African-American history has played an integral role in the shaping of politics, economics, and culture in the United States. Growing up, how did you learn about the accomplishments and struggles of African Americans? Were you in a classroom? Reading a book? Talking with relatives or friends? How has your understanding or knowledge of African-American history changed and/or developed over time? What do you think is the most effective way to pass along this rich and growing history to future generations?


Dear Prof. Gates,

My understanding and appreciation of African American cultures comes directly from my parents, particularly my dad, who grew up in northern Michigan in the 20’s and 30’s before serving in WWII and returning to go to college on the GI Bill. As a teen, he remembers hearing jazz on the radio that led him to find music clubs in nearby Idlewild, Michigan – a mecca for jazz greats and African American families in the summer. This might have been his first glimpse of a thriving, independent, primarily African American community. During WWII, as a young Marine enlistee out of high school, he witnessed discrimination in the armed forces. In college he developed a strong commitment to progressive politics that took him into the ranks of union organizing, a radical and powerful force for integration and civil rights in the US during the 50s and 60s. Growing up, my heroes included strong women like Harriet Tubman, Ella Baker, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Althea Gibson as well as creative thinkers like WEB DuBois, Walter White, and Bayard Rustin, individuals who fought for civil rights, and defended the rights of working families. Our family listened to and danced to the music of Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, and Dizzie Gillespie. Growing up in Inkster, Michigan meant attending integrated public school in classes taught by several African American teachers. It also meant that we marched in nearby Dearborn in support of fair housing. My favorite school activity in Inkster was band, taught by a team of dynamic musicians. I admired their mastery but only slightly sensed their frustration at the limits of opportunities for African American musicians. I ended up making my own family with a man who is deeply committed to teaching African American history, literature, and art. The attitudes and activities of our children are testimony of the value of passing on a deep respect and appreciation of African American culture to future generations.