Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residency at Shepherd University

Recipient of the 2007 Appalachian Heritage Writer’s Award

By Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt and David O. Hoffman


S & D:   There is an exuberance in your work, a wonderful, positive enthusiasm that seems to have followed you from the beginning.  Whether you carry any of the “baggage” or guilt of an immensely successful man who happens to be African American is not present in your writing.  How much do you think your particular background—growing up in a small town in West Virginia, starting out at the nascent moment of crumbling social and racial barriers in America, a time when hope still burned white hot, having the parents and the community closeness that you write about in Colored People—has to do with the distinctive outlook that you evince in your work.


HLG:  I think most of it has to do with my parents, who expected great things from both my brother and me. They wouldn't accept anything less than our very best effort. I was lucky to be born when I was, because a lot of opportunities were open to me that were not open to, say, my father, who is himself a very intelligent and driven man.


S & D:  Despite your extraordinary accomplishments, you have also received some criticism, from both the right and the left (which must mean that you are doing quite a bit right)—from conservatives that you are too generous with “loosening” the canon, from liberals that you are too accommodating to the patriarchal, dominant white culture.  How do you respond to such criticism and what do you hope that your legacy to scholarship and to the racial conversation might be?


HLG:  I don't respond! People write and speak with their own agenda, and because I've been fortunate to have a public platform for many years (and especially since coming to Harvard), I—or, more aptly, my views are an easy target.


I hope that my legacy to scholarship and the racial conversation will be that African American literature, history, and culture—and all of the achievements of our people—will be seen and understood as central, not peripheral, to American literature, history, and culture.


S & D:   You undertook quite an extraordinary adventure before your junior year at Yale working at a mission hospital in Tanzania for a year and hitchhiking with a buddy across the African continent, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlanta Ocean.  For a guy who early on knew that learning and scholarship would become his reason for being, what did this unique experience mean to you and why?


HLG:  These travels and experiences in Africa were absolutely formative in my learning and my scholarship! I got to see where our journey as African Americans started.


S & D:  In an interview in 2002, you talked about the many mentors—“a rainbow coalition of mentors”—that made a remarkable difference in your own intellectual journey.  Who were some of the most significant and inspiring mentors for you as a young man?  What about their encouragement was particularly inspiring to you; what qualities in them helped you?


HLG: I've always had great, inspiring teachers, from the time I was a little boy in Piedmont. As a student at Potomac State, I had the good fortune to take a class with Duke Whittemore, a white professor who saw something in me and encouraged me to go to Yale. At Yale, the redoubtable Charles T. Davis and John W. Blassingame turned me into a scholar, and showed me that African American studies was a real, truly scholarly discipline. John Holloway and Raymond Williams taught me theory—how to read it and how to write it and still be intelligible. And Wole Soyinka was my first advisor at Cambridge, where they didn't think African American literature was literature, but rather social anthropology. So there I was, with one of the greatest literary geniuses of our time, studying "anthropology"! 


S & D:  What is the importance of this kind of encouragement and modeling for young people?  What about such a relationship inspires both the mentor and the mentee?


HLG:  Absolutely crucial; there's little that's more important. The student gets a real sense of what is possible, and of how to get those ideas out; and the teacher learns from the student how much more work there is to do.


S & D:  As was often the case in the 70s and 80s, young Ph.D. scholars were steered toward the traditional canon rather than being allowed to pursue those non-canonical writers off the “academic” beaten track of the time.  Did you find any benefits from being asked in graduate school somewhat to side-step your scholarly interests by immersing yourself in the traditional canon (in your case, writing a dissertation on European writers of the Enlightenment indirectly involved in philosophic debate about slavery and race issues of the day)?  What were the debits and/or benefits of such an education?


