling loud and long before our very eyes. I wanted the whole world to know my mom's death and her glory while alive. I wanted to cry and cry and cry so I could tell her how sorry I was for not being a good enough son. I wanted her to know that I could have tried to do more. I could have tried to understand her better I could have come home more I wanted her to know that I had tried and that I loved her like life itself. And I would miss her now that she was gone. I wanted it to be said in that dark holy place and I wanted that sadness to last. Thank you very much. Let me begin this way. The French have a word that they use when they talk about wine. It's called Tarar and it means of a specific soil and a place that a wine is imparted with that so that it becomes distinctive. And I thought of that. I read this book about you and what part of Piedmont West Virginia which you say is terror war in your life.
My whole being is from Piedmont West Virginia. You know I'm just the little country boy. I go back now. I started at school with 24 kids and. Excuse me my graduating class at 36. So I know these kids you know we met in 1956. I was on the eve of my sixth birthday. And we were together. You know every school day virtually for 12 years that's amazing intimacy and stability. And. When what happened in our class was a lot of these kids still living around in the Potomac Valley. A lot of them did not go to college. These are white kids you know a handful of black kids. It was an Irish Italian paper mill town as you know from the book and. We we didn't have any reunions until our 20th or 25th reunion a lot of people went and then people started to die. You know it's a very unhealthy lifestyle down there. A lot of high cholesterol. Not
much exercise for a lot of people. And so I think we've lost six or seven kids in our class and you know we're 59 years old. So I. We started emailing each other. Some of these kids didn't even have e-mail and they got e-mail so we could stay in touch. And I started going back from my African-American Lives films looking for my ancestors filming down there. And I started being in touch again and now I'm going to get out on December 1st and 2nd in the film and there'll be like maybe 10 kids will come from that class and we'll meet and and we'll have dinner. And they call me Skippy and you know I mean for a lot of them this world doesn't even exist. They couldn't imagine it being me sitting up here reading and being interviewed by you and being in this room. I don't want to I'm not trying to be condescending but it's like a whole different zone. I don't sit around talking about Cambridge reads and you know you know a marble statue flanked me on the left and right.
You know it's it's like did you know what happened at Kaiser high school or the football game and I go No tell me you know or I I went to Yale I noticed when I came home that I couldn't talk about my experiences up there they would say well how many students go to you and say well there's six 6000 undergraduates and about whatever were the 5000 and five that was great to see. They go oh man West universe got 30000. And I'd say yeah. It's a big school. They go well you know it's the number one in this class. Oh yeah I'm sure it is you know but I couldn't. I never wanted to lose. Their respect and affection. So you became schizophrenia. So I am I never would be able to have had the life I had without this book is a love letter to those people. It's a love letter to my mother obviously and it's but it's a love letter to this. This way of life which is gone and I'm really proud of that. One of the greatest honors of my life
is it's always great when the hometown. Honestly that's why I'm so happy tonight. Because this is my home. We no longer have a home in West Virginia where my mom died. We sold our house because I just couldn't stand being there after awhile. You could my dad. But when I say home I mean Piedmont. You know my little when I had daughters we'd say we're going home. See my parents they go well we are home we're home we're in Ithaca we're in Durham. None no that's home. I don't know if that answer your question but I'm really proud of that. And no landscape I just wrote I was writing the script before I came over for part three of my new PBS series and I was playing with words and landscape and just trying to find some metaphors. Nothing moves me like seeing the hills of eastern Washington. Nothing. And I've been all over the world. Not the Great Wall of China. Second to the hills of Westwood you know it's just it's it's I love it. I don't know if it answers now but what's interesting about it is that because you had such
