Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Editor of the African American National Biography weighs in on Sen. Obama’s recent speech and the race discourses in America.


Tavis: I am honored to welcome Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. back to this program. He is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois institute for African and African American research at Harvard and the editor-in-chief of the new website for the “Washington Post” called The Root. He is also the editor of an expansive new eight-volume collection called “African American National Biography.” He’s a busy man. Skip Gates, I don’t know how you found time to come see me, but I’m honored to have you here.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Thank you, brother, thanks for having me on the program.

Tavis: It’s good to see you. There is so much to talk to you about. Let me start, though, with the news of the day, this guy Barack Obama you may have heard of?

Gates: I heard of him – colored fellow. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, the colored fellow.

Gates: From Chicago, right?

Tavis: Yeah, the colored fellow from Chicago did a speech yesterday. Your take on it?

Gates: Well, I was on a flight coming here to see you when he delivered it, so I didn’t see it live. But I watched it on YouTube this morning. Rhetorically, I think it was brilliant. I think that it will – a friend of mine, Jake Weisberg, who is the editor-in-chief of Slate –

Tavis: He was just on this program a couple weeks ago.

Gates: Oh, he was? For his new book on George Bush.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Gates: An excellent book, by the way. He sent me an email yesterday and he said something to the effect of, “Might as well just fax it into the anthologies of great political speeches.” And so I looked at that and I wondered if I would agree, but it’s true – it is a great speech about race and race relations, particularly between Black and White people at the beginning of the 21st century.

The question is, Tavis, will it lead to the mediacrats changing the subject or allowing the subject of Jeremiah Wright or Black nationalism, or African American grievances about anti-Black racism, will it let them change the subject? Will it let him turn the page?

The other question is, I think, what will White males think about it? I know how we think about it, because I received – by the time I landed, I had received 50 emails in the five-hour trip from New York to L.A., 50 emails about this speech, and every one was ecstatic. William Julius Wilson, Larry Bobo, Michael Doss, some of the great minds in the academy today.

But what will the White guys that I grew up in West Virginia think about the speech and think about Barack? That’s what remains to be seen. Will he be able to reach them? And I think that he’ll be able to reach them if he enunciates an economic policy that speaks to them. I think that the roots of racism have always been economic, and I think people are desperate and scared.

And when you’re desperate and scared you scapegoat people. It exacerbates latent tendencies toward – well, toward racism or homophobia or anti-Semitism. So the question is which candidate, as far as I’m concerned, is articulating a program of economic transformation that will move people from the no class, as we say, to the working class, and the working class to the middle class? And I’m not sure that either of the Democratic candidates or John McCain has yet articulated that program.

Tavis: As compared to your dear friend and the other Black intellectual, Dr. Cornel West –

Gates: Oh, my main man.

Tavis: Our dear friend, who is obviously deeply steeped in theology – I know that’s not your particular expertise – but to what extent do you think the Black church took a hit yesterday, Black liberation theology, that James Cone and Dwight Hopkins – to what extent do you think they took a hit because they’re still – nobody, quite frankly, let’s be honest about it – nobody in mainstream media who is prepared or as far as I’m concerned interested, quite frankly, in having a thoughtful dialogue about what Black liberation theology is? So to what extent did Obama, Obama’s speech, that is, lead to a hit, ultimately, on the Black church?

Gates: Well, let’s address it this way: the big surprise to me was that anybody in America would be surprised that there are separate discourses about race. When I wrote my book “The Signifying Monkey,” which was 20 years ago –

Tavis: Brilliant text, though.

Gates: Thank you. But I talked about Black cultural underground discourse and White underground discourses. You remember the Redd Foxx show and the Archie Bunker show? The brilliant thing about them, when Redd Foxx did –

Tavis: “Sanford and Son.”

Gates: – “Sanford and Son” is that they articulated all the resentments and the anxieties and the aggression about race – Anti-Black racism, anti-White racism – Archie Bunker and Sanford, Fred Sanford. It’s as if everyone has forgotten that. It’s no surprise that Black people sit around complaining about White people and anti-Black racism.

It’s no surprise that White people say things when they are together about Black people. All of the press coverage that I read today treated this as if it was a huge, huge revelation. Black theological discourse is not primarily defined by Black cultural nationalism or, as the conservative pundits might represent it, anti-White feeling among Black people.

It’s how we took the text of the bible and made it in our own image. How we painted God Black, how we painted Jesus Black – literally, sometimes, and metaphorically. So I’m not sure that I think that Black theological discourse took a hit yesterday, but I’m wondering what sort of denial has our society been in when journalists greet Barack’s simple statement that Black people are angry for historical reasons and White people have resentments based on fears about Black people, and this is treated as news.

Tavis: A part of what troubles me, with all due respect to Senator Obama, though, was he kept casting Black feeling, Black emotion, as that of anger and bitterness. And so Black folk are angry and bitter, but White folk have resentment. That sounds to me, once again, like Negros are the problem.

