Original Air Date: February 10, 1998
THE TWO NATIONS OF BLACK AMERICA
Air date: February 10, 1998
Produced by June Cross
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Correspondent
Written by June Cross and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [to panhandler] Hey, my man.
[voice-over] Every morning on my way to work, I walk right past them.
[to panhandler] The snow finally melted. I'm pretty good.
[voice-over] We exchange pleasantries -- we even know each other's names
-- but we live worlds apart. I'm a professor at Harvard, and every day I see
those for whom the walls of class are as real as the gates surrounding Harvard
Yard. They remind me that the Civil Rights movement is still unfinished.
PANHANDLER: [singing, playing harmonica] What would you do? What
would you do--
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] I sometimes wonder if all of
us were ever meant to reach the promised land. Today there is a gap between the
black middle and the black lower classes as wide as that between the black and
white races. How has black America become two nations? And what do we do about
PANHANDLER: [singing] What would you do? What would you do--
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] You can measure the success
of the modern Civil Rights movement right here in Harvard Yard, through the
numbers of black men and black women claiming their place at one of the
country's most elite universities.
This year's freshman class, with 136 black students, nearly tripled the number
admitted 30 years ago. These freshmen grew up without the laws of segregation.
They don't even remember when most blacks in the country couldn't vote or get a
good job, even with a Harvard degree.
My name is Henry Louis Gates, Jr., but most people call me Skip. I'm the DuBois
Professor of the Humanities and the chair of the Department of Afro-American
Studies. The chair is named after W.E.B. DuBois, a member of the class of 1890,
Harvard's first black Ph.D. and a co-founder of the NAACP. DuBois became the
towering black intellect of the 20th century. In 1900, he developed a blueprint
for the small community of college-educated blacks that he called the "Talented
AVERY BROOKS: [as W.E.B. DuBois] ´´The Negro race, like
all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of
education, then, is the problem of developing the best of this race that they
may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst.''
LAWRENCE BOBO, Professor: [at department gathering] Thank you all
so very much. Thank you, Skip.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] As the Afro-American Studies
Department welcomed our seventh faculty member this fall, I was reminded of
that obligation: to serve the rest of the black community, those the system has
left behind. As scholars, our role seems limited, yet for black professors like
the philosopher Cornel West, the question of how the academy can contribute to
the future of the race is as urgent as ever.
[on camera] How do you respond when someone stands up at the end of one
of your lectures and says, "When was the last time you helped someone on the
street corner? What are you men and women at Harvard in Afro-American Studies
doing for the black community, and what are you doing at Harvard anyway?"
CORNEL WEST, Harvard University: Well, one, of course, we wouldn't be at
Harvard if it were not for community people who sacrificed and suffered so
much. In fact, any place where they -- black people -- had been either excluded
or had-- their numbers had been attenuated was a barrier that had to be
overcome. And so we, in that sense, are very much an extension of the black
community because we would not be where we are without those who gave so much
to allow us to overcome those barriers.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Each of us here has crossed
barriers of color and class. Our stories are narratives of ascent. But
narratives of ascent are also narratives of alienation, of loss, and my journey
has been no different.
DuBois said that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the
color line. In the hills of West Virginia, where I grew up, the color line was
also a class line. Up on the hill sits the house where my mama used to cook and
clean when she was a little girl. Back then, all the rich white people lived up
here and the black people lived in pockets around them.
Piedmont was a white, working-class town, and that meant that no black person,
no matter how educated, worked as anything higher than a loader at the paper
mill. That included my father. My father worked two jobs to send me and my
brother to college.
It was a sepia time, or at least that's the way my memory has colored it. I
grew up in a community that protected and nurtured me. Back in 1963, when I was
13, colored people formed a national community bound together by race. As a
boy, I wanted to be like Martin Luther King, unifying that community through
the force of my words.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty,
we're free at last.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Even then that unity was an
illusion. Behind the scenes, debates raged as a new generation sought a
stronger voice and a more active role. Julian Bond was 23 that August day.
[on camera] So you came to the March on Washington?
JULIAN BOND, Board Member, NAACP: Yes, I was here. I was working for the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and I was in charge of the movie
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: Oh, you were?
JULIAN BOND: So my most pronounced memory is not King's speech, but
being up to my shoulders in a Coca-Cola bin, taking Coca-Colas to the movie
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: Oh, that's great!
JULIAN BOND: And I remember giving one to Sammy Davis, Jr., and he said,
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: Oh, that's wonderful!
JULIAN BOND: I was in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. We
thought we were the bad boys and girls of the Civil Rights movement.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: You were bad-- 1-A!
JULIAN BOND: Yes. We went where no one dared to go before. And we used
to, in a kind of affectionate way, call Dr. King "de Lawd." "Here come de Lawd.
Here come de Lawd. Here come de Lawd." We were critical of this notion that
´´a man'' is going to come and save you.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] No one realized that the
movement that Dr. King led would soon break apart. It happened after SNCC's
chairman, Stokely Carmichael, coined the phrase, "Black Power."