it's clear that you have such a love for that lifestyle and what was going on there in that community when you went to camp early on and started to go away. You never really came home again in the same way. And was that because you had started to live that bifurcated lifestyle and you felt pulled in this way. Yeah it's almost like whatever feels as soon as that to quote DuBois in West Virginia in an American or so I knew I was raised to be successful. My mother wanted to doctors. And Rocky is six grades ahead of me. So he started in segregated schools. Paul abrogates He's the chief of oral surgery Brunt's Lebanon Hospital. He's phenomenally successful guy. And so the big integration moment was going to the state school. So he went to West Virginia University. But one of my cousins went to Harvard Law School and I think he graduated 1949 or 1950. Helen leaves you know that novelists have only now is like my sister she is a professor at MIT and then she went to
Harvard College got to be a and then Harvard Law School she was second generation in our family to go to Harvard Law School which is a big deal black for any black family any family really. So they were gay. Helen's grandmother and my grandfather brother and sister. See that's outworks. It was a very well-educated family. The story is this. There was one son and three daughters. And Maude fortune Gates said at the turn of the century sent the three girls to college and kept the boy to run the farm. I'm descended from the farm. Isn't that amazing. And what a proto feminist thing to do. But she wanted those girls to be protected. And one went first member of my family graduated from Howard in 1989 pansy gate stops and was a nurse who married a dentist and my aunt Leticia graduated from BU state. And the other one graduated from Morgan and two more teachers and one them was a nurse and
I'm descended from the line stayed in the valley. And ran the farm and then they had a business they had a CHIMNEY-SWEEP business and the janitorial business. You got out. I mean yeah but yeah but I don't want to misrepresent myself on the one hand I was from a strong working class. On the other hand my cousin went to Harvard with me in 1949. So my particular branch of the tree I knew about these people I didn't really know about them till I was a teenager. My father started talking about them all the time and I wanted to be like them. And I remember when I met them it was transforming for me. I thought wow you know my great uncle Robert graduate Howard Dental School 1919 in Westfield New Jersey and I went there and it's a great house. And all these books in the guest room where I stayed in and they'd like to because I was smart and they like my father. My father was the favorite in his generation because he was so smart. So I had this model of intellection and my mother was a genius. And my father would tell you if he were here the only reason my brother and I was successful is because my mother wanted us to go to college. The only question I'm
saying in a long winded way was where I was going to go to college. And by 1950 I knew I wanted to go to Harvard. When my cousins wanted to be Hank Aaron or Willie Mays I wanted to go to Harvard or Yale and I wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge and through a miracle I got in the air and they got into the university came. I mean you know I still can't believe some day is my life. My life has been so blessed that some days I'm terrified to wake up and I've been in a coma fantasizing I'm like a bad episode of Dallas like a bad dream Jr's dream. For those who don't know. And that gives me a big responsibility to give back. And as corny as that set can sound to people it's true it's how I feel. I enjoy my life. I like pleasure. I like wine. I like you know everything about my life but I have a I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility. Get back with them and tell the whole story and your memoir and your story is really set in the context of segregation. And yet I was struck again
by that piece. The words that you used in the preface segregated piece because people don't tend to think of segregation as segregated. Right. Talk to us about that. Well in the last chapter is as you know it's about the last bill picnic. We got the picnic last meal piccaninny. And I remember my Aunt Margaret said you know this is a last minute picnic this was the greatest event of the year. It was like a reunion for all the black people. We got them tickets to come to the colored picnic even if they didn't work or none of their family did it was homecoming. And the male said because the mill was afraid they were going to be sued. Because you know it was a 1968 69 because it imposes segregation onto the workers and the mill announced they were abolished. And I remember my people were devastated. My Aunt Margaret said this is not what Martin Luther King died for us to give up our picnic. And I was so struck by that that that what I would now call I didn't have the language for it then the difference between willing Association.