HLG:  Tremendous benefits. I can't think of a single debit, to use your word. We have to know what we're up against! Seriously, Africans (and other people of color; I'm thinking of the indigenous peoples of the Americas specifically) have been represented by European writers, philosophers, artists as intellectually inferior, unreasonable, unrefined, purely physical and suited only for brute labor—take your pick. Knowing the Western  canon increases our knowledge about the history and culture of black people. While African American literature, for example, can stand on its own as literature, outside of its political or historical context, why ask expect it to do so, when it was not created in an apolitical or ahistorical vacuum, but in a world of Western ideas that sought to deny its very existence?


S & D:  Having been involved in developing both gender and minorities courses and integrating these writers into our teaching, we are both acutely aware of the arguments that we often hear about teaching such specialized courses as Women’s Studies, Appalachian Cultural Studies, and African American Studies—that these courses “ghettoize” the literature and the writers, that mainstreaming is a more effective way to approach the teaching of literature, etc.  What is the essential or kernel argument that you have offered when others have criticized the need for such specialized programs and courses in the academy?


HLG:  We’ve got to have specialized courses, and we've got to have African American Studies departments, Women's Studies department, for the foreseeable future because mainstream scholarship is based on the idea that Shakespeare, Faulkner, Joyce are the standards by which all other work is measured. There is the idea that blacks, women, and other underrepresented groups in the arts are always "writing against" something (even I used that phrase, somewhat facetiously, in my answer to the previous question) instead of creating something new. If we want to see the work of black writers and women writers as valid in its own right and not as a subset of a "larger" field, then we have to give them their own space, a room of their own, as it were. I hope that this will not always be the case, but for now it is.


S & D:  In 1991, you went to Harvard to chair the African American Studies Department, literally transforming it from fledgling—perhaps flailing—to the vibrant resource that it is today, a veritable “think tank” and interdisciplinary resource for questions about race and African American studies.  How did you manage to do that?


HLG:  No university in this country, or maybe even the world, has the public platform that Harvard has. That in itself was a powerful draw. And with the top people in their fields assembled—Cornel West, Anthony Appiah, Larry Bobo, and later we added William Julius Wilson, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Roland Fryer, and some other tremendous junior faculty—we had strength in numbers, and we attracted a lot of attention. And with the Du Bois Institute we had the ability to draw scholars from all over  the world and Africa especially—including Wole Soyinka. I know that I've been called an "operator," and I take that as a compliment!


S & D:  You have such diverse professional interests: a love for archives and archival research, administration of the African art database and the photo archive at Harvard, administration of one of the premier African American Studies programs in the country, teaching, writing, making documentaries.   How do you balance these?  How have you been able to accomplish so much?  Which among these activities and responsibilities provide the most satisfaction?


HLG:  At different times, different activities have provided the greatest satisfaction. Twenty years ago, when deconstruction and Marxism were all the rage in English departments, it was tremendously satisfying to publish "The Signifying Monkey" and see it alter the theoretical landscape. Now I wouldn't write a book like that, because it's more important to me to reach people outside of the academy as well as inside of it. I will say, though, there's nothing like the thrill of discovery: to find Harriet Wilson's and Hannah Crafts's manuscripts, and then to authenticate them and to realize that I had history in my hands—well, that was beyond compare. And I've been blessed to have that experience again with my more recent work in genealogy and DNA, in which I've made so many startling discoveries, about my own family and about the lives of African Americans in this country, in slavery and in freedom. So whether it's archival work or inventive theoretical work, I guess what gives the greatest satisfaction is discovering something new, and bringing it to wider attention. And I should say that I've been very fortunate to have great colleagues, researchers, and staff, who have made this juggling of activities possible.


S & D:  We understand that you are interested as well in the study of art and have yourself quite a collection of African art and artifacts.  We also note that you began as a historian and then devoted your work to writing, literature, and literary criticism.  How important is the interdisciplinary approach, in your estimation to teaching, writing and scholarship?


HLG:  Crucial. As I said earlier, no work of art—visual, literary, what have you—exists in a vacuum. If you look at artists, writers, filmmakers, and historians today, they're all talking to each other, and they always were  talking to each other. That's why we have movements like the Harlem Renaissance, which are truly interdisciplinary.


