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 WEB 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 influen..., 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 of Skippy Gates' evolution into the man before us today, is both typical and unique. He grew up in a time of drama- dramatic change that witnessed the legal integration of schools and accommodations and upheavals in social conventions and in institutions. The decline of industrial America And the assassinations of a civil rights leader, a senator and a 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 and 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..[claps] 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. [laughing] And uh, I want you know I'm in, yeah I did think about moving this summer. [laughing] But I decided that uh, I come from a long line of proud people and wasn't to let anybody drive me out of my house in my favorite neighborhood. So I'm staying. [claps]
In fact I'm in discussions with Harvard to buy the house and renovate it. So I'm really excited about that. But um, this morning I was able just to walk down the street and go to the new library, Susan's library and it was spectacular. You really have to see it, 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? It's wonderful [Claps] And this is a fantastic honor, and I mean, Cambridge reads the fact that I'm a homeboy is my 19th year here. I figured people would say oh man, we read you. You know you around here all the time 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, um, 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 uh black in his name but you know who I'm talking about.
Oh yeah. Did I dream it or did he say he's going to he's gonna, he's gonna stop, right? No, I woke up and I thought, "Damn, that's a fantasy."[laughing] Well, anyway, good luck to him. I hope he wins public office or whatever. But this is great and it gives me an opportunity to read 'Colored People' and I haven't read it publicly for a few years so um we're supposed to uh get 30 minutes 30 minutes right, Callie? OK. You can give me the five thing. I want to read you three excerpts, uh and then where we're, you're going to come up and we're you're gonna come up and take questions, you can ask whatever questions you want. But this is a great, great honor for me. So thank you. I I do want to read from the preface. I want to tell you I wrote this book, I went to uh, Rockefeller Foundation has a research center on Lake Como Lochgelly Como it's uh near Milan and it's a ?bolides?. 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 on Zora Neale Hurston and every scholar there, the uh the Rockefeller Center is in a villa, and your house in the villa. There are about a dozen scholars -- I can't remember how many were there. I drink too much wine all day long. I was there I was in Italy, right? I can't remember. but um you have your own study and the study's located outside of the villa and mine is, was called 'the ?duty?, which means 'the view' in Italy because it was a silo-shaped building and it looked out on the lakes where they- these two lakes met. So it had this fantastic uh, 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 uh, in my
mind and it was of my Uncle Jim, Nimo Nimo in the book, and he was pulling a fishing boat. Now as you know I grew up on the Potomac Riv- 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 walking up 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 boat this boat into the water reminded me of my Uncle Jim Jim that I went into the ?Badoota? to end in those days, -- now I write on a computer-- but in those days I wrote -- actually until about two years ago -- I wrote everything in longhand on yellow legal paper -- legal paper -- and I sat down July 10th, 1992, and I wrote a letter to Maggy Gates and Li- Lisa Gates, telling them that I was walking up the hill to a study called the ?Badoota? -ta, and one day this the first draft of this book will be in some library and people can
can actually read this. And I was so moved by this recollection of my favorite uncle that I'm wantin' them to know about it. and I looked up. In a couple of hours I'd written 25 pages. And I thought, "Wow, this feels pretty good." And the next day I went back -- then you'd break for lunch, you know, and I said about wine, you know, like it was Italy, so you have pasta, you have a little vino, so let's just say I didn't write anymore that day. But the next day, early on, I got up, I had espresso I had I like the same same ?bra?. I like hard boiled eggs, I like bread, I like butter and jam and fresh orange juice and I got up the next day had that breakfast, flew up to the ?badoota? and I wrote another letter to Maggie and Lisa. 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 Lisa Gates. Actually, I wrote it in four weeks I lost about 15 pounds. Now I don't know how I lost about 15. You know you're just in the zone. So after two weeks I had to get out my new
wardrobe down in Milan. You know how ?would?. I needed clothes and had to look good. And when I got back, I would um In those days, what would we do? I would Xerox the legal pads and then FedEx The originals to Joanne, my secretary back here at Harvard Square. And when I came back I told her don't send them to me. I don't want to see 'em. 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 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 and send it to my agent, Tina Bennett, at Janklow ?Naswick? 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 gonna think you're a pervert. Now, you know, and I said, "Sex -- ain't no sex in this book. Look my my
adolescence, ladies and gentlemen was long on desire and short on consummation. There was no sex in it. There was, like, would-be sex in it. But she said, and I read it and I said, "No, you're absolutely right" an- and all that remains of the original epistolary form is, as you so eloquently said, the -- um --preface, and I want to read that to you first. "Dear Maggie in Lisa, I've written to you because a world into which I was born, 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 Av- 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 with a capital 'E.' It doesn't matter if it's five miles away or in New York City; just Elsewhere and there. To build a completely new paper bill Elsewhere than the ?hall? one a century old. Then they will close it just as they did down
down in Cumberland, Maryland, which is where the Gates are from, with the Celanese in 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 Potomac River Valley is life, itself. I've written to you because of the day when we were driving 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 rear-view mirror -- they were strapped in the back -- and they just looked at each other and rolled their eyes like, "Oh my God," you know, "who's who's gonna believe that ever existed?" Right? And you kids looked at us like we were telling you the biggest lie you had 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, no and Lisa, you 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. Ossie Washington's sister's house,I heard 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 hats for Sunday. He sa- "It's just something that you do," he said. When I asked him if he'd known those people and why why in the world he had spoken to them. Last summer. I sat in the sidewalk cafe in Italy. It was in was in Milan and two were and three or four black Italians walk casually by by, as well as a dozen or more black or Africans. Each spoke to me, rather, each nodded his head slightly or acknowledged me by a glance ever so slightly. When I was growing up we always did this with each other. Pa-