And. Forced separation. You have a right to join Hillel you have the right to join the Catholic youth group. You know you have a right to bond with whomever you want to bond as long as you know you're not forced to be separate. That's the difference. And I think it took us a long time. I read Arnold Rampersad biography of Ralph Ellison couple of years ago and I was struck by this. It just sounds ludicrous now. But right after Brown v. Board again in 1954. Ellison and a group of the big Negroes as we used to say they had a meeting in New York and they deputized them to travel to the historically black colleges to tell him give speeches. You are going to be out of jobs. Any day. They're going to shut down Tuskegee and Morehouse. And this is good because we're all going to be integrated now. It sounds like a joke but this is what they actually believe. I remember Thurgood Marshall made a speech and right after Brown v. Board he said just going to take a couple of years you know the whole country is going to be going to be integrated and we thought that but we don't want to
lose certain things certain rituals. Are good and special when you have a right to do that. Well you know in the book you make it very clear that the community experience integration as a loss which seems to be counterintuitive since people were moving with the civil rights movement helped people try to figure out how the both and and of that if you can. Well even when. Until a few years ago somebody got shot at the colored VFW even when I would go back when and now everything's in a great impede mine. You know the neighborhoods are integrated. People would still the mill whistle blows at 3:30 all the black guys would go to the colored VFW and drink water glass full of scotch for 75 cents you know and because it just felt good. It just feels good. To wrap yourself in your culture it's like putting a giant shawl around yourself in the cold where people could be their cultural selves as it were. And I've seen it when I've been in a lot of people have to be Jewish. And when I feel very privileged that they invite me to the dinner where you break the fast or we're to a wedding you know and you're the
only non-Jewish person there. It just feels good to watch them and then feel like you're accepted. To see how they celebrate difference or or similarity and difference in them. I'm with you. Well you're talking me I'm I'm just trying to get to the last part about why you know because that just feels like you could still have that community even in integration. It's just yeah. What you can't and you have to work it out. But it took the people in Piedmont about 10 years to figure out how they could have their own homecoming. But the mill provided the money for it. So then after morning 10 years they created the homecoming. And it's Labor Day weekend and now people come back and it's you know it's it's that that ritual again but it's I don't think that Thurgood Marshall or any of the people who did the legal work for Brown v. Board could have imagined. Richard Wright wrote this essay in 1937 and he said if integration ever comes negro literature as the negro literature it will disappear.
Because the only reason he was using negro literature as a metaphor for black cultural institutions churches. Martin Luther King famously said 11:00 MORNING the most segregated moment and hour in the United States. Guess what. It still is because black people like going to black churches. Now there are some big integrated churches. They're not segregated because people don't feel welcome. They're segregated because they feel more welcome at their own church with their own patterns of worship and they let some you know white people in if they want to come willing Association. That's the big surprise of the post-civil rights era that Richard Wright was wrong. Toni Morrison when she describes herself says I'm an African-American writer first and a writer second. No black writer before this generation ever wouldn't say that. And she's saying it to keep the tradition alive. And I admire that. So I think we all have to be culturally schizophrenia. You know some days are black first some days.
Harvard professor first. Some days I'm can't Bridgie and first you know some days I walk with a cane first. You know some days I'm from West Virginia. We all have multiple identities and we have to be able to to put them take them on and off like a closet full of clothes. Now back to your mom and the hating of the white people. That's very interesting. You know that you come out as an obvious beneficiary of the civil rights movement. She wanted those resources for you. Right. So how do you. I mean that's the that you read is very powerful but how do you balance that in your mind like what does that mean that my mom hates white people yet she wants me to go in this direction to be the best for me. What does that mean. Well my mother was very sensitive and if if the world had been integrated if opportunity had been integrated she'd be on. She would have taught at Harvard. You know what I mean. And. She was very successful in the context. She was the smartest black woman black person you know in our town. She was the first black secretary of the PTA. But she
always felt that I think that white people were condescending you know mistrustful that that she couldn't be treated as an equal or no one black could. And I think she resented that. She doesn't do that. And I think I often think when I read African-American history. I think. Would I have been my little cheerful self. If I hadn't been able to actually cause my dreams and my ambitions. I think that would have been hard. You know what I become an alcoholic. Like you know you read about William Monroe Trotter brilliant black man class orator at Harvard late 1890s. Committed suicide. You know if I hadn't been able you know for a long time you know knock on wood there are a lot of things that I think of him I could probably do that. And that's a real blessing. It's a blessing for anybody but particularly in the African-American tradition that's a blessing. And I am keenly and acutely aware of that privilege position that I have. And.