S & D:  Somewhere we read that you believe fully in the concept of the “economy of scholarship,” whereby you connect your teaching to your research.  For example, you have noted that your staple courses are on the Harlem Renaissance, African American Women’s Writing, and the African American Literary Tradition, all connected directly to major publications and/or projects.  This professional approach seems wonderfully sensible to us, and it follows the “scholar-teacher” ideal.   What advice do you offer to young scholars and teachers who would look to you as a model?


HLG:  Teach what you know best, and what you love. Design classes based on your current research, and don't be afraid to change those as your research progresses. Students know when you're engaged with your material, and they'll respond to that. Survey courses are important, of course, and it's crucial that we feel invested in those as well, for the sake of our students who are getting perhaps their first introduction to a field (I still co-teach the undergraduate Introduction to African American Studies, for example). So for survey courses, it is essential to shake up the syllabus from time to time, just to keep your own interest alive.


S & D:  Within the context of the controversy concerning the recent Don Imus case and the reaction against rap music, how would you weigh in on this controversy today, particularly in light of your defense of free speech, 2 Live Crew, and rap musicians? 


HLG:  As objectionable as his speech was, he's free to speak as he sees fit—just like hip hop artists. But so are we, and it's our responsibility as thinking black people to call a racist a racist, but also to let hip hop artists and, more importantly, the vast audience for hip hop—both white and black—know that we're not all in the same camp on their views with respect to women, violence, drugs, etc. A chief problem for the black community is that it tends to be viewed as a monolith, rather than as a collection of individual voices and beliefs. Right now, hip hop offers a compelling view of black culture—compelling because as human beings we're drawn to stories of danger, violence, and all-around "bad" behavior. But it's not necessarily accurate for all of us, and it's certainly not the only story out there.


S & D:  We have been struck by the fact that you yourself seem to possess a “double voice,” not so much in the literary sense that you speak of in The Signifying Monkey and Figures in Black, but in the sense that you appear to have found the secret to walking gracefully in both the Black and the White worlds, in being able to transcend your racial self, to view both Black and White in terms of “disinterestedness” (in the Victorian or 19th-century sense of that word).   A few others have been able to accomplish this trick—Barack Obama, Ophra Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Tiger Wood.  For someone who writes predominantly about race, how did you come by or cultivate this sense of transcending race, this comfort zone with different races and classes?  How have you managed to avoid the “racial baggage” that so many of the rest of us carry?


HLG:  I don't think I've transcended race or that I've avoided carrying "racial baggage." I'm a black man, and that's the lens I tend to view the world through. However, I live in a world where not everyone is black; in fact, most of the people in my professional world are white. I've tended to approach most people as both teacher and student: I have things to teach, but also a lot to learn. So it's always been important to me that I can communicate with anyone I cross paths with. 


S & D:  You’ve written of the closeness of your family, a traditional characteristic in the Appalachian family as well as the African American family.  Can you recall any defining moment growing up with your family in Piedmont that inspired the way you live your life today? 


HLG:  I don't think there was one defining moment! My book "Colored People," which I am deeply honored to know was selected  for the "One Book, One West Virginia" reading program, recounts many defining moments. If I can reshape the question, I would say that the example my parents set for me—my father's industry and tirelessness, and my mother's dedication to making sure her sons worked hard!—were, and still are, the most defining and inspiring facets of my life.


S & D:  What are your next scholarly or writing projects?


HLG:  I'm in the midst of filming "African American Lives 2" for PBS, the follow-up series to "African American Lives" and "Oprah's Roots," in which we trace the ancestry back to Africa of several numerous African Americans, this time including Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, Dave Chappelle, and Beyoncé. Our goal for the series is to show "ordinary" African Americans as well that advances in DNA science and genealogical research have opened up tremendous opportunities for us to learn about who we are and where we came from.  To this end, we are profiling one "ordinary family" in the series, a feature of the show that I think will be immensely rewarding. I am also working on a few other documentary projects surveying the history of Africans in America. I don't want to be more specific than that right now!