STOKELY CARMICHAEL: We want Black Power!
CROWD: Black Power!
STOKELY CARMICHAEL: We want Black Power!
CROWD: Black Power!
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] At the time, we thought that
Carmichael had at last uttered our most secret name in public.
STOKELY CARMICHAEL: We want Black Power!
CROWD: Black Power!
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: Well, how did the black power movement relate
itself to the Civil Rights movement? Was it a coda? Was it an aftereffect? Was
it the next step? Was it the real revolution, or not the revolution?
JULIAN BOND: It promised to be the next step, but I don't think it ever
realized that promise. A section of the movement became more nationalistic,
pulling on this long stream of nationalism that's ever-present in black
America, and schisms between black and white workers developed. Whites were
expelled. The movement lost its interracial nature. It lost its larger support
in the larger community. They were harmful to the movement. And while they
didn't kill it, they certainly slowed it down.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] I used to get goose-bumps
just thinking about being black: being proud of my dark skin, my thick lips and
my kinky hair.
My first brush with black nationalism occurred during my senior year of high
school, in 1968. I was sitting at home watching a student film on T.V. It was a
heavy-handed allegory about racial loyalty. This student, who had been happily
dating a white coed, comes to see the error of his ways after a campus visit by
someone called Maulana Ron Karenga. Karenga would become a leader of the black
nationalist movement and the inventor of Kwanzaa.
MAULANA KARENGA, The Organization US, Cal. State Univ. Long Beach:
[student film clip] Why is it important for black people to have a
mythology? It is important because black people have to have, as everybody
else, a starting point. You just can't spring up in Mississippi, Alabama, and
charge in like top speed. You've got to start from somebody. You've got to
start from somewhere.
[to Gates] People are culturally bound. Tell me a person that exists
outside of culture and I'll tell you a person that does not exist. People don't
exist outside of community.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: Of course not.
MAULANA KARENGA: So the question is, how do we sustain community and
then engage in a mutually beneficial relationship with the rest of the world?
And how do we sustain community so that we can sustain the power, the capacity
to define, defend and develop our interests and speak our own special cultural
truth to the world?
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Karenga's fiery words made
the brother in the film turn his back on his true love and come on home to
blackness. Now, that was some powerful rap.
OLD MAN: I'm not against the white man. I'm not against the--
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] But the rhetoric of
nationalism caused a breach in the community.
OLD MAN: No, I'm not fighting for no black power!
MALE STUDENT: You're an Uncle Tom.
OLD MAN: Well, I'm going to be an Uncle Tom, if that's the case.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Suddenly, there was only one
way to be black. And one was either in the club or outside of the club--
It had never occurred to me before that there was only one way to be black, nor
had it occurred to me that one or two people could emerge as keepers of the
race, deciding who made it in and who did not. I wasn't sure that this was an
BLACK PANTHERS: [singing] Off the pig! Time to pick up the
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Their movement got
BLACK PANTHERS: [singing] The revolution has come! Off the pig! Time
to pick up the gun. Off the pig!
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] The Black Panther Party took
the notion of Black Power one step further: They added the analysis of
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER, Black Panther Party: We had a strong economic plank in
our program and we had a direct challenge to the whole exploitation of the
capitalist economy in our 10 points. We had a point dealing with the economy
and-- but we were also Marxist in our orientation, which is, like, totally
economics. You see what I'm saying?
BLACK PANTHERS: [chanting] No more pigs in our community!
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] The Panthers were "legit"--
hip, chic, armed. Compared with Dr. King, it was no contest when it came to
winning my 16-year-old heart and mind.
[on camera] Did you actually think you were going to win?
KATHLEEN CLEAVER, Black Panther Party, Cardozo School of Law: Oh, sure.
We thought the Vietnamese would win, the Cubans would win, the Chinese would
win, and the imperialists were going to collapse. We believed all of this.
Victory or death!
BOBBY SEALE, Co-Founder, Black Panther Party: [at rally] Let's
get into the inner workings and the meaning of this. Let's get into the inner
workings and the meaning of a black revolution and why black people have a
right to take what's theirs.
So the concept is this, basically: The whole black nation has to be put
together as a black army and we're going to walk on this nation. We're going to
walk on this racist power structure. And we're going to say to the whole damn
government, ´´Stick 'em up, motherfucker. This is a hold-up! We come
for what's ours!''
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] I remember the '60s as a
time when black Americans first came to love ourselves, when for the love of
their people, heroes and heroines like Angela Davis risked their lives for the
cause of liberation.