I think about those all those generations of frustration when people sat around and they had ideas as good as mine if not better. And they couldn't actualize those ideas. And I think that would have killed me. It would've killed something in something that is still very much alive. Ask you this question because there's two moments in the book that to me really speak of the limitation of a segregated world and the and the ugliness of it and one has to do with your brother whom you've now just said is an amazingly successful guy. You know talk a little bit about what happened when Rocky did not win the contest he should have won. Well I think that I felt that that is reliable. That's its thing you know you would do that you would draw attention to that in eighth grade in West Virginia you know greater than the Pulitzer Prize green than the Nobel Prize for Literature is winning the Golden Horseshoe in West Virginia history. I mean it is a big deal and you were raised to win this horseshoe. And. In my house I mean my brother he was shot man so. He was going to win this thing. And I remember one day Mr. shaver who was on the school board my dad's best friend a white
man that worked with him. He came and wanted to see mom and dad and they shoot us off. And he told them some they were talking in hushed tones and Rocky had been told that he missed getting this prize by half a point because he misspelled the word. I can't imagine that he had been preparing all his life to win the gold horseshoe and he missed by half a point because he misspelled some big word. And I remember when he told me he was devastated. I remember he said to me if I'd only just studied spelling harder you know and I remember just feeling sorry for him. I mean it tore me up and I vowed that moment that I was going to win the gold. Then Mr. Shabir came. And after he left my parents called in and she said and my mother said Rocky you didn't miss. The hotels and you see when you got to be. The Golden Horseshoe there were four people needs County fifty five counties in West Virginia the fourth largest kids. Of the four people who performed the best on this test then got to go as a group to meet
the governor. And it's a really big thing. And it was 1950 58 and the hotels were integrated in the state capital of Charleston. So they couldn't let you go because there was no place for him stay. So they told him he had missed because he'd missed the point that Coleman is in his corner Cornel West. That was funky. I mean that was just nasty. Such a small thing and that marked him. I mean that it didn't destroy my brother obviously but it marked him. It was a wound. It cast a shadow. I can still see that shadow over my brother. And so I determined that I was going to win it and I won. I mean I was pleased and he was pleased but he was also he was pleased really but he was resentful too well and he was resentful by the gap. If you read Malcolm Gladwell outliers in Outliers I thought of my brother we were talking about if you look at it I'll give you an example. First black mayor of Baltimore Kurt Schmoke. The congresswoman from Houston Sheila Jackson Lee Chief pediatric
neurosurgeon Johns Hopkins is Ben Carson. Alfonso Fletcher a university professor is me ten 10000 corporate lawyers and investment bankers. What do we have in common. We all went to Yale at the same time. We were the class of 66 at Yale had six black boys to graduate. The class that ended with me in September 69 had 96 black boys and girls. It's an accident of age. My brother was five years older and six grades ahead. The world hadn't integrated. So he's smarter. Probably I am. But the opportunities were completely different for me than they were for my brother. But opportunities. Can have an ironic ending. When I grew up I got to know Jay Rockefeller when he was governor of West Virginia and I wrote him a letter and I told him the story that I've told you that's in the book and.
