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Educating America on Race Relations: An Interview with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

By Jeannette | February 29, 2012

Photo: Jeffrey Dunn

By: Justin Chan

A distinguished professor at Harvard University and a celebrated scholar on African American studies, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has received a number of awards for his study on Black culture.  He currently directs the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research at the university and has been credited for transforming the school’s African American studies program. In 1981, he received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant to fund his research for Black Periodical Literary Project, a venture that collects and annotates Black newspapers and magazines.

A literary critic, Dr. Gates also served as an editor on several anthologies of African American literature and wrote several works in relation to literary theory, including Black Literature and Literary Theory and The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. Aside from earning more than 50 honorary degrees, he was named as one of Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential Americans in 2007. Check out our interview below with Dr. Gates to learn more about his thoughts on race relations.

In honor of Black History Month, we’ve been doing a feature on prominent African Americans who defied the odds in order to achieve success. Who do you think deserves recognition but hasn’t received it yet?

Phillis Wheatley. Against the greatest odds, she was the first poet of African descent to publish a book in the English language. In 1773, many people thought persons of African descent were more related to monkeys and apes than Italians and Englishmen. Against tremendous odds, [Wheatley] was a true pioneer, and she should be celebrated by every Black person.

What do you think has been your greatest achievement thus far?

Me? Trying to be a good father to two beautiful and brilliant young women, Maggie Gates and Liza Gates.

Which current African American author do you find most appealing? Why?

Oh, it’s definitely tough to say. There are many African American writers that I admire, but I find Toni Morrison endlessly fascinating, complex and rich.

Some believe that there should be a certain level of political correctness when referring to African Americans. For instance, several people have an issue when this particular demographic is referred to as “Black” while others are completely fine with it. Do you believe there is any sort of connotation behind this label that warrants a degree of political correctness?

No, I think people should be comfortable with identifying themselves with whatever label they want. I don’t think that we should judge people. I prefer the term “African American” without the hyphen. For me, at this point, I’ve written about Africa and made documentaries about Africa, so I’m very aware about the connections and the disconnections between Africa and the United States. We’re definitely an African people, but we are a New-World African people. I’d like to, very much, keep our identification with our African heritage.

In a 2010 editorial for the New York Times, you attempted to convince your readers to stop completely blaming the Europeans for the slave trade while acknowledging that they were partially responsible for what had happened. Your piece received a strong response from the African American community. Why do you think there’s been difficulty in reaching a compromise on this issue?

The slave trade was evil, but it’s very important not to give a pass to the African elites that engaged in wars and sold other Africans to Europeans. Many African Americans have romanticized the African past. As Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, points out, there’s a connection between the corruption of African [governments] today and the roles of the African elites in the slave trade. I think he’s absolutely right. Until we’re honest about that and until we deal with it, we won’t be able to make certain forms of social progress in the African continent.

It was easier for us, as African Americans, to think that there was only one set of bad guys in the slave trade. As a matter of fact, there were two: African elites and Europeans. And as it turns out, why should we be surprised?  Why should Africans be any pure or any more noble than other human beings? Both sides were motivated for commercial reasons, and both sides are guilty.

Now, there was an uproar when I wrote this article because the politically correct interpretation is to give Africans a pass and to demonize the Europeans. Other people [said], “Well, persons of European descent in America made much more money and more profit over longer periods.” That’s true, but that’s not what I was talking about. I was talking about the origins of the slave trade. The origins of the slave trade can be traced to evil deeds done by both Europeans and African elites. No serious scholar would even question my assertion. Any serious scholar of the slave trade knows that what I was saying was true. We’re just uncomfortable with my making that statement in public, but I don’t respect that kind of politically correct censorship.

Every scholar of the slave trade knows about the African role in the slave trade. People wrote to me and said, “Well, what you wrote was true, but you shouldn’t have said it in public.” I think there should be some kind of symbolic reparations from Africa, and by “symbolic,” I mean apologies and honesty. I think African Americans should be offered symbolic citizenship in African countries and the right to own property. I think there are a lot of symbolic gestures that can be made to heal the breach between Africans and African Americans, but amnesia is not one of them.

We should not try to change the past. We have to learn from the past. Evil comes in all colors, including Black. The sale of Africans by Africans to Europeans, to me, represents one of the worst points in the history of the great African continent.

You’ve often been against creating a separatist black canon and have, instead, advocated an inclusive one that acknowledges the cultural connections between White and Black texts. Do you think there’s any way a black canon can exist in the future without having to refer to White cultural influences or racial themes?

There would be no America without African America, but there would be no African America without America. It’s a reciprocal relationship. We are an African people in the New World, and our texts, in the literary tradition, have two sets of mothers and fathers. Every Black author I know is very cognizant of his or her position in the African American literary canon but also in the broader American literary canon. So, you can teach a text in relationship to other Black texts or teach it in the larger context of American literature, among many other ways.

Starting with Zora Neale Hurston, there were people who wrote about self-contained Black worlds. A novel in the African American tradition doesn’t necessarily have to [talk] about White America, but it’s not surprising if [it does]. It’s possible to write about the Black culture by referring to White influences, and it’s possible to write them without having to, as Zora Neale Hurston proved.

There’s been some tension between Caribbean American communities and African American communities over the idea that they share a common Black experience in this country. What do you think are some notable differences and similarities between the two?

I think that the tensions between Caribbean immigrants and African Americans, which manifested as early as the 1920s, are primarily economic. People who are immigrants are motivated to leave home and seek a new life in a new world, that means that they tend to do very well. They have high motivation, and they have enough gumption to get up and leave and be willing to work hard and survive.

The fact that more Africans came to the United States between 1990 and 2000 and during the entire history of the  slave trade is an astonishing fact to most people, but it’s a fact. Many of these Africans are doing very, very well because they tend to be higher-educated. The same is true for the Caribbeans and in terms of the outcome. They tend to be better educated and more motivated. They also come from predominately Black societies, which means that they have a different understanding of themselves, a different amount of self-esteem and self-regard than someone who is structurally unemployed in America and a descendant of slaves.

Any immigrant in the New World is a descendant of slaves at some point, but it is how you see yourself in the mirror and how you conceive of yourself. That’s where the difference manifests itself. The tension between Black immigrants from Africa and the West Indies and Black Americans can be traced to economic causes.

What do you think is the most important issue that needs to be addressed within the African American community?

I think the three most important things that should be addressed in the African American community are education, education and education. I think that far too many of our people have lost the belief in the future and that we can achieve anything we set our minds to achieve in society. Our slave ancestors even believed that, against enormous odds, education would set them free. And guess what? They were right. Education still sets you free.

We need a civilized movement within the African American community that’s aimed at exorcising our people of the demons of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. With 50% of Black children in some schools now graduating and with such a high percentage of Black births out of wedlock, we realize that the class divide within the African American community will be permanent unless we take radical action.

We have to address the larger structural problems, such as the economic opportunities [available] and massive school reform. At the same time, we have to change the attitudes of the individuals. They have to learn to read and write, do their homework, stay in school, further their education and go to college. Otherwise, they’ll have no hope. Nobody can do that for you. You have to do it yourself. It’s a delicate balance. Both of these things have to happen simultaneously – structural change and behavioral change. If that doesn’t happen, the class divide within the race is only going to get worse.

Photo: The Humanihilsocialist 

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