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 there with those white people; all you going to do as Jim Crow yourselves." Daddy must have said that to me 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 cop-out for exploring our- ourselves and possibly making new selves, forged in the cru- crucible of integration. "...because your black ass," he'd laugh, "is integrated already." [chuckles] but there are other reasons that people distrust the reflex: the nod, the glance, the murmured 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 day you wonder "What do the misdeeds of Mike Tyson have to do with me?" So why do I feel impli- implicated? And how can I not feel racial recrimination when I feel racial pri- 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.[laughs] As if As if to say "Negro, will you please disappear so that I could get my own white people." As if 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 the brother or sister
loud and with a sardonic edge when they look like they were trying to escape, as we used to 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 scorn for those negroes who were always being embarrassed by someone else in the ra- 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 public. "Loud and wrong." We used to say that about about by each other all the time. "That nigger's loud and wrong."[short laugh] 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 fir- first to censure other negroes, once they had been admitted into all-white neighborhoods or schools or clubs. An embarrassment to the race. Phrases of 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 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 our cheeks, collecting under our chins,[short laugh] or taking the greatest pride in what we used to call the royal kink. Afro. My Uncle Harry used used to say he didn't like watermelon. After he. Well, my uncle Harry used to say, h- say he didn't even like watermelon which I knew was a lie because I used to see him wolf 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 of God and Jesus black and all the séraphin and the cherubim, too. And I I, from the other direction, have gradually come around, also, and stop trying to tell other negroes how to be black. Girls, do you 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 hap- happened to Mandela on the way out of that prison because the delay had been so long? And when he finally walked out of that prison, how we were so excited and teary eyed at Mandela's nobility, his princeliness, his straight back, his unbowed head. I think I felt that there walked the negro, as Pop might have said, there walked the whole of the African people people as regal as any king. And that feeling I had that gooseflesh sense of of identity that I felt at seeing Nelson Mandela or listening to Mahalia Jackson sing or watching Muhammad Ali fight or hearing Martin Luther King speak is part of what I mean by being colored. I realize that sentiment may not be logical but I want to have my cake and eat it, too, which is why I still nod or speak to black peop- people on the streets and why it felt so good to be acknowledged by those Afro Italians who passed my table at that café in Milan. I want to be able to take special pri- pride in the Jessye Norman aria, a Muhammad Ali shuffle, a Michael Jordan sla-
slam-dunk, a Spike Lee movie, a Thurgood Marshall legal opinion, a Toni Morrison novel, James Brown doing the camel walk. Above all, I en- enjoy the un-self conscious moments of shared cultural intimacy whatever for- form they may take when no one else is watching, when no white people are around. Like Joe Louis' fights, with 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 Louis had Mac Shmelling so many times and so hard and how some reporter asked him after the fi- fight, "Joe, what would you have done if that last punch hadn't knocked Shmelling out?" And how old Joe responded without missing a beat, "I'da 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 thi- thing about me. Is that what I'm one of my gravestone? "Here lies an Afr- African-American."? So I'm divided. I want to be black, to know black, to lux-
luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time, but to do so so in order to come out the other side. To experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color. Bach and James Brown. Sushi and fried catfish. Part of me 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 I am not every negro,es I'm not native to the great black metropolis in New York or Chicago or L.A. L.A., say, 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 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 pol- politics excluded it. In your lifetimes, girls. I suspect, you will go from You will go from being 'African-Americans,' to 'people of color,' to being, once once again 'colored people.' The linguistic trend toward condensa- condensation is strong. I don't mind any of the names, myself, but I have to c confess that I like 'colored' best. Maybe because when I hear the word I hear it in my mother- mother's voice and in the sepia tones of my childhood, as as artlessly and as honestly as I can, I've tried to evoke a colored world of the '50s, a Negro world of the early '60s, and the adven- advent of a black world of the later '60s from the point of view of the boy that I was. When you're old enough to read what follows, I hope that it brings you ev- even a small measure of understanding, at long last, of why we see the wor- world with such different eyes and why that is for me a source both of glad-
of gladness and of 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.[applause] OK, Callie, how am I doing? How many minutes I have. Five? Ten. I got to read two two two other parts. Ok I'll cut this one down. If only Maggie could have seen Mama when she'd stand up to read the minutes of the previous meetings of the PTA, because in 1957 Mama was elected the fir- 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 Kimball, the PTA president, would ask Mom to read the minutes and Mama, dressed, to kill in that gold dress she'd won on The Big Pay-off TV show, would
stand up and read those minutes. I- It was poetry, pure poetry. she'd read each word beautifully, each syllable spoken roundly but without the hyper-correction of negroes who make 'again rhyme with 'rain' [chuckles]. 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 Ma- Mama down. They "had to represent colored," as they say, and just get on with it. And so they'd dress up, too -- the women -- and traipse on over to the PTA just to see Mama read her min- minutes, just to represent the race, just let those white people know that we was around here, too, just to be proud that one of us could do it. No more beautiful woman than my mama existed. So it seemed to be when she read aloud her own careful script script. She had shiny black sparkling eyes a light inside would come on when she performed. "Stylish stylings." All the men used to say that that, standing on the bank corner while Mom and I walk by, heads held high, and