I forgot about him hearing it. And about six months later I got this phone call and it was rock. And he was crying and he said thank you. And I said thank you for what he said. I just got the golden horse you came to me. They changed the bag contains a chains as. We speak. Now here's the second one that stated that the limitations but also in a very interesting way in a different way. Colored on channel 2. Oh my God. Color color channel 2. There were so few black people on television that were one was on everybody call everybody and they. Turned channel to turn and do a. Color before they disappear. And they saw all black movies. Remember the late late show. Some of you were old enough to remember that they would have the Late Show. It was Oh well there was Johnny Carson. Then he'd have the late show in the late late show and that's when you could see Cabot in the sky in green pastures. And we would stay up just to watch you to see
somebody black on television. I remember when Nat King Cole had a 50 minute TV show I was seven years old 1957. Everybody watched that and then I think some white women kiss on the cheek. Can't see it. It was a good response to say we can't have that. Can't have that net sorry. All over are Amos and Andy I love Davis. I just like seeing black people on television now black people everywhere. And what I wondered is as a person who was from Piedmont. From that Tarrar as we discussed. Great beneficiary of the civil rights movement goes from colored on channel 2 to no one a woman Oprah who has her own cable channel right. Psychically How do you process that. Well you know that's a big deal. Yeah. I mean that's part of the Colma moment right. Yes. But even more important to me is if I make a documentary I make TV shows I'm making my tenth. Documentary film. It's a basic to me. I mean it's a miracle I can't believe it. I cannot believe that. Haggard.
Is. Such a blessing. I can't believe it. My. You know after going here on Cambridge you know becoming an author and becoming a professor I had a fantasy I'd make I can make films one day and then I got the chance to do that. And it's extraordinary to me it's this is a great gift. And the fact that people respond to them and people seem to like them. And I knew when what I'm doing now which is I'm doing the family tree and the genealogy you know done the African-American life series but so many people wrote to me. Jewish people said you know what about us and the Arab people said what about. So it's like Noah got two Jewish Americans are Arab Americans two Latinos Eva Longoria Yo-Yo Ma Kristi Yamaguchi Meryl Streep Mike Nichols Marmet Oz Dr. Oz Queen nor Elizabeth Alexander. Two West Indians Elizabeth Alexander Malcolm Gladwell as brothers Jamaican. We project the Native American and have done their family tree in their DNA and it's them to thing it's such a great great experience. It's a way of
reaching out to a broader world community. Now I'm I'm sure you have noticed this but just for others your whole life seems to be tracked along finding people's roots not just in the TV series but you really want to know your own stuff. You write about that on a Web site called The wrote you're invested in genealogy research. I don't know if you're going to read it but I founded it with Brad. He owns it. And then. But my point is in carda Afrikaner everything seems to track around that. Yeah. Did that was that from Piedmont as well just really feeling invested in that and understanding that and wanting other people to be able to you know I owe this whole aspect of my life to the 1956 World Book edition of the world books. I remember the principal of our elementary school Mr. McHenry sold the world book says like this is like having a gun in your head right. He come around and say you're going to buy the book for Skippy right. You say no it's probably illegal. And then we bought the world but you know you'd buy a volume a
month I guess I can't remember how you paid but. Man we loved that world book. I have never had a book I loved Barlett more than that 1956 edition of The World book. And we used to death and my father used it all the time. He loved encyclopedias so I had a vision. I mean if you think about it you could put the category of the things this aspect of my life in the reference the vision of the library. Right. I mean I was joking earlier with the reference librarian in the Cambridge library and. I love encyclopedias and dictionaries and I. Have an archival fascination with archives. I mean they really turn me on and I find them beautiful intriguing and you know discovering our name and the identity of the author by name is one of the great days of my life. And. I wanted to be Dubois's every W.B. Dubois you know Harvard Harvard AB 1890 am 1891 first Negro to get a Ph.D. from Harvard 1895. He