ANGELA DAVIS: I didn't consider myself a nationalist, in the sense that
some other individuals and organizations did during that time. As committed as
I was to the struggle for black liberation, I felt that it was interconnected
with the struggle for the emancipation of working people in general, and so
that was very principled. I maintained a principled position on that
BLACK PANTHERS: [singing] Take it from the greedy! Take it from the
greedy! Give it all to the needy--
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] The Black Panthers and I
arrived in New Haven almost at the same time. In September of 1969, 96 black
men and black women entered the freshman class, the largest class of
Afro-Americans ever to come to Yale. We had been selected through affirmative
action to join the white male elite.
First-generation cross-overs, we were desperate to reassure ourselves that we
were still "down with the brothers," and so we formed an alliance with the
local Black Panther Party. We dressed, we walked, we talked alike, our
differences masked by Afros and wire-rimmed glasses, our brotherhood borne on
ROBBY PRESSER, Student: [at rally] The black community will no
longer be intimidated by any vigilante groups or by the pigs or by anybody!
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] The Panthers had come to
Yale hoping to take the revolution right into the heart of the establishment
itself. Somehow we persuaded our white classmates to go on strike with us, and
for two weeks in April we shut Yale down. Our cause: the release of Black
Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale and his co-defendant, Ericka Huggins, on
trial for conspiracy to commit murder.
DAVID HILLIARD, Chief of Staff, Black Panther Party: [at rally]
When we're snatched out of courtrooms and taken to prison--
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] But the truth was, the
Panthers scared us to death. They seemed like the thought police in blackface,
as offensive as any other bullies. Inside the Black Student Alliance, we held
meetings long into the night. The Panthers wanted us to "heighten the
contradictions." What that meant was risking our heads to dramatize the
repression of the Black Panther Party.
Inside each one of us there were questions no one dared put on the table. Had
Yale chosen us just as tokens so that the establishment could survive? What did
becoming a black leader really mean? Should we drop out of Yale to become
DEMONSTRATORS: Strike! Strike! Strike!
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] On the night of May 1st, we
faced the tear gas and the nightsticks of the National Guard. It suddenly
dawned upon us that we were being used as revolutionary cannon fodder, a
demonstration of police brutality in front of the T.V. cameras.
For many of us, it would be the first time we chose sides. We stared into the
face of violent revolution, and we turned away. We decided to initiate a
different solution, our own revolution, from within the system. We thought we'd
transform it from the inside. We thought that we could dismantle the master's
house by learning to use the master's tools.
When I graduated from Yale, I determined to follow the path that W.E.B. DuBois
had taken as far as I could. His notion that a "Talented Tenth" could lead
black people to liberation was an idea that I gladly accepted.
Twenty-five years later, the Afro-American Studies Department and the W.E.B.
DuBois Institute have taken their place alongside 12 other humanities
departments in a newly renovated building. I've chosen a life among America's
intellectual elite, and only sometimes does that choice nag at me.
In a corridor of our department sits a bust of DuBois. DuBois eventually
developed doubts about whether his "Talented Tenth" might achieve lasting
AVERY BROOKS: [as W.E.B. DuBois] ´´I realized that it
was quite possible that my plan of training a ´Talented Tenth' might put
in control and power a group of selfish, self-indulgent, well-to-do men. My
´Talented Tenth,' I could see, might result in a sort of interracial free
for all, with the devil taking the hindmost and the foremost taking anything
they can get their hands on.''
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] As affirmative action brings
more blacks into America's upper classes, the reality of DuBois's fears seems
closer than ever. Professor William J. Wilson, an urban sociologist, pioneered
the study of class in the black community.
[on camera] Is there a kind of nostalgia about the unity of the black
community, you think, that we have to deal with?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON, Harvard University: There is a tendency to want
to treat blacks as a monolithic socioeconomic group. The other day in my class,
I was pointing out that if you control for education, publications, and then
compare the income of black professors and white professors, black professors
make more than white professors, you see. And that's because we are in
So to think of our situation as comparable to that of the inner-city black kid
who's struggling, trying to make ends meet, is ridiculous, you see, and we
should recognize that.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Our generation thought that
we were going to break down the boundaries of race; instead, we're living in a
society where class makes all the difference in the world.
KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Remember the saying back in the '60s, ´´The
NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Certain People''?
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: Right! That's true.
KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Those certain people have been advanced.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: People like us, quite frankly. People like
KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Right. Right. And one thing that is important to
understand is that a capitalist form of democracy -- or I like to call it the
"commercial democracy" -- needs people like us, or needs a middle class to
function smoothly. It doesn't need equality. What it needs is inequality. It
needs a certain number of people at the elite level, a certain number of people
in the middle level, and the rest of the people scrambling and hoping they can
get there, all following the same zealous commitment to making money.
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER, Black Panther Party: I applaud my country for the
changes that we have undertaken in these areas of Civil Rights. But where the
big problem still remains is with the economic system. If you would call a
meeting today to talk about segregation, wouldn't nobody come but Louis
Farrakhan and David Duke. But if you call a meeting to talk about the money, it
would be standing room only. And it wouldn't-- they wouldn't all be black.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: No, that's true.
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: Because the money is funny for everybody.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: For everybody.