acknowledging the riffraff without being too interested or too rude about it. My moma knew knew she looked good. As a child I was secure in her knowledge of things, of how to do thing- 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 even Brownie, the ?drain? spaniel or Spotty, the Wilsons' crazy barker, or even Muggsy, the brindle, who, standing on his two hind legs, had ripped open the shoulder my flight jacket when I was eight years old. But most important of all for Piedmont and for me, sh- she didn't seem to fear white people. She simply [laughs] 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 of CBS aired the documentary about the Black Muslims. It was called, 'The Hate that Hate Produced,' and these are just about the scariest black people that I'd ever seen. Black people talked right into the faces of white
white people, telling them off without even blinking. While I sat cowering in the cor- corner of our living room[laughs], I happened to glance over at my mother. A certain radiance was slowly transforming her soft brown face as she listened to Mal- Malcolm X calling the white man the devil. "Amen," she said quietly, at first [laughs]. "All right, now!" she 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 Dorothy. The revelation was both terrifying and thrilling. The same thing would happen several years later when the Martin Luther King 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 nei- 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 or the lowest order of trash, would ever taste out of a pot on the stove. Anybody with manners knew knew that. Even colored people without manners knew that. It was white people who didn't know that. If you were cooking, Mama 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 or right after them on a Coca-Cola bottle without wiping their lips off real good [laughs]. "I'd rather go thirsty, myself," my Uncle Raymond would say. By the mid-60s, he was also given given a pronouncing. "I'd rather white people call me 'nigger' than call me 'black.' If Unc-
Uncle Raymond had to choose between being called black and drinking out of the same bottle after another human being, I'm not sure what Uncle Raymond would have done.[Laughs] One thing we always did was smell good. Partly because we like scents but 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'd 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 it 'crust.' Moist- Moisturizing cream we called 'crust eradicator' [laughs] and Mama always made sure that we brought some when we went over to the swimming pool so as not to embarrass the ra- the race. But it was white people who smelled bad, Mama always said, when they'd get wet wet. "When they get wet," she said, "they smell just like dogs." Now, I do hate the smell of a 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 at some wet headed to white people in my ti- 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. Could I - Could 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 breathe in as deeply as I could.[laughing] Prepared for the worst. "What's wrong with you?"[laughing] she asked, suspiciously. "Uh, Rose fever," I said. She didn't believe me me and my mother would not have believed the result of my researches even if I had shared them with her that these doggy smelling white people should cast olfactory aspersions upon us. Was bitter gall to her. White White people couldn't cook; everybody knew that, which made it a complete pu- puzzle why such an important part of the civil rights movement had to do with integrating restaurants and lunch
counters.[Laughs] The food wasn't good, anyway. "It's the principle of the thing," Daddy's buddy, Mr Isaac Washington, used to assert. "They don't know nothing about seasonin," my Aunt Marguerite would say. "I like my food seasoned," she seasoned," she'd add. If there's a key to underlock, to unlocking the culinary secrets of the Coleman family, it's it's that a slab of fatback or cupful of bacon drippings or a couple of ham hocks and a long simmering time, are absolutely essential to a well-cooked vegetable.[laughs]"Cook it til- "Cook it til it's done," Mama used to say. "Cook it til it's dead," we'd learn to say much later. When I went off to Yale I first taste tasted at a steamed vegetable. I thought the thing was raw. [Laughs] The Colemans were serious about their cooking and their eating. There was none of this eating-on-the-run; meals lasted for hours with lots of good cnversation thrown in. Happi-
Happiest I ever saw my aunts and uncles in the Coleman family was when they'd slowly eat their savory meal, 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, with plenty of fat and cholesterol was held to be essential to proper health and peace of mind. Now there were plenty of Colman's -- 9 brothers known as the boys and 4 sisters, the youngest of whom had died when she was a day or two old. Sunday in Piedmont was everybody's fav- favorite day because you could eat yourself silly, starting just after church. Mama didn't go to church on Sundays except to read out her obituaries. In another part I say, "Moma read-- she would write the obituaries for all the black people who died in the Potomac Valley to go to church and read them. She was my first image of a writer and took me years to realize that. She'd cook while we were at Sunday school. Rarely did the menu vary. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, baked corn or corn pudding, green beans,
potatoes with lots of onions 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 sliced hard-boiled egg, scallions and Wishbone I-talian salad dressing. We'd eat Ma- Mama's Sunday dinners in the middle of the day and keep nibbling for the rest of the afternoon and evening. "White people just can't cook good," Aunt Margaret used to say, "That's why they need to hire us us. Thank you very much. [Applause] One more. Come on up, Callie. Come on up, I'm going to end with telling you about the worst day of my life. Come on Come on and have a seat, good buddy. It was 1987 and I'd been in an out-of-town conference when 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 the pink message slips taped all over the door. It had to be death or it's imminence, I thought and it had to be Mama. Messages from the Dean, from the Police from the Department, from my wife, from my fa- father, from the hotel manager, from the Police, again. "Call home." She'd been in the hos- hospital for a check-up 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 ma- machine. She's up, she's down, she might not make it through the night, she's a little better, she's worse she wo- 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 and the kids drove down from Ith- 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 jump-start her heart again. She'd come ba- back as if she'd just been asleep, asking the same question with her eyes. We'd