was the man. You know Cornel West Anthony and all of us put together can't tie his shoes and all his life he wanted to edit the first black encyclopedia. Excuse me the encyclopedia Afrikan and he first said the idea 8:41 Judaica was probably in like big dig at 1970. And I read about that when I was an undergraduate and I said I want to edit that encyclopedia. It took me 25 years raising money and I raised two million dollars. In 1999 we published an encyclopedia for God as bad. I loved it. And. But. I don't know why. Yeah I don't know why but it has been an impulse for me and I knew early on even when I was a teenager there was a tension between my essay 50 points higher in a quantitative and qualitative but there was a tension between what I was programmed to be which was a medical doctor and where my heart was which was a person of letters. And I always thought that was like an avocation for me and it was
English history. We're like were effortless or things were just clinging to me. Black black history though it didn't exist for us in my school system but I could remember very easily facts about the Negro. And I was intrigued with black history and I just kind of put that. Well that would be an avocation I'll be a successful doctor and I'll be able to collect books about black people. And finally the crunch came when I went to Cambridge. When I went to Cambridge. I met two black people really changed my life. My best friend Anthony Appiah who's a genius and the show nka the first black person to get the Nobel Prize in literature showing it was my professor. Antony was one of three black people at Clare College where as you heard I matriculated and they look to me like why do you want to be a doctor a doctor. You can be an academic and so on and put doctors and I really revere them. But being a scholar there is a value system that was different and even at Yale. Most of the smart kids were pre-professional. Being a lawyer
doctor there were a few of us who became academics but not many. Most of my friends became lawyers doctors or investment bankers you know whatever. And so that different value system. It freed me when I went to England. And the hardest thing was coming back until tell my parents. Because my mama wanted to be a doctor and going to let her down. And daddy wanted me to be a lawyer. And so when I got back you know I sat him down and I said you know I'm sad I'm going to be a professor. I want to be. And my mother said What took you so long to tell us you know we knew that a long time ago. So I thought that was I thought that was really sweet. And then she said after this long conversation but you'll still be a doctor and my mother was outrageous. Whatever my brother died I would go home for Christmas or something. Phone would ring. Somebody asked for Dr. Gates And she said which one. She was very proud of its case and of us in the line that Susan read from your book is actually the beginning of your application to Yale.
My grandfather was color. You write them fathers. Well I am and I don't I like black a strong black man. And I just want to talk to you about the use of language in the book because we've heard the N-word a few times tonight. And how do you feel about that as a part of the record that you have described in that it's how people talk. And I'm very much a music free indirect discourse it's called and I'm quoting the way people actually talk and it's just the way it was so and I wanted to remember it started in the form of letters and I thought about I didn't really think about whether I would take it out and just it would be dishonest historically to take it out. Do I walk around say this and this drives me crazy the way. First of all I've never heard a white person say the word nigger. That didn't drive me nuts. I mean it just is offensive to me and this is the way it is. And if I'm in the barbershop and people say it depends it's sort of it's sort of a ring tone. Do you know what I mean. It's like sometimes it just seems to fit. Other times it seems awkward and shocking.
So I don't I remember the first time I ever thought about was Richard Pryor remember Richard Pryor came back from Africa. He did this great thing on Africa. And it's funny it's complicated because he said I want you know I just got back from Africa. Many of you know that. And the first thing you said was You have to try around the African continent. I want to say thank God for slavery because he didn't want to be in Africa it was really horrible. What do you think about what the other thing that he recoupment recuperates by saying you know the most important thing I saw in Africa was that I realized what I didn't see the niggers there. Because there were no niggers and people are proud. And basically I'm paraphrasing what he said. We've internalized their own oppression by calling each other niggers. And I'm not going to use the word anymore. And thereby claps and the record ends and next album is called Bicentennial Nigger. Richard Pryor though he could stop using. So it is very complicated and this code shifting within the race. It's like you know I've heard people call each other names Jewish people you know within