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: That's where the rubber hits the road. That's what
we've got to deal with.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] The paradoxes of the
movement's legacy are nowhere more apparent than in Washington, D.C. Every
evening at happy hour, beneficiaries of the Civil Rights movement, people who
the Panthers would have derided as being "bourgie," arrive at black-owned
establishments like Georgia Brown's to drink, to banter, to gossip. They are
better educated than any other generation in black America's history.
Thanks to affirmative action, and to the federal government, they have jobs and
a standard of living undreamed of during my father's day. They represent a
black middle class that has doubled since 1965.
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: If you take a look at black income today, if you
divide black income into quintiles, the top quintile has now secured almost 50
percent of the total black income, which is a record. The top quintile in the
white population has secured about 44 percent of the white income, which is
also a record. [www.pbs.org: Read more of this interview]
Now, it is true that the gap-- that whites have much higher income, overall
wealth, than blacks. And by ´´wealth,'' I mean not only income but
assets. But nonetheless, if you just look at the distribution of income,
inequality is growing more rapidly in the black community, surprisingly enough,
than in the white community.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Wilson is especially
concerned about the working class: people caught in the middle as the economy
shifted from factories to service. Jesse Jackson refers to these people as
"those who take the early bus to work."
JESSE JACKSON, Rainbow Coalition: Most poor people work every day. They
raise other people's children. They drive cabs. They work in fast-food
restaurants. They work processing chicken at these meat plants. They work in
hotels and motels. Most poor people work every day, so the charge that they are
lazy or they need stimulation to work harder is not true.
We've spent so much time on a black/white vertical analysis, there's not been
enough focus on a vertical have/have-not coalition, because we do not want to
discuss race much in the country. We want to discuss class even less.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] If D.C. is the capital of
the black middle class, it's also the capital of black misery. If they don't
get killed, nearly half of D.C.'s young black men may have some kind of run-in
with the law. Forty-five percent of the children here live in poverty. The
death rates for babies under 18 months approaches third-world standards. The
standard of living among D.C.'s poorest is now worse than it was the day that
Dr. King was killed.
JULIAN BOND, Board Member, NAACP: As skills and energy became more of a
demand, people who didn't have skills just got left behind, got shuttled to the
side. Education didn't prepare them for this new world. Jobs went overseas.
Organized labor, which had been an enormous boost for black workers -- black
union members make more money than blacks who are not in unions -- began to
weaken. And things just changed, and the movement couldn't develop a strategy
to deal with it and couldn't find allies in the larger society to help shape
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: Yeah, but why not? I mean we were very clever in
analyzing race and racism for a couple of centuries.
JULIAN BOND: Because we had studied it for a couple of centuries. We had
been confronted by it for a couple of centuries. We knew it for a couple of
centuries. But we didn't know this.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr: I know all of you are studying hard and you're
just doing fine in school and I'm glad to see you.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] In the last two months of
his life, Dr. King faced the idea that Civil Rights alone could not solve the
problem of poverty. He roamed the South, trying to gain support for a Poor
People's Campaign. Its goals: full employment, a guaranteed income and decent
housing for every American.
POOR WOMAN IN CHURCH: People just don't know, but it's really hard. Not
only me, there's so many more that's in the same shape. I'm not the only one.
It's just so many right around that don't have shoes, clothes, is naked and
hungry. Part of the time, you have to fix your children pinto beans morning,
dinner and supper. They don't know what it is to get a good meal.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr: You all are really to be admired, and I want you
to know that you have my moral support. I'm going to be praying for you. I'm
going to be coming back to see you and we are going to be demanding, when we go
to Washington, that something be done and done immediately about these
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] This was a different Martin
Luther King. Just weeks before his murder, in tones suggestive of the Black
Panthers, he began to talk about how the government had broken its promise to
the newly freed slaves just after the Civil War.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr:  At the very same time that America
refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government
was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which
meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an
But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with
government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county
agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low
interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms.
Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in
federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black
man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we
are faced with, and this is the reality. Now, when we come to Washington in
this campaign, we are coming to get our check.
[to students] And we want y'all to come on to Washington when you get
out of school.
STUDENTS: Yes, sir. We will.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr: We're going to have a good time in
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: The Poor People's Campaign was about economics.