go, we've come, over the course of the day, til my family finally got there about 9:00 that night night. She'd waited to say 'goodbye.' It was about midnight when we agreed not to shock her heart any- anymore. Rocky, my brother, by now an oral surgeon, had assumed charge. I told her how much I lov- loved her and she had smiled that deep-down smile, something to take with her her on the road. Nemo and Mama are buried near each other in the new highly esteemed and otherwise all-white white cemetery just outside Kaizer, behind the hill overlooking Mr ?Bumps? 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 wh- when Big Mom was dying. It's a kind of cemetery that seems fake to me, with all the the headstones bronze and flat, parallel to the ground, exactly the same size. We've got the deluxe model and jazzed it up as best we could. It's got a little poem on it and a bas bas relief flower. Maybe it should've just said "Miss Pauline," because everybody
would know who that was. I hate that cemetery, not because of the lack of es- aesthetic appeal, not because it's integrated, but because what Nemo used to call The Power just isn't there. When you go up to -- when you go up on Radical Hill, up past where Sher- Sherri Lewis used to live, enter the gate and take the dusty road to the colored colored cemetery, now that's a cemetery. All the markers had different sha- shapes and the graves are laid out Wopper- jawed. Upkeep varies so some graves look pretty dis- disheveled. Not Daddy Paul's -- that's my mother's father -- not Daddy Paul's, of course, and not Big Mom's, 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 saw Mr. Bootsey do when I was a boy, listening to Mama perform her eulogy. "Please, pl- 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. You had a chance to work out your grief. You didn't have to be
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 good time. Moma said she didn't want to have one of those tear-jerker funerals with crepe hangers sitting in the mourners pew then crowding around her grave. She wanted a closed cas- casket, 10-minute ceremony at the max, and don't let Nemo officiate. That was when she was younger. She picked out her dress and wi- 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, see- seemed to be coolly distant, somewhat embarrassed by her eccentricities and depression. They we- They were tired of her, it almost seemed, and she was tired of life. I think by the end she wanted to die. Nor did she believe in an afterlife. She just wanted her release. Instead of the modern Episcopal milk toast service that we had from Mama, I passionately wish that her funeral had been like the one for Miss Minnie or the one for Papa Charlie or the one for my great-uncle ?Boak,? which happened back when I was five. Now that was a nice funeral. The sermon was loud and long
long demanding that you break down. "He's with the Lord today, walking in grandeur past brooks and fountains, 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 u- him, up there. Maybe it was to sing the tenor parts of the spirituals or maybe to tend the fires, maybe to polish the silver up nice or to keep the gold real shiny. I know you'll miss him. We'll 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 for us, welcoming us into the fold." Aw, man, did those sermons feel good! sad good, and hurting, and then they'd sing that killer song, "Pe- 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- when I've gone the last mile of the way." And Mama had risen to read her piece piece, looking all and good sounding all fine. At Mama's funeral
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 pul- pulpit and preach a sermon of the dry bones like he'd done for Uncle ?Boak.? People still dated things by that sermon: "Hey, that was two years, three months, fourteen days, seven hours, and fi- five minutes after Brother ?Bluegums? preached the sermon of the ?driver?. I wanted 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 the steam rather than cooling things down. I wanted sta- starched collars to wilt and straightened hair to kink up and go back. I wanted the ?kitchens? crinkling up and that heat, crackling loud and long before our very eyes. I wanted the whole world to know my mama'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 to be sad in that dark, holy place and I wanted that sadness to last. Thank you very much. Host: Let me begin this way: The French have a word that they use when they talk about wine, it's ca- It's called 'tarrare' 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 was I read this book about you and what part of Piedmont, West Vir- Virginia would you say is 'tarrare' in your life. Gates: My whole being is from Piedmont, West Virginia. Er- you know, I'm just the little country boy. I go back now -- I star- started school with 24 kids in -- Excuse me, my graduating class had 36. So I know these kids, you know, know we met in 1956. I was on the eve of my sixth birthday, an-
and we were together, you know, every school day virtually for 12 years; that's amazing intimacy and stability. And um when um what hap- happened in our class was -- a lot of these kids still live 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 um we we, um, we didn't have any reunions until our 20th or 25th re- 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 and not much 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, er, We started emailing each other. Some of these kids didn't even have e-mail and they got an e-mail so we could stay in touch. and I started going back to 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 go down on December 1st and 2nd 2nd, ?check? 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, er, you know, I mean for a lot of them this world doesn't even exist. They couldn't imagine being me sitting up here reading and being interviewed by you and being in this room. I mean I don't wanna I'm not trying to be condescending but it's like a whole different zone. I don't sit around and talk about Cambridge Reads and, you know, you know, three marble statues flank- flank me on the left and right. You know, it's, like, did you know what happened in Kaizer High School School with the football game and I go, "No, tell me," you know, or when 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 Yale?" and I'd say, "Well, there's 6,000 undergraduates and about whatever it was: 5,000 undergrads, 5,000 graduate students." and they'd go, "Oh man, West Virginia University got 30,000."
And I'd say, "Yeah, it's a bigger school," and they'd go, "Well, you know, it's number one in its class. Oh yeah, I'm sure it is, you know, but I couldn't. I never wanted to lose their respect and affection. So that we became schizophrenic. 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 honors you which is why I'm so happy tonight be- because this is my home. We no longer have a home in West Virginia. When my mom died we sold our house because I couldn't stand being there after a while; neither could my dad. But when I say 'home,' I mean Piedmont, you know, and my little when I- when I had daughters and we'd say, "We're going home" t- to see my parents they'd go, "Well, we are home,[laughs] you know, we're home, we're in Ithaca, we're in Durham," and I'd go.