the being the only other one. They're using words that I never would use and I would feel uncomfortable. How do you feel about it. I'm curious. Well I've read Randall Kennedy. That's another subject. Let me ask this question. When you wrote the book it was for I'm not answering that question see that answer. That's terrible. Now I'm mad. Can I tell I have a question. You wrote the book as you stated for your for your daughters and then later on you said it was. You were also in a moment of grieving for your for your mom. And I'm wondering if those daughters that you wrote you were writing for were 14 and 12 at the time they're young women now this book has been out for 15 years. How did what you wrote there shaped them and their world view. I don't know you'd have to ask. I mean I'm not being evasive like you. Go ahead. But I don't know you'd have to ask them you know. I mean how they are shaped how their brothers shape. I don't
know. You know they're wild. They do wild crazy things and I say you take up your mother's people. But. I don't know. You know I'm very proud of them. They really came into their own this summer once when I was 27. I mean they've had very successful lives. But Maggie passed her orals at Harvard. She's in the Ph.D. program on September 4th and after the crazy summer we had. And I went to her this summer because well we said you have a crazy summer. Oh my God what time are. We. I told her you know baby I think you might want to. Reschedule orals because it was just very stressful. And. She said I'll think about it and when I went to wait as they went with me my dad my brother my girlfriend and Megan lies. You know they were gay and that was really cool. That was cool because of the president. But he found that when we walked in office probably and I walked in and I said Mr. President I just want you
to know. That my dad. Is Out in the next room and he's 96 and he's got to push some button and some CIA you know jumped up in I mean got my father. And Rocky had been pushing daddy around the wheelchair because you know we had a big tour of the White House. He was so funny. The Crowleys entered in one wing and we ended in the other way. And they had it's orchestrated so we would meet in the Roosevelt Room. Right. And it was great. I mean we all met each other's families it was really and I made a joke about getting his kids into Harvard and you know really you know broke the ice. And I was thinking I'll get you into Harvard. If your daddy didn't arrest me but I didn't say that. And so we all laughed and you know it was it was nice. And then the whole thing was they would all wait while Officer Crowley and I went in with the president in the Oval Office and we would go out in the garden and drink beer.
So. We were like really that much. David Sure. You know but red stripe as I recall. No but I now see I was going to have red stripe but I really I had to say I'm an outcast because of Boston and my fourth great grandfather is a free negro fought in the American Revolution. So I figured I got to have Sam Adams from Boston for Cambridge for one fourth. You know I was. And. So when I said that to the president and my family he said when the person came to get my dad he jumped out of the wheelchair like a Jack in a box fly over then would stand there with the president given all the photographs. It was as though it was the only way I could get my dad in the Oval Office what could I say that was really wonderful. That's quite a question. I lost my head. I was. Asking how did how did the book and your writing of it for your daughters Oh shape their world view. Well and then. Oh yeah. And then lies. I'm sorry. So Megan continued she said no I'm going to take my orals and Lisey's wrote
about the events of the summer. It was on TV and you know even debated the mayor. You know all this stuff but I look at it like who is it. And she became a correspondent because that would for Tina Brown of The Daily Beast not column. And so they both came into their own this summer in this great way. And I was very proud of that. So they both ended up Maggie said she would never have a career like mine and she's getting a Ph.D. at Harvard and Louisa is a journalist and as you know one of my hands as a journalist so I felt I must to shape them some kind of way and that but they went at it their own way when Maggie graduated Wesleyan. She became a bartender on Martha's Vineyard. I was going to have to invest in a bar and tell you. But you know what you are I have kids and where are you going to do. I said baby that's what you want to do this once you're won do. I'm going to leave a copy of it. The graduate that said you know of course you know in case you want to read it. The way it's gone. But she came about it in her own way and lies into all of a sudden lies.