I mean, what happened to that whole movement? It's almost as if it wasn't-- it
KATHLEEN CLEAVER, Black Panther Party, Cardozo School of Law: Wait a
minute. Wait a minute. It didn't disappear. You might forget, Martin Luther
King was assassinated in April. The Poor People's Campaign was supposed to go
to Washington in April. So the organization that mobilized it was essentially
decapitated and thrown into chaos about three weeks before it was supposed to
Those organizations were being-- as I said, once the Civil Rights Acts were
completed, that was it. Government was through with us. They're not interested
in restructuring-- there has never been any interest in restructuring the
economy for the benefit of the poor. I don't know whether you're going to talk
about the Bonus Army, go back to Shay's Rebellion? I mean, this is like the
no-no, you know. This is a capitalist society. It's built on inequality and
avarice, in many ways.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] If anyone had predicted back
in the late '60s that so many of us would make it, leaving so many more behind,
we would have thought they were crazy. Today, like second-generation
immigrants, we look back at the old country with both a sense of regret and
CORNEL WEST, Harvard University: [in class] Most people who come
to the United States will be glad to arrive because they're running from
conditions of oppression and so forth. But here these people of African descent
are going to have to deal with some very deep existential problems linked to
their socioeconomic status, linked to their political situation.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: How is it different to be black in 1997 than it
was in 1967?
CORNEL WEST: In '67, we had a slightly higher poverty rate, we had much
more intact communities, we had a smaller black middle class. But what's
frightening about 1997 is the erosion of the systems of caring and nurturing in
America at large, but in particular black America, so you actually have more
isolated, insulated, lonely, alienated, estranged black folk, especially among
the working classes and working poor, but it's true across the board. And
that's what's frightening.
We had a much deeper sense of community in '67 than we do in '97. This is
important to say not in a nostalgic way, because it's not as if '67 was a time
in which things were so good. Materially speaking, they were much worse. But
culturally speaking, in terms of social connection, they were much better.
JULIAN BOND: You know, when I was a kid, I grew up in a circumstance
where my near neighbors were poverty-stricken people. And even when I was in my
20s, living in Atlanta, my near neighbors were people on Welfare. That's not
true anymore. I don't live in a neighborhood with anyone except people like me.
And people who are poor or who are living on the edge of poverty or who are
living under poverty are tucked away some place else. I don't see them, they
don't see me. We don't interact. We have no relation, one to the other, no
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: No, you have a symbolic, cultural relation, in
that you wear your kente cloth, bow tie and cummerbund with your tuxedo and
have you obligatory Coltrane poster on your wall and listen to black music or
celebrate black culture. But that's not the same as being a member of the
JULIAN BOND, Board Member, NAACP: No, it's not at all. We are the same
here, but we are not the same in any other way. And we're physically separated
from each other in a way we never were before.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] I believe that, deep down,
some middle class black folks would escape the community completely if they
could. There's nothing natural about feeling compassion towards those who look
like you, especially if they don't act like you. This idea first struck me one
day as I was reading about still another urban horror story.
TELEVISION REPORTER: [Boston, May 14, 1992] Last night the
church was packed with family and friends of 20-year-old Robert Odom. A group
of young men entered the sanctuary, then attacked one of Odom's friends. When
it was over, 21-year-old Jerome Brunson had been stabbed nine times. Betty
Johnson was there.
BETTY JOHNSON: The gangs, they're welcome in churches and things so that
they can try to change their lives, but they're not-- they're not ready. They
come in with their hoods on and people are afraid of them now and we don't know
what they want. What do they want?
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] I find it hard to concede
that these young hoodlums are part of the same community that I belong to.
He called himself Mark. He wouldn't tell us his last name or where he lived.
You might say he lives in a world as invisible to me as his shadowed features
here on the television screen. But in my mind, he spoke for those who had
invaded that church.
´´MARK'': We're already dead, the black people, but we're
walking. Like I tell you, I'm not stupid. I got a problem, though, a problem I
can't solve, because you don't help and he don't help and he don't help. Y'all
need to understand that, you know, we want ours, you know? You talk about
McDonald's? Please! Who's going to do that? Who's going to work at Popeye's or
what's-his-name, the Colonel? Would you? That's nowhere. You see, the problem
comes from one thing: the money. Everybody wants theirs.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] This guy seemed like a
Martian to me, so far away from the struggling working class that I knew in
Piedmont during the 1950s. What's stranger still is that his world has come to
represent black youth in American popular culture.
TUPAC SHAKUR: [singing] Here we go / Turn it up / Let's talk / From
block to block snatching hearts--
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Gangsta culture confounds
me. I defend rap as a literary form, but I feel sorry for those like Tupac
Shakur who've become victims of their own rhetorical art. It makes me want to
holler, "Nigger, please! Since when does being black mean embracing the worst
of what we can be?"
QUINCY JONES, Composer/Producer/Publisher: You're making entertainment
out of something that is just probably the most negative aspect of what we're
all about, you know? And it's been marketed very well, you know? And it's
almost, you know-- between the films and the newspaper articles, the 6:00
o'clock news, et cetera, you know, it's-- you would believe that the whole
spectrum of black America is Boyz N the Hood. And that's nonsense. I
mean, it's such a huge rainbow.
[in class] I guarantee you that over 60 percent of the top rappers, you
know, are not from the hood. They're from the-- Run D.M.C. is from Corona. You
know, I'm telling you, man, dudes were wearing Gucci, man, back in the day, you
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Quincy Jones has a chair
named in his honor in the music department at Harvard. When he came to speak to
a class last year, I discovered two degrees of separation between me and Tupac.