"No, no" that's home. I don't know if that answers your question but I'm really proud of that, and no landscape -- I just wrote, I was writing a script a script, before I came over, for Part 3 of my new PBS series and I- I was playing with words and landscape and vista, trying to find metaphors. Nothing moves me like seeing the hills of eastern West Virginia. Nothing. And I've been all over the world. Nothing. Great Wall of China? Second to the hills of West Virginia, you know? it's just it's it's I love it. I don't know if that answers you ?know? Host: No, that was fine. What's interesting about it is that because you had such a, 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? Gates: Yeah, it's almost like whatever feels it's ?Tuna's?, to quote DuBois, in a West Virginian and American, or something. I knew -- I was raised to be successful. My mother
wanted 2 doctors and Rocky is 6 grades ahead of me, so so he started in segregated schools. Paul Edward Gates, he's the Chief of Oral Surgery at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, he's phenomenally successful guy. And er 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 in 1949 or 1950. Helen Lee -- you know the novelist, Helen Lee? -- Helen is like my sister, she is a professor at MIT and then she went to Harvard College, got a BA and then Harvard Law School. She's the second generation in our family to go to -- and, you know, Harvard Law School which is a big deal black, for any black fam- family, any family, really. So they were ?Gates? Helen's grandmother and my grandfather, brother and sister. See that's how it works. So it was a very well-educated family. The story is this: There was 1 son and 3 daughters. and Maude Fortune Gates sent, at the turn of the century, sent the 3 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 1909, Pansie Gates ?_? was a nurse who married a dentist an- and my Aunt Leticia graduated from ?____? State; the other one graduated from Morgan, and 2 of them were 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. Host: But you got out. Gates: Yeah, but yeah, but I don't want to misrepresent myself on the one han- hand, I was from a strong working class, but on the other hand my cousin went to Harvard; you see what I mean? in 1949. So, in 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 him all the time -- and I wanted to be like th-
them. And I remember when I met them it was transforming for me um-. I thought, wow, you know my great-uncle, Robert graduated from Howard's 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 and they liked me because I was smart and they liked my father. My father was the favorite in his generation because he was so smart. So I had this model of ?'intellect'? and my mother was a genius. and my father would tell you, if he were here, that the only reason my brother and I are 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 to college. And by 1958 I knew I wanted to go to Harvard or Yale. When my cousins wanted to be Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, I wanted to go to Harvard or Yale and I want to go to Oxford or Cambridge and through a miracle, I got into Yale and I got into got into the University of Cambridge. I mean I you know I still can't believe it. Some days my life My life has been so blessed that some days I'm terrified I'm gonna wake up and I've been in a coma, fantasizing the whole thing. [Host: laughs]
Host: Like a bad episode of Dallas. Gates: Yeah, like a bad ep dream, JR's dream. For those who don't know. And that gives me a big responsibility to give back. And as corny as it 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 life but I have a feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to give back to them. Host: The whole story, your memoire and your story, is really set in the context of segregation. And yet I was struck again by that peace. The words that you used in the preface, "segregated peace," because people don't tend to think of segregation as segregated peace. Gates: Right. Host: Talk to us about that. Gates: Well, in the last chapter is as you know, it's about the last mill -- picnic -- we called the 'pic-i-nic' -- last meal pic-i-nic. And I remember my Aunt Marguerite, said you know, "This is a last mill pic- picnic this was the greatest event of the year. It was like a reunion for all the black people. We got We got them tickets to come to the colored picnic even if they didn't even work or none
of their family did it was homecoming. And the mill said, because the mill was afraid they were going to be sued. Because of, you know, it was 19- 1968-69, because they had imposed this segregation onto th- the workers. And the mill announced they were abolished. And I remember my people were deva- devastated. My Aunt Margaret said this is not what Martin Luther King died for, for us to give up our picnic. And I was so struck by that. By what I we now call -- I didn't have the language for it, then --the difference between willing association and 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 ?Rampas? biography of Ralph Ellison a couple of years ago and I was struck by this. It just sounds ludicrous to us 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 them 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. Now it sounds like a joke but this what they actually believed. I remember Thurgood Mar- Marshall made a speech right after Brown v. Board he said, "Just going to take a couple of years, you know, the whole country's 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 and you have a right to do that. Well you in the book... Host: You make it very clear that the community experienced integration as a loss, which seems to be counterintuitive since people were moving with the civil rights movement. Help people try to figure out how the 'both' and 'and' of that if you can. Gates: Well, even when, up until a few years ago when somebody got shot at the colored VFW, even when I would go back when and now everything's in Piedmont, you know, the neighborhoods are integrated. People would still, the mill whistle blows at 3:30; all the black guys would go to to
the colored VFW and drink water glasses 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 se I've seen it when I've been ?in have? a lot of people have to be Jewish. And when I feel very privileged they invite me to the dinner when you break the fast or to a 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 similarity, it's not difference to them. Host: Well, you're talking about and I'm just trying to get to the 'loss' part, about why, you know, because that just feels like, you'll have that community even in integration. Gates: It's just, Host: yeah. Gates: Well, you can if you have to work it out. But it took the people in Piedmont by about 10 years to figure out they could have their own homecoming. But the mill had provided the money for for it. So then, after mourning 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 Mar- Marshall or any of the people who did the legal work for Brown v. Bo- Board could have imagined... Richard Wright wrote this essay in 1937 and he said if integration ever comes, negro literature as the negro literature will disappear. Because the only reason -- and he was using negro literature as a metaphor for black cultural institutions; churches, Martin Luther Ki- King famously said 11 o'clock in the morning's the most segregated moment -- er hour -- in the United States. Guess what: It still is because black people like going to black churches. Now there 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 would 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 schizophrenic, you know? Some days I'm black first, some days I'm uh a Harvard professor first, some days I'm Canterbrigean first, you know? Some days I walk with a cane first, you know. Some days I'm from West Virginia first. 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. Host: Now, Host: Now, back to your mom and the hating of the white people, [laughs] That's very interesting that, you know, that you come out as an obvious beneficiary of of the civil rights movement and she wanted those resources for you. Gates: Right. Host: So how do you -- I mean that's the scene 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
direction to be the best for me; what does that mean?" Gates: Well, my mother was very sensitive and if if the world had been integrated, if opportunity had been integrated, she'd be on, she'd have taught at Harvard, you know what I mean? And She was very successful in 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, um, you know, mistrustful that that that she couldn't be treated as an equal or no one black could. And I think she resented that, she chafed under 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 actualize my dreams and my ambitions?" I think that would have been hard, you know, would I become an alcoholic like, you know, you read about William Monroe Trotter; brilliant black man, class orator at Harvard,
late 1890s. Committed suicide. Um, You kn- know, if I hadn't been able, you know, for a long time, you know, knock on wood, there a lot of things if I think of them I could probably do them 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 privileged position that I have and um, I think about those, all those generations of frustration when people sat around and they had ideas just as good as mine if not better, and they couldn't actualize those ideas and I think that woulda killed me. It woulda killed something in me, something that is still very much alive. Host: Let me ask you 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. Gates: un-huh Host: You know, talk a little bit about what happened when Rocky did not win the contest he should have won. I felt that, that is really...