Gates: Oh, I see. But if that’s –

Tavis: I didn’t like that.

Gates: If that’s what he did – I didn’t hear him do that, but if that’s what he did, that would be inappropriate. Because as you’ve noticed in my responses to your question, I cast them as equal examples of emotion.

Tavis: Which I respect. And maybe he meant that, I don’t know.

Gates: Historically based. People are afraid, and when people are afraid, when their pie is shrinking, they look for somebody to hate. They look for somebody to blame. And a real leader speaks to anxiety and to fear and allays those fears, assuages anxiety. And the question is if Barack’s speech was able to do that not only for those among us who want to see the first Black president of the United States, but those who are scared to death about the idea of the first Black president of the United States. And the question is if Hillary Clinton can do it when she makes a major address on race.

Tavis: One final question about this, and we’ll move on. You and I had a chance to talk last night for a little bit, and one of the things I thought about when I left you last night in our conversation was this notion – not this notion, but this powerful definition that Frederick Douglass – as you know, the Negro that Abraham Lincoln himself consulted while in the White house –

Gates: And took seriously.

Tavis: And took seriously, absolutely.

Gates: Right, absolutely.

Tavis: So Douglass says that a true patriot is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.

Gates: Absolutely.

Tavis: A true patriot is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins. So what’s wrong in the Douglass-Kingian tradition of being a truth-teller, no matter how colorful the language, and rebuking America for its sins, and not excusing them in that Kingian-Douglass tradition?

Gates: But quite frankly, Barack positions himself in that tradition when he says that he stood up and opposed the war in Iraq early on, when the rest of the country, when the people in Congress overwhelmingly supported it. So are you saying that he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too?

Tavis: No, no, I’m saying that when Jeremiah Wright stands up and tells the truth about racism in America, when he talks about the fact, as King did in his Vietnam speech, that God’s judgment will come on the country depending on how we treat others around the world, when he stands in that prophetic, Christian, Black liberation theology tradition and tells the truth, that’s what it means to be a patriot. Your country can’t become better if you don’t tell the truth about its sins.

Gates: There is absolutely no question about that. But Tavis, the sound bites – I’ve never seen one of the speeches in its entirety from which –

Tavis: And you won’t. (Laughter)

Gates: But the media took the sound bites and put scare quotes around them. It made this something that would just terrify people. So I would guess that it’s not the question of criticizing your country, it’s the language in which that criticism is couched.

Tavis: Fair enough.

Gates: Do you think the country is ready for a Black president?

Tavis: I think the country is ready. Whether or not Obama is the right Black president, I do not know. I think the country is ready for a woman. I don’t know if Hillary is the right woman any more than I know Barack is the right male.

I think we’re ready for it; it’s just whether or not he is the right person, and the position that he found himself in yesterday – see, when I called for Barack a long time ago to address the issue of race, racism is the most intractable issue in this country, and I think he would have done himself, quite frankly, a favor to have addressed this issue early on and not be backed into a corner where he had to address it, and then be on the defensive while he was doing it.

Gates: Absolutely.

Tavis: I don’t think that was good for him.

Gates: No, absolutely. For him to have the discourse defined by other people so that he was on the defensive was a mistake. So you don’t think that he’s worn his Blackness in the proper fashion.

Tavis: No, I don’t think it’s my place or your place or anybody else’s to tell somebody how to wear their Blackness. I think, though, that the standard for me is Dr. King. He is the greatest American I believe we’ve ever produced, and King stands in a tradition of truth, of justice for all, of service to others, and for a love that liberates. So if you’re talking about justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates, at the center of that you’ve got to tell the truth. And I think, quite frankly, it’s impossible – it’s impossible to tell the truth about America and not offend some White people. That’s just a reality.

Gates: Of course. But again, it’s the language in which it’s couched. For example, our dear friend Cornel West – no one is more articulate about the history of sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, and racism in America than Cornel West. But you’ll never find Cornel, one of his speeches, being excerpted in a way that is offensive. But he’s very articulate and compassionate in his language.

Tavis: See, I’m not sure I agree with that, though. One of the things that I believe is that when you look at many of these free Black men and women, many of whom are supporting Barack Obama, who stand in that Kingian, that Douglass tradition of love and service and being truth-tellers, you know Dr. West as well as I do.

Just about everything, in his own colorful way, just about everything that Jeremiah Wright said, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Toni Morrison, your colleague at Harvard, Lani Guinier, Charles Ogletree, all of these free Black men and women, in their own colorful way, have said the same thing about the challenges that America has and continues to face around racism.

Gates: No question, but it’s just –

Tavis: Exactly. So you could find Cornel West speeches, you could go into Democracy Matters. To your point, it’s about how you say it, but they’ve said the same things.