Jones's daughter was a Harvard senior; her sister, Kidada, was engaged to Tupac
when he was killed.
[on camera] Where's all this gangster culture? I mean, you see this
gangster culture all the time, with people pretending to be gangsters and
people who are real gangsters. Where did it come from, man? I don't remember
that when I was growing up.
QUINCY JONES: Well, I do. I was raised in Chicago, and I guess that was
one of the special breeding grounds for gangsters of all colors. That was the
Detroit of the gangster world. It's just that in the car industry was thugs. I
mean, you have Capone, the Jones brothers. So that hasn't really changed too
much, but I think the basic underlying elements have changed a lot. Number one,
it's about you got to get paid, ´´I want to get paid.'' You know,
´´Show me the money,'' right? ´´Quick.''
CORNEL WEST: Well, I think we have to keep in mind, when we talk about
gangster mentality in America, I think it is best to start at the White House,
State House, City Hall, school, mosque, church, synagogue and then get to
gangsta rap because they are all on the same continuum. If you're talking about
levels of corruption, levels of graft, trying to avoid the ´´11th
Commandment,'' ´´Thou shalt not get caught,'' getting over by any
means-- I mean, that's a very, very human thing, a very American thing that
goes from elites across middle classes all the way down.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: And it has a long history.
CORNEL WEST: And it has a long history going back to Adam. But the
problem is, is that when you have gangster mentalities at work among
disadvantaged folk, it's even more devastating.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: Do you think we need a moral revolution within
the black community?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON, Harvard University: A moral revolution?
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: Yeah, or a behavioral revolution? Use the term
that you want. I mean, how do we get people to change these forms of
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: I don't think they're going to change, Skip,
until we open up the opportunities for them. That's when they'll change, you
know? I see a very strong association between some of these problems like gang
behavior and violent crime and joblessness.
For example, if you look at a recent study by Delbert Elliot, he found, for
example, that by the time white males and black males reached the late 20s, the
violent crime ratio is four to one, four black to one white, much higher
violent crime rate among black males. However, when he controlled for
employment, there was no significant difference in the violent crime rate
between white males and black males.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Today one third of all black
Americans working full-time live beneath the poverty line. [www.pbs.org: The
economics of black America] Hope for a future has practically disappeared
from the inner city.
In Boston's Dorchester community, on the fault line between poverty and
despair, sits an unassuming little house. Inside, a group of young people
strive to join the middle class. Listening to them makes one realize how much
more complicated things are now than they were in 1968.
David Sykes is a graduate of the STRIVE program. Now he teaches it.
DAVID SYKES, STRIVE Program: I think a lot of us, you know, we don't see
positive, you know, black guys, black people as a whole. I usually get when I
leave here, you know, "Hey, brother, you coming from court?" "Why, because I
have a tie on?" you know what I mean? Or "What are you dressed up for? Is it a
funeral, what?" you know what I mean? It's, like, "No, maybe I have a job."
"Oh, really? Wow."
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Sykes is working against the
odds to develop the human potential buried here.
DAVID SYKES: Minimal work history, minimal educational background--
that's our targeted population. So when we get them, those are the ones who
we're trying to help.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] His job is to get these
young people to see themselves as others see them, so he tapes the first day of
REGINALD: I sold my first bag of whatever you want to call it, dope, at
the age of 14, so from 14-- from the age of 14 to 25, I was more or less a
street person, a hustler.
ALISE: Went to Umana High School. Graduated from there in '89, went on--
well, not really went on. I ended up having a baby.
SHALANDA: Junior year was when I messed up. I dropped out. I started
hanging in the hallways and I wasn't learning anything. It was, like, the same
thing every year.
ADRIANNO: So I was basically a quitter, and that's how it went. I
decided not to go to high school. I went to work.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Nine-to-five for three
weeks, they work on taking responsibility for their own behavior. Their work
history is so spotty, employers won't hire them. What they need are the
personal skills to get a job and keep it. That's one reason that some say
traditional Civil Rights remedies like affirmative action can do little to help
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY, Harvard Law School: It only stands to reason that
affirmative action-- that the first beneficiaries of affirmative action would
be those who were middle class or who otherwise were most prepared to walk
through the door and take advantage of the opportunities. But getting the door
open is harder than many Americans admit.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Christopher Edley directed
President Clinton's review of affirmative action laws.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Reaching beyond that door to get folks who aren't
ready is not something that affirmative action alone can do. That's what the
rest of the opportunity agenda is for. That's why we need school reform. That's
why we need job training. That's why we need stronger families. That's why we
need safe communities. It's only by putting the entire package together,
including opening the door of opportunity, that we'll make real progress.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] At the end of three weeks,
they've begun to learn how to act on the job. But they won't actually graduate
until they find work, and for those left in the inner ring of the inner city,
competition is fierce.