Gates: That's extremely ?___? that you would be there, that you would draw attention to that. In the eighth grade in West Virginia, you know, greater than the Pulitzer Prize, greater than the Nobel Prize for Literature is winning- winning the Golden Horseshoe in West Virginia history. I mean it is a big deal, and you were raced to win this horseshoe. and um, In my house, I mean, my brother, he was sharp, man. So he was going to win this thing thing. And I remember one day Mr. Shaver who was on the school board, my dad's best friend, a white man, man-- Daddy worked with him. He came and wanted to see mom and dad and they shooed us off. And he told them something. They were talking in hushed tones and Rocky had been told that he missed getting this prize by half a point because he misspelled a word. Can you imagine that? He had been preparing all his life to win win the Golden 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 had only just studied spelling harder," you know, and I remember just feeling sorry for him. I mean it tore me up and I
and I vowed that moment that I was going to win the Golden Horseshoe. Then Mr. Shaver came and after he left, my parents us called in and she said and my mother s"aid, "Rocky, you didn't miss.The- The hotels in ?_____?, you see, when you got the, the Golden Horseshoe, there were 4 people in each county; 55 counties in West Virginia. The 4 smartest kids. Of the 4 people 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 ...7 1958 and the hotels were integrated in the state capitol Charleston. So they couldn't let Rocky go because there was no place for him to stay. So they told him he had missed because because he had misspelled a point. ?In fact Coleman is known? as 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 could still see that shadow over my brother. And er so I
I determined that I was going to win it, and I won it. I mean I was pleased and he was pleased but he was also he was pleased with me but he was resentful, too, wh-- and he was resentful by the gap. If you read Malcolm Gladwell 'Outliers'? Host: Uh-huh. Gates: in the "Outliers' I thought of my brother when he's talking about... if you look at... I'll give you an example. First black mayor of Baltimore Kurt Schmoke um, the Congresswoman from Houston is Sheila Jackson Lee, Chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins is Ben Carson um, ?are first? Fletcher University Professor is me, 10,000 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 6 black boys to graduate. The class that ended with me in September '69 had 9- 96 black boys and girls. It's an accident of age. My My brother was 5 years older and 6 grades ahead. The world hadn't integrated
so he's smarter, probably, than I am but the opportunities were completely different for me than they were for my brother. But opportunities. can have an ironic um, um ending. When I grew up, up I got to know Jay Rockefeller -- 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 and ?hearing it? and about six months later I got this phone call and it was Rocky and he was crying and he said "Thank you," and I said 'Thank you for what?" he said. I just got the Golden Horseshoe; it just came in the mail. They changed the ... they went back and changed the record. [applause]That is cool. Host: Now here's the second one that demonstrated the limitations but also in a very interesting interesting way, in a different way. "Colored on Channel 2." Gates: Oh my God, yeah. 'Colored, colored on channel 2!' There were so few black people on tel-
television that when one was on, everybody call everybody. 'Turn Channel 2, turn Channel 2 now! Colored before they disappear!' And they saw all black movies. Remember the Late Late Show? Some of you are old enough to remember that. They would have the Late Show. It was, oh there was Johnny Car- Carson. Then they'd have the Late show and the Late Late show and that's where you could see 'Cabin in the sky' and "Green Pastures." And we would stay up just to watch it, er, just to see somebody black on television. I remember with Nat King Cole had a 15 minute TV show. I was seven years old in 1957. Everybody watched it and I think some white woman kissed kissed him on the cheek [kiss sound]. Cancelled. It was, cause the sponsor said, "We can't have that. "Can't have that, Nat; sorry. All over." um, 'Amos and Andy' I loved 'Amos and Andy.' I just like seeing black people on television now there's back people everywhere on television. Host: Well, I wondered as a person who's from Piedmont, from that Tarrare as we discussed, great beneficiary of the civil rights movement goes from color-
colored on channel 2 to knowin' a woman -- Oprah -- who has her own own cable channel.Gates: Right. Host: I mean psychically, how do you process that? [laughs] Gates: Well, that's a big deal. Host: Yeah. I mean that's part of the ?cobra? moment, right? Host [laughing]: Yes. Gates: But even more important to me is if I make a documentaries; I make TV shows. I'm er making my tenth documentary film. It's amazing to me me. I me- I mean it's a miracle! I can't believe it. [applause] I cannot believe it. Thank you. It is Such a blessing. I, I can't believe it. My My, you know, after going to Yale and Cambridge and, you know, becoming an author, and becoming a professor, I had a fantasy I'd make I could make films one day and then I got the chance to do that. and it's extraordinary to me, it's just a great gift. And the fact that people resp- respond to them and people seem to like them. And I? knew when what.? I'm doing now which is, I'm doing a 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 Arab people said, "What about...". So it's like Noah I get
two Jewish Americans, two are Arab Americans two Latina; Eva Longoria. Yo-Yo Ma, Kristi Yamaguchi, Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, Mahmet Oz, Dr. Oz, Queen Nour, Elizabeth Alexander, Two West Indians, Elizabeth Alexander, Malcolm ?Gladwell? Brothers, Jamaicans ?we project? ?the? Native Americans, and I've done their family tree and their DNA and it's the damnedest thing. It's such a great, great experience and it's a way of reaching out to a broader world community Host: Now, 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 stu- stuff, you write about that, you're on a Website called, 'The Root', you're invested in a genealogy research.. Gates: I don't really own 'The Root', but I founded it with ?Randy?.[host and Gates laugh] Gates: He owns it and Host: Then... But my point is in ?carda? Africana, everything seems to track around that. Gates: Yeah. Host: Is that, was that from Piedmont, as well, just really feeling invested in in that and understanding that and wanting other people to be able to? Gates: You know, I owe this whole aspect of my life
