Henry Louis Gates, Jr.(continued)previouspage 2 of 2

skip in shades

When I first saw Sterling, I simply presumed it to be the University cathedral, garbed as it was in new-Gothic splendor, its spirals pointing the way to Heaven, high above the New Haven skyline. Its gargoyles and stained-glass windows suggested Canterbury or the Vatican to me. When I first encountered its row and rows of oak catalogue cards, I found myself wondering what kind of church this might posibly be. A soft-spoken, walnut brown-skinned woman smiled softly at me the first time that I returned some borrowed books. "They are a bit overdue," she had told me, staring at me with dark brown eyes. "But let's just ignore that little inconvenience." We got to know each other, and once she casually mentioned that she didn't get to see her daughter-in-law very much these days, since she was in prison. Huggins...Ericka Huggins! You could have knocked me over with a feather! The John Huggins that we had heard so very much about all through the 1969 academic year, the same John Huggins murdered ostensibly over a squabble about the black studies curriculum at UCLA between the Panthers and Karenga's US organization, that John Huggins, fledgling Black Panther had been produced in a home practically within the spiralling towers of Yale's Sterling Memorial library!

After that realization, I became deeply committed to defend Bobby Seale's right to a fair trial, even if I couldn't quite wrap my fingers around the Panthers' socialist platform or what seemed to me to be their militaristic discipline. We went on strike on April 15 1970, two weeks before Nixon and Henry Kissinger invaded Cambodia. The Panthers had come to New Haven in spades late in the fall of 1969, hoping to dramatize their plight by forging alliances with Yale's privileged white elite. "We must heighten the contradictions," they would repeat to us, over and over. It took us awhile to realize that "heightening the contradictions" meant that one of us--or, better yet, one of our wealthy white classmates -- might "get busted," or busted over the head, brutalized by the New Haven police during a political rally against police brutality in front of TV cameras broadcasting live for the rest of the country to see. Soon we realized--or de Chabert, our prince of a leader realized -- that we had to become a vanguard, yes, but to protect our common Mother, Yale -- the Library, the neo-Gothic twelve "colleges" or dormitories, and above all else, our new friends -- from the Panther's most ardent desire to see the police bust our heads.

We struck because Bobby Seale, we felt deeply, was not being tried fairly just down the street, bound and gagged as he had been in Chicago and as we were sure he would be in New Haven during the worst moments of the trial. And, through some miracle of simpatico, noblesse oblige and grit, we persuaded a healthy majority of our white classmates to "shut the joint down". Yale joined the "Moratorium" that led to the most widespread strike in the history of higher education in America. We knew that we were on the right path when Kingman Brewster, Yale's dynamic aristocratic president, not only supported our sentiments but openly declared that "I am skeptical of the ability of a Black Panther to receive a fair trial in this country."

That was the end of any skepticism among the students. It was also the end of Kingman Brewster's romantic honeymoon with the Yale alumni, already bent out of shape by co-education and the emerging presence of so many wooly heads amongst Yale's much vaunted 1,000 Male Leaders. Kingman's days had become suddenly numbered.

The strike rally was glorious: it seemed as if 100,000 people crowded onto the New Haven Green on May Day of 1970, although the New York Times reported only 15,000. Kingman offered them food and shelter in the residential colleges. It was an organized protest, led by the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Ken Mills, and our own Glenn De Chabert. Each stained glass window of that sacred cathedral of learning that we called "Sterling" stood intact at the week's end. De Chabert had never spoken more impressively, had never been more daring or inspiring,

As for me, it was time to make a change, time for me to make a pilgrimage to "the great pork-chop," as Eldridge Cleaver called "Mother Africa," to see for myself what all this blackness stuff was all about, really. And to check out a beast called "African socialism" close-up, in the Tanzania of that philosopher-king, Julius Nyeyere. There, I worked in an Anglican mission hospital for much of a year, before returning to "Babylon," as the Panthers had so poetically christened America, true Babylonian that I soon realized that I was. Yes, it was time to make a change.

That year-long sojourn to the Continent killed any residue of desire I had to be a doctor; I returned to Yale, majored in History, graduated with a slew of honors, and won a Mellon fellowship (A "watermelon fellowship," my Dad had declared, because I was the very first black to receive it) to go off to Cambridge, where I finally admitted to myself that, all along, I had wanted to be a scholar and a writer and had wanted to do so for many years.