ALYSE: You know what I'm saying? When you want something you really
want, it's like 12 to 20 other people are trying to get that same job so you've
got to-- [crosstalk]
ANDREA: Not enough affirmative action.
ADRIANNO: Basically, it's we didn't stay in school.
SOPHIA: I stayed in school.
ANDREA: I stayed in school
VANESSA: Me, too.
ADRIANNO: You didn't stay in school.
SOPHIA: Some jobs require certain degrees-- [crosstalk]
ADRIANNO: Education, you can take it as far as you want.
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON, Harvard University: The disadvantaged blacks have
really been hard hit by changes in the economy. And because of racism, historic
racism, there are a disproportionate number of blacks in the low-skilled,
poorly educated category, and they are falling further and further behind. And
the gap between the low-skilled and the more advantaged middle class folks is
widening for that reason.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: You know what I'm worried about? I'm worried
that the two nations within the black community are permanent, that the middle
class will perpetuate itself, slowly gain some wealth, and that no one in this
society really cares about expanding the size of the black middle class any
more. You see, affirmative action--
MAULANA KARENGA, The Organization US, Cal. State Univ. Long Beach: Why
is that important?
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: Because we need-- we need to change the bell
curve of class in this country. I mean, you said that yourself. I mean, we need
to get people out of the poverty that they're in.
MAULANA KARENGA: But I don't think the middle class is important on that
level. I think the middle class is important in terms of the role that it
decides to play in history, the role of transforming this country to make the
realm of freedom more inclusive and more expansive.
The reason we have such an underclass is because the middle class sat down and
refused to play the role that history had assigned it, and the middle class
needs to stand up, stop belly-aching, stop privatizing its pain, stop
privatizing its gains, and begin to think on a larger scale. That's what it
needs to do.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] The tension between the
haves and have-nots is so difficult to bear that it seemed to some that a march
on Washington, a march of a million black men, might be the only answer.
CHOIR: [singing] Time to make that change--
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Maulana Karenga wrote the
mission statement for the Million Man March. He told me that the march was an
opportunity for black people to start taking responsibility for our own
ANGELA DAVIS, U.C. Santa Cruz: I don't know anyone who wasn't moved by
the images, you know, of all these black men, and some women, gathered in
Washington. But I guess what I would criticize is the tendency to conflate that
dramatic moment with a movement because in the past, the demonstrations that we
think about, the 1963 March on Washington, for example, you know, wasn't this--
this moment that was organized against the backdrop of nothing else. It was a
demonstration of the organizing that had been going on for years and years. And
to assume that one can call a march on Washington and have that be a movement
in the 1990s is, I think, a tremendous mistake.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] It had been the promise of
the Civil Rights movement that the rising tide of opportunity would end up
lifting all 33 million black Americans into the middle class. That may prove to
have been an impossible dream. One thing's for sure: Improving the lot of those
left behind in poverty will require the kind of interracial coalition that
gathered in Washington 30 years ago.
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: There are efforts now to develop these kinds of
coalitions, but it's really very, very difficult because of the emphasis in our
society on ethnic and racial divisions, and the general view is that people
can't work together across racial and ethnic lines. I think that's even more
true today than it was back when King tried to organize that Poor People's
The Los Angeles riot heightened these racial divisions. The O.J. Simpson trial
heightened these divisions. We need to talk about inter-ethnic, interracial
unity much more than we do. And we need to develop a public rhetoric that
captures the things that we have in common because right now the rhetoric
emphasizes the things that divide us.
JESSE JACKSON, Rainbow Coalition: One thing I'm convinced of, that
working class white people and working class black people and brown people have
more in common with each other than they do with those who, in fact, downsize
corporations. Wealth going upward, benefits and jobs going downward is
threatening all of us.
If we look at the people who have now been burning churches, Skip, and who have
been defacing synagogues, these are basically downsized workers. These are
workers who are living outside of the mainstream of America's dream, of
America's opportunity. And they've somehow been taught that those jobs went
from white to black, that they went from men to women, these jobs went from
whites to Jews.
So all the racism and the anti-Semitism and the sexism comes into the
ignorance, fear, hatred, violence. The fact is, when these plants closed, they
didn't go from white to black, they went from here to yonder.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Piedmont, West Virginia,
where I grew up, is now a dying town with a crumbling infrastructure and a
certain resignation in its people. Three factories that once supported families
in this area have closed. Only the paper mill thrives.
I'm not so sure that a father, even one working two jobs like my father did,
can be assured his child will have a better life than he. The racial divide
shows evidence of disappearing. My family bought the house my mother used to
clean. But the sepia community that nurtured me no longer exists.
Now, when I'm seeking that haven of like-minded black people, I go to Martha's
Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts. In August, few places in America are
more integrated than the Vineyard. They've lined up in Oak Bluffs today to
celebrate the birthday of one of the Vineyard's oldest residents.