to the 1956 World Book, edition of the World Book. I remember the principal of our elementary school, Mr. McHenry, sold the World Book says like, this is like having a gun at your head, right? He'd come around and say, "You gonna buy the World Book for Skippy, right?" Whadya gonna say? "No"? [Host laughs]That was- It's probably illegal now [laughs]. So we bought the World Book. You know, you'd buy volume a month, I guess guess; I can't remember how you paid but, man, we loved that World Book. I have never had a book book I loved more than that 1956 edition of The World book. And we used it 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 records division in the library, right? I mean I was joking earlier with the reference librarian in the Cambridge library and er- I love encyclopedias and dictionaries and I I have an archival fascination with archives. I mean
I mean it really turned me on. I find them beautiful, intriguing and, you know, discovering our nig- and the identity of the author by name is one of the great days of my life. and, er, I wanted to be Dubois' every ?___? W.B. Dubois, you know, Harvard Harvard A.B. 1890; A.M. 1891. First Negro to get a Ph.D. from Harvard 1895. He was the man. You know Cornel West and Anthony ?______?,and all of us put together can't tie his shoes and all his life he wanted to edit the first black encyclopedia. [coughs] Excuse me. The Encyclopedia Afrikana. And he first said the idea in 19- 1909. ?Judaica? was published in today 1907. And I read read about that when I was undergraduate and I said, "I want to edit that encyclopedia," and it took me 25 years to raise the money; and I raised 2 million dollars. In 1999 we published the Encyclopedia Africana ?as bad? You know [laughter] I loved that. And er but But. I don't know why. Yeah, I don't know why but
But it has been an impulse to me and I knew early on that even when I was a teenager there was a tension between, in my S.A.T.s were 50 points higher in a quantitative than 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 was like more effortless. Things were just clinging to me. Black, black history, though, didn't exist for us in my school system but I can remember very easily facts about 'the Negro,' and I was intrigued with black history and and um but I just kind of put that I thought 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 ?Wally? Shinika, the first black person to get the Nobel Prize in Literature. Shinika was my professor and Anthony 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? ?______? You can be an academic and ?so on. But? doctors and I really revere them. But being a scholar there was a value system that was different and even at Yale, most of the smart kids were pre-professional, being a lawyer or doctor; there were few of us who became academics but not many. Most of my friends became lawyers or doctors or investment bankers, you know, whatever. And so in that different val- value system, it freed me when I went to England. And the hardest thing thing was coming back and telling my parents, because my mama wanted me to be a doctor and I didn't want to let her down. And Daddy wanted me to be a lawyer. And so when I got back, you know, I sat them down and I said, you know, I've decided I'm going to be a professor, I wanna be a, and my mother said, "What took you so long?" 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." [laughs]
And my mother was outrageous. Whenever my brother and I would go home for Christmas or something, phone would ring somebody. As for Dr. Gates And she'd say, "Which one?" She was very proud of education ?end of us in? Host: The line that Susan read from your book is actually the beginning of your application to Yale. " My grandfather was colored, my father's Negro, and I am black." Gates: A strong black man. [laughs] Host: And I just wanted 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? Gates: It's how people talk. and I'm very much a "?music free? and direct 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, um, remembrance of it started in the form of letters and I thought about it, I didn't really think about whether I would take it out. It just it would be dishonest, historically, to take it out. Do I walk around say, "Nig- ..ger this and Nigger that" and it drives me crazy the way.. First of all I've never heard a white person say the word 'nigger' that didn't drive
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, 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. Um 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 that you said was You have to travel around the African continent, I I want to say "thank God for slavery," because he didn't want to be in Africa which is really horrible when you think about it but the other thing that the recruiter recuperates by saying you know the most important thing I saw in Africa was that I realized what I didn't see any niggers there. Because there were no niggers there. People are proud. and basically, I'm paraphrasing this, he said we've internalized our own oppression by cal- calling each other niggers. And I'm not going to use the word anymore. And everybody claps and the rec-
the record ends. The next album is called 'Bicentennial Nigger.' [laughs] Richard Pryor ?as though? he couldn't stop to stop using. So it is very complicated, this code shifting within the race. It's like, you know, I've heard Irish people call each other names and Jewish people, you know, within, being the only only other one there, using words that I never would use and I would feel uncomfortable using. How do you feel about it? I'm curious. Host: Well, I've read Randall Kennedy. That's another subject. [laughs] Let me ask this question: When you When you wrote the book, it was for, I'm not answering that question Gates: see that, see that? Host: I'm not answering that. That's terrible. Come on, Callie, tell us, tell us. [laughs] Now I'm asking the question. Um You wrote the book, as you said, it's 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? Gates: I don't know you have to ask. I mean I'm not being evasive like you.[both laugh] Host: Go ahead. Gates: But I don't know you'd have to ask them, you know. I mean, how have I shaped them, how've their mother shaped them? shaped them. I don't know. You know, they're wild, they do wild crazy things and I say, "You take up your mother's people. [laughs] But um, I don't know. You know, I'm very proud of them. They really came into their own this summer. One's 29, one's 2- 27. I mean they've had very successful lives. But Maggie passed her orals at Harvard -- she's in the Ph.D. program ?save? -- on September 4th and after the crazy summer we had. And I went to her this summer Host: Did you have a crazy crazy summer? Gates: Oh my God, what time is it? We, er, I told her, "You know, baby, I think you might want to reschedule your orals" because it was very stressful and um