When I returned a few years later to teach at Yale, so very much had changed: any pretense that black admissions would be anything but staunchly and firmly middle-class had long ended during my absence abroad. The new black middle class was perpetuating itself. The openness of Affirmative Action, under assault by Bakke and wounded, was functional enough to increase the size of the middle-class exponentially.

And yet... and yet... the gradual disappearance of industrialjobs in the cities cut off that upwardly mobile class escalator that so many in the middle class had been able to ride, from no jobs to menial ones, from non-skilled labor to the craft unions. It had been the security of union wages that engendered educational aspirations, and its concomitant, personal responsibility. Within what seemed to be the blinking of an eye, the "intolerable" ghetto conditions against which we had railed so ardently in the late sixties would take on (through the sepia lens of nostalgia and our own ample frustrations at the seeming futility of so much for which we had sacrificed) the wistful splendor of a better day that we had fled, when once upon a time when we were colored.

In a world peopled by so many black have's, so many more black have-not's, the tension between the structural causes of poverty and the behavioral causes of poverty become remarkably difficult to bear. And each side came to have the strangest allies: Farrakhan's economic program reads like the last Republican Party Platform; the Million Man March seems like the greatest self-help rally of all. Missing from the Million Man March was that bastion of Booker T. Washington boot-strap boosterism, Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas, who could not possibly be displeased by its call for more and more personal responsibility.

So the blackest thing that a man could do that October was to go to the Million Man March. "Were you there?" I've been often asked, knowing immediately where "there" was. "Did you see it, Brother? Did you feel it?" And it was a sublime event, despite Farrakhan's rambling two-hour address and his own failure to atone for his own sexism, anti-semitism, and homophobia. Many of my friends attended and were deeply moved by what they saw. Relieved once again to have been able to bridge the black gap of class, to have been down with the brothers. Still, I wonder--if Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, or anyone else had turned up at the Million Man March on Washington and handed over a check for $500 billion--would anyone there have known how to spend it to solve the problems of the inner city? I certainly have no magic cures.

For so many of us, the gap of class has made us hunger for the sepia caste warmth of the fifties and sixties, the good ole days of segregation. Many of us try to assuage our own guilt, to relieve our own angst and deeply-felt anxieties, through a symbolic black cultural nationalism: John Coltrane poster framed and hanging in a living room. A numbered Romare Bearden print in the den. An African sculpture neatly displayed and lighted here and there. Boxed sets of Monk and Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Miles, strewn around a coffee table. Kente cloth bow ties and cummerbunds peeping discreetly from under our tuxedos. We're still down with the program.

If black nationalism is the figure in the carpet of African American culture, then class differentials comprise the sordid stain that the carpet covers. For my community, the African American community, it is the best of times and the worst of times. We have the largest black middle class in our history, and the largest black underclass. According to a report by the Alternative Schools Network, in 1990, nationwide, 2,280,000 black boys and men were jailed or imprisoned at some time during the year, while only 23,000 earned a college degree. That's a ratio of 99 to 1. For white boys and men, the ratio of inmates to graduates was six to one, with 2,412,000 locked up at some time in 1990 and 413,000 earning a bachelor's degree.

What do we do about this? What do we not do?

 


First of all, we have to stop feeling guilty about our success. Too many of us have what psychologists call "the guilt of the survivor," deep anxieties about leaving the rest of our fellow blacks in the inner city of despair. We need to feel the commitment to service, not to guilt. Our community, our families, prepared us to be successful. "Get all the education that you can," they told us over and over-- and we did. When I left home for Yale. virtually my whole hometown celebrated that fact. "The community," as we so romantically still put it, wished for us to succeed. "Talking black," "walking black," wearing kente cloth, listening to black music, and filling our walls with black art--as desirable as these thing can be in and of ourselves--are not essential to "being black" if our individual sensibilities are not attuned to these things. I tell my students that you can love Mozart, Picasso and Ice Hockey and still be as black culturally as the ace of spades.

Second, we don't have to fail in order to be black, as odd and as crazy as this sounds. Far too many young black kids say that succeeding is "white." Had any of us said this sort of thing when we were growing up, our families and friends would have checked us into a mental institution. We need more success individually and collectively not less.