Gates: No, so in response, it is not a question. Patriotism is best exemplified through auto-critique. When you’re willing to stand up within the group and say, “It is wrong for Black people to be anti-Semitic,” or “It is wrong for America to discriminate against persons of African decent and made them slaves and based its wealth upon free labor,” it’s crucial to say that. I think you’d be an idiot not to be able to say those things. But I think it’s all a matter about the clothing that your language wears.

Tavis: Yeah, I accept that. Let me jump now to the “African American National Biography.” Ten years in the making to put this biography together. I received my copy at my home some weeks ago.

Gates: I sent it to you just because I love you, brother.

Tavis: And I appreciate that. (Laughter) I got my copy at home a few weeks ago and I have just enjoyed going through this, because this, speaking of Barack Obama and the history that he is making, and we love him for it, speaking of the history he’s making, the story of so many African Americans who won’t ever get the press that Barack Obama is getting, you are now telling the stories of these great African Americans in this national biography.

Gates: So many people of color who made major contributions to American history have been trapped in the purgatory of history. They were important enough to be remembered or outstanding when they lived or remembered in some obscure biographical dictionary, but they didn’t make it into the longer histories of the African American experience.

And what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, who is the distinguished chair of African and African American studies at Harvard, my dear friend, what she and I we were able to do is to, in effect, pry these people out of purgatory and get them back into the historical text. Until this was published, the best biographical dictionary of African Americans consisted of 626 entries.

Tavis, we have 4,080 entries. All which will be online, and over the next two years we’re going to add 2,000 more. Everyone now knows about Frederick Douglass and Dr. Du Bois and Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Tubman, but how about Stagecoach Mary or Richard Potter?

Tavis: Stop, stop, stop – who was Stagecoach Mary?

Gates: Stagecoach Mary was the baddest woman in the west. She was from Montana. She was a trapper, a trader, and an odd-job person for the Ursuline nuns, the mission to the Indians in Montana. In 1890, the bishop came and said, “You got to go.” Well, she either beat up a man – a White man who hadn’t paid his bill – or else she killed him.

Now there are two different stories. And you know what she did? She smoked a pipe, she kept a pet eagle, and she was very good with a rifle, apparently, and she was unemployed. She went to Wells Fargo and got a job as a stagecoach driver, and hence her name Stagecoach Mary. And for the next 15 years of her life, she drove that stagecoach. Isn’t that astonishing?

Tavis: See, I know some folk at Wells Fargo. They got to put Stagecoach Mary on that picture.

Gates: Yeah, right? (Laughter)

Tavis: They use the stagecoach; ain’t no sister sitting up there.

Gates: And we have her picture, too. (Laughter) And she was a bad sister.

Tavis: We got to send that picture to Wells Fargo.

Gates: Let’s just say nobody robbed Stagecoach Mary when she was driving the stagecoach.

Tavis: I got you. You mentioned a guy named Richard Potter a moment ago.

Gates: Richard Potter was the first great Black magician and ventriloquist and he died in 1835. When he was 11 –

Tavis: So before David Copperfield, there was a brother?

Gates: Yeah, there was a brother. Well guess what? His son’s name was Harry. His assistant in his act was Harry Potter.

Tavis: Harry Potter. (Laughter)

Gates: See, White people been ripping us off for 150 years. He became, in effect, a millionaire. At the age of 11, he was a cabin boy on a ship, went to England, apprenticed with Rannie the Scot, who was a great magician, and he could do the Indian rope trick, he was a sword-swallower, and he was a ventriloquist.

He charged $250 an act, and became a millionaire, had a 175-acre estate in New Hampshire. And nobody even knows about this brother, but he was the baddest magician of his day.

Tavis: This might seem simple and naïve; what is, though, you think, the value of having a collection like this, courtesy of you and Ms. Higginbotham?

Gates: Well, the first thing, my motivation is I never want these people to be lost again. I want Americans to know how Black the larger American experience really is. Black people who fought in the American Revolution – do you know, the historians estimate 3,000 to 5,000 Black people fought in the American Revolution, but we’re doing a project under the direction of Jane Ailes at the Du Bois Institute, and we estimate there were 25,000 Blacks who fought in the American Revolution.

Wherever you go in the history of America, there have been Black people making contributions, but their contributions have been obscured, lost, buried. And what we’re able to do now – my dream is to put Black experience online, the Black historical experience online, and this is part of a larger digital reference center at OUP.com called the African American Studies Center, when we have taken 12 major reference works, including the Africana Encyclopedia, which I edited with Anthony Appiah, and digitized them all.

And it’s fully searchable. And we want people to write us, Evelyn and me, saying, “You didn’t put in my great-grandfather, who really invented the light bulb,” and that Thomas Edison stole the idea from him. (Laughter) And we might check your facts, but the point is we want to bring these people back to life. We don’t want them to be lost again. And I think