AUDIENCE: [singing] Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] The writer Dorothy West,
sole surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance, turns 90 today.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I just wanted to come by--
DOROTHY WEST: Yes, I'm-- I'm so pleased.
HILLARY CLINTON: --and on behalf of the President, and really on behalf
of all Americans, to wish you a happy birthday and to thank you for your many
contributions, personal and literary, that you've given to our country. You're
a real national treasure, Dorothy West.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] The First Lady's visit is a
reminder that the country is embarking on a ´´national conversation''
on race. But that may the wrong conversation. When the DuBois Institute staged
its own conversation on race last summer, it became clear that the real
conversation was about class.
ORLANDO PATTERSON, Harvard University: [at DuBois forum]
Something has gone terribly wrong in the way we view and talk about race in
America. Problems that are essentially class problems inevitably become
redefined as racial problems.
We have a problem of inequality in this country. The levels of inequality have
been increasing and they are obscene when one contrasts the income of the
average chief executive with the average worker, but this cuts across all
ethnic groups. This is not a race problem, this is a problem of American
economy and American society.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY, Harvard Law School: [at DuBois forum] It seems
to me the difficulty is that the measures that one would want to take to
address issues of class and income in America require that we tap a well of
compassion within the American public, a compassion that depends upon our
ability to connect with each other. And the fact is that our ability to connect
with one each another is today still too often handicapped, disabled by color.
[www.pbs.org: Listen to more of this forum]
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] No one should think that the
black middle class has escaped racism. Columbia Law professor Patricia Williams
described applying for a mortgage on the phone, only to have the bank change
the deal when it found out that she was black.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: [at DuBois forum] The bank wanted more money
as a down payment. They wanted me to pay more "points," as certain charges are
called. They wanted to raise the rate of interest. Suddenly, I found myself
facing great resistance and much more debt.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Harvard Law professor
Randall Kennedy highlighted the stop-and-search policy that places black men at
higher risk for arrest.
RANDALL KENNEDY: [at DuBois forum] As things currently stand, an
invisible question mark is placed over the heads of people of color across the
United States and it's perfectly legal. The citizenry ought not to allow
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] These comments made me
wonder if those who risked their lives during ´´the revolution''
think we're better off today. I asked Kathleen Cleaver.
KATHLEEN CLEAVER, Black Panther Party, Cardozo School of Law: [at
DuBois forum] The future does not look bright. The income gap is so
profound between who has and who doesn't, it is so devastating to people who
don't have and can't get that, no, for people on the bottom it is far worse.
But for those who are becoming millionaires, it is far better.
CORNEL WEST, Harvard University: [at DuBois forum] To talk about
race is fundamentally to wrestle with what kind of people are we, really? What
kind of nation are we, really? Not just how many material toys we have, not
just whether the economy's okay for a certain slice of the population, stock
markets and budget deals and so forth and so on. What kind of people are we,
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] What kind of people are we,
really? By the end of his life, Dr. DuBois had given up on America and on the
AVERY BROOKS: [as W.E.B. DuBois] ´´Those Negroes who
had long trained themselves for personal success were coming to regard the
disappearance of segregation as an end and not a means. They wanted to be
Americans and they did not care so much what kind of folk Americans were, as
for the right to be one of them.''
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] DuBois died in l963, an
embittered expatriate. He's buried in Ghana. While still at Yale, I visited his
grave. Standing there, I wondered: What do I want on my gravestone,
´´Here lies an African-American?" I want to be black, but to
experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color. I visit
Africa often. But home for me is Harvard Square.
CORNEL WEST: Here's the man, right there. Straight from Africa!
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] We've formed our own
community here at Harvard. We bring with us the cultural foundation from our
old neighborhoods, but in reality, our community of black professors sometimes
has more in common with our white colleagues than with our brothers and sisters
still in the ghetto.
We tell ourselves we're following in DuBois's footsteps, but maybe our
speeches, our research, our writings, our commitment to Afro-American Studies--
maybe these are all attempts to heal a wound. That wound is the severance of
the black community, the knowing, deep down, that the best we can do for the
homeless brothers is to start a conversation about class; knowing down deeper
still that it's highly unlikely that the American people will ever want to have
PANHANDLER: [singing, playing harmonica] What would you do? What
would you do--
HENRY LOUIS GATES, Jr.: [voice-over] Still, we must try.
ANNOUNCER: Explore the two nations of black America further at
FRONTLINE's Web site. Read the spirited debate between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker
T. Washington. Listen to more of the conversation about race and class and read
the full interviews at FRONTLINE on line, at www.pbs.org.
VOICEOVER FOR PREVIEW DURING CREDITS:
Next time on FRONTLINE: The critically acclaimed movie Dead Man Walking
told her story, a nun working on death row. Now FRONTLINE tells the rest of
the story: the killers, the victims and the real woman who's rekindled the
debate on the death penalty. ´´Angel on Death Row'' next time on
THE TWO NATIONS OF BLACK AMERICA
June Cross and
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
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