Third, we don't have to pretend any longer that 35 million people can ever possibly be members of the same economic class. Think about this! What a bizarre idea. We are a nation: the entire population of Canada is 27 million, and we have 35 million blacks. Canadians are not all members of one economic class. Nor do they speak with one single voice, united behind one single leader. As each black person knows, we have never been members of one social or economic class, and never will be. The best we can strive for is that the class differentials within the black community cease their lopsided ratios because of the pernicious nature of racial inequality. Even if racism disappears, we will still face class differentials in the black community; we have had these since slavery. Our job is to demand the end of sexism and racism so that this kind of normal differentiation can occur without systematic structural (racial) discrimination.

In a world in which the rhetoric of civil rights era sounds hollow and empty, race differences and class differentials have been ground together in a crucible of misery and squalor. And such a way that few of us can tell where one stops and the other begins.

But I do know that the causes of poverty within the black community are both structural and behavioral--as scholars as diverse as philosopher Cornel West and sociologist William Julius Wilson have pointed out--and we are foolish to deny this. A household comprised of a 16-year-old mother, a 32-year-old grandmother and a 48-year-old great grandmother cannot possibly be a site for hope and optimism. Our task, it seems to me, is to lobby for those social programs that have been demonstrated to make a difference for those sufficiently motivated to seize these expanded opportunities.

More importantly, however, we have to demand a structural change in this country, the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for the cities. We have to take people off welfare, train them for occupations relevant to a 21st century, highly technological economy, and put them to work. Joblessness, as Wilson maintains, is our biggest crisis.

And while I favor such incentives as tax breaks to generate new investment in inner cities, youth apprenticeships with corporations, expanded tax credits for earned income and tenant ownership of inner city property, I believe that we will have to face the reality that most of our inner cities are simply not going to become overnight oases of economic prosperity and corporate investment. And we should most probably think about moving black inner city workers to the jobs rather than hold our breath waiting for new factories to resettle in the inner city.

It is only by confronting the twin realities of white racism, on the one hand, and our failures to take the initiative and break the cycle of poverty, on the other, that we, once called a Talented Tenth and today more of a Talented Fifth, will be able to assume a renewed leadership role for, and with, the black community. To continue to repeat the same old stale formulas--to blame "the man" for oppressing us all in exactly the same ways; to scapegoat Koreans, Jews, or even Haitians for the failure of black Americans to seize local entrepreneurial opportunities--is to fail to accept our role as leaders of our own community. Not to demand that each member of the black community accept individual responsibility for her or his behavior -- whether that behavior assumes the form of black-on-black homicide, gang members violating the sanctity of the church, unprotected sexual activity, gangster rap Iyrics, misogyny and homophobia, whatever--is for us to function merely as ethnic cheerleaders selling woof tickets from campus or suburbs, rather than saying the difficult things that may be unpopular with our fellows.

Being a leader does not necessarily mean being loved; loving one's community means daring to risk estrangement and alienation from that community, in the short run, in order to break a cycle of poverty, despair, and hopelessness that we are in, over the long run. For what is at stake is nothing less than the survival of our country and the African American people themselves.

Just as we must continue to fight for more people of color to be admitted to the student bodies and hired on the faculty and staff of our colleges and universities, we must fight to see that Congress and the President enact a comprehensive jobs bill and the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for the cities, as the Urban League advocates each year. And finally, to help to bridge the painful gap between those of us on campus and those of us left behind on the streets, I call upon the Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Afro-American Studies Departments in this country to institutionalize sophomore and junior year summer internships for community development--through organizations such as the Children's Defense Fund--so that we can begin to combat teenage pregnancies, black-on-black crime, the spread of AIDS from drug abuse and unprotected sexual relations and the counter spread of despair and hopelessness that so affects our communities. Working together in programs such as these, we can begin to bridge that gap that has divided the black community into two.

Dr. King did not die so that half of us would make it, half of us perish, forever tarnishing two centuries of agitation for our equal rights. We must accept our historical responsibility and live Dr. King's credo that none of us is free until all of us are free. And that all of us are brothers and sisters, as Dr. King said so long ago--white and black, Protestant and Catholic, Gentile and Jew and Muslim, Gay and straight, rich and poor -- even if we are not brothers-in-law."

 

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