It was very stylish you know fun loving party girl very articulate very opinionated. All of a sudden she's wearing these full blown articles up saying where did all this go. It was stunning. It's like I didn't even know my own children. And that was a really good experience and very satisfying and I'm very. So they're standing on your shoulders and I'll know that Piedmont soil in some way. Well and all the shoulders of them say anything to you know so. So that's good. There's a few questions here from people from the audience that I would like to get to. We ain't got time I got to eat. OK. Now I'm going to have to answer a few of these. All right. This is a great wine. Yeah. Are you familiar with tiny easy cuts his memoir The Beautiful Struggle. And if so do you see any similarities between his route to education and yours. No I haven't yet. OK. All right well that answer that question. I thought this one I thought I should read it give me a card so I can I can read that. OK right. All right. You go OK. I'm sure this is a young person who wrote this so you can take it like that. What inspires you today in your
senior years. Damn that's cool. That is called a man who wrote take my class. You get that job that you want to answer that. You know I read this article the other day I can't remember where it was but there was a woman who had suffered all these tragedies she was a refugee I think she was Cambodian or she'll. Making up the details. But the the essence of what I'm about to say is true and this woman by rights should have been completely depressed and she was optimistic and sunny. So they decided to study her because they were trying to figure out if this sunny temperament was genetic. And I have a fundamentally sunny temperament and I always have my whole life. My mother used to march away and from the time I was a little kid I just feel good. Most of the time. I mean I suffer you know the bad things happen to me. And but
but not like bad things have happened to a lot of people and I'm sure that things happen to me that would wipe that smile right off my face. But in general I'm pretty up on site when I get up in the morning and I still feel tremendous sense of possibility that I can still do a lot of things that turns me on. I get ideas. Like it's a gift. And I happen to have. Entrepreneurial interests as well as academic interests and I think that's what is unusual in this particular package. So writing a book is only just as much fun as building the DuBois Institute raising funds for it. You know what I mean. I really like conceiving of an idea and then making it happen. I love conceiving of the African-American life series. I loved making the African-American lives here. But I loved going out raising money for the African-American Lives. Twenty six million dollars for each of the series. And just being able to put it together. I love all those
parts in there. Some people can do one. They go to Harvard Business School. So people with the other and they go in this part. I could probably go to the Harvard Business School too. You know I mean I'm a kind of business oriented sort of person. And one of the reasons Kalli for that is. I remember even at in high school reading about all these tragedies in black history people had dreams that they couldn't fulfill. And it tore me up and it really wrench. And I decided that I wanted to you know the Dubois's suit has an endowment. Thousand years from now there will be the voice Institute and I'm proud of it. You know I built that. And a lot of help Neal Rubinstein and other presidents et cetera. But I really worked. I have a great board that donates money to the boys since we can bring fellows here in that fund research projects leaving that kind of legacy. You know Dubois for as great as he was he left 22 books that's great but his rival and enemy Booker T Washington left Tuskegee University. Even in college I would look at them and think well if I can be a little like Dubois and little like Booker T why not politically not with
his breccia great politics but his institution building put those together and those are the gifts God gave me and that's what I try I try to hone those skills the entrepreneurial and the academic and you know sometimes the mix works better than others. Sometimes it's controversial sometimes. Maybe I feel if I weren't institution building I'd written more books. Other times I think maybe I should've just building institutions but I pretty much like the life that I have and think I'm a pretty lucky guy and that in my senior elderly years. That's good continues to. Well I will say this in conclusion I'm fond of a statement by Gauguin the painter who says I close my eyes so I can see. And I felt in reading this that this of all of your books and you've written many that this is a heart book so that when you close your eyes you saw here and not here. Oh that's sweet. I'll give it to you Carol. Thank. You.
- Harvard Book Store
- WGBH Forum Network
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- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American research and the Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. University Professor at Harvard University, discusses his memoir Colored People. This lecture is co-presented by Cambridge READS.
- Business & Economics; Art & Architecture
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- Moving Image
Speaker2: Gates, Henry Louis
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Identifier: 90fa344166049d51fb0e46547922c894b6203c61 (ArtesiaDAM UOI_ID)
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- Chicago: “Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Colored People,” 2009-11-12, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 15, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-kd1qf8jq8f.
- MLA: “Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Colored People.” 2009-11-12. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 15, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-kd1qf8jq8f>.
- APA: Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Colored People. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-kd1qf8jq8f