she said, "I'll think about it." er and when I went to the White House, they went with me my dad my brother, my girlfriend, and Maggy and Liza. We had the Gates Brigade. And that was really cool, that was cool because the president, but he found that, when we walked in Probably not 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 in 96 and he's..." "Oh my god!" and he pushed some button and some CIA agent, you know, jumped up an- I mean, got my father an-. Rocky had been pushing Daddy around the wheelchair because, you know, we had a big tour of the White House. It was so funny; the Crowleys entered in one wing and we ended in the other wing and they had this 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 again,'
but I didn't say that. [Host laughs] And, um, so we all laughed and, you know, it was it was nice and then the whole 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,I don't even like beer that much, to tell you the truth, you know, but,. Host: Red Stripe, as I recall. Gates: No but I I know I thought was going to have Red Stripe but I really I had Sam Adams because of Boston and my fourth great-grandfather was a free negro fought in the American Revolution. So I figured I got to have Sam Adams from Boston, for Cambridge, and for my fourth grade ?____?. You know I was good. And um 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-the-box, man, ?____?, ?___? stand there with the president having all of these photo- photographs. It was the only way I could get my dad in the Oval Office; what can I say? [laughs]
Host: Really wonderful. Gates: What was your question? I lost my ?____?. Host: I was as- asking how did how did the book and your writing of it for your daughters shape their world view? Well and then. Oh yeah. And then Liza, I'm sorry. So Maggy continued. she said, "No, I'm going to take my orals and Liza wrote about the events of the summer It was on TV and, you know, ?even? debated the mayor of Cambridge you know all this stuff and I look at it like "Who's ?___?. And she became a correspondent because of that for Tina Brown and the Daily Beast dot com. 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 Liza is a journalist and as you know, one of my hats is a journalist so I felt I must have shaped them some kind of way and that but they went at it their own way. When Maggie graduated from Wesleyan, she became a bartender on Martha's Vineyard. I was going to have to invest in a bar. I can tell you the truth. But you know what, you all have kids and what are you gonna do? to do. I said, "Baby, that's what you want to do, that's what you do."
I am going to leave a copy of this for you, the graduate that ?said? you know of course here in case you want to read it. The ?_____? or whatever it's called. But she came about it in her own way and Liza, too, and all of a sudden Liza was very stylish, you know, fun-loving party girl, very articulate, very opinionated. All of a sud- of a sudden she's writing these full blown articles. I was saying, "Where the hell did all of this come from?" 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... Host: So they're standing on your shoulders and on that Piedmont soil in some way. Well, and all the shoulders that I'm standing on, too. So that's..... Host: There's a few questions here from people from the audience that I would like to get to. Gates: We ain't got ?____? to eat. Host: OK. Gates: Now I'm hungry. Host: You're gonna have to answer a few of these. Gates: All right. You got any wine? Host: Yeah. Are you familiar with ?---------'s? memoir, The Beautiful Struggle and if so do you see any similarities between his route to education and yours? Gates: No I haven't read it. Host: OK. All right. Well that answers that question.
Host: I thought this one you might...Gates: Next.[laughs] I should read it so give me that card card so I can I could read that now. Host: ok, wait a minute. All right Host: There you go. OK. I'm sure this is the young person who wrote this so you can take it like that. What inspires you today in your senior years? [audience laughs; host laughs; Gates: Ooooh! Damn that's cold. Cold, man. Who wrote that?. Take my class, you gonna get in trouble. Host: You want to answer that? Um- You know, I read this article the other day, I can't even remember where it was but there was a woman who had suffered all these tragedies. She was a refugee, I think she was Cambodian 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
if this sunny temperament was genetic. And I have a fundamentally sunny temperament and I always have, my whole life. My mother used to marvel at it. 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 that happened to me and but but not like bad things have happened to a lot of people and I'm sure that things that happened to me that would wipe that smile right on my face. But in general, I'm pretty up ?on? psyched when I get up in the morning and I still feel a tremendous sense of possibility, that I could 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 and raising funds for it. You know what I mean? I really like conceiving of an idea and then making it happen.
I loved conceiving of the African-American Lives series. I loved making the African-American Lives series. But I loved going out and raising money for the African-American Lives... I could raise 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 couldn't do one; they go to Harvard Business School. Some people do the other other and they go to the English Department. I could have probably gone to Harvard Business School, too. You know, I mean I'm a kind of business-oriented sort of person. And one of the reasons, Callie, for that is black history; people had dreams that they couldn't fulfill 'em. And it tore me up, man, it really wrenched me. And I decided that I wanted to... you know the Du Bois Institute has an endowment. A thousand years from now there will be a Du Bois Institute, and I'm proud of that. You know I built that endowment. I had a lot of help ?______? Rubenstein and other presidents, etc. but I really worked. I have a great board that donates money to the Du Bois Institute so we can bring fellows here and fund research projects. Leaving that kind of legacy, you know, Dubois was great
great as he was, and 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. Washington -- not politically, not with his retrograde 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, um, sometimes maybe I feel if I weren't inst- institution-building, I'd have written more books. Other times I think maybe I should have just built 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. [audience and host laugh] Host:That's good Gates: continues to... Host: 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
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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.
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Speaker2: Gates, Henry Louis
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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-p55db7vz2r.
- 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-p55db7vz2r>.
- 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-p55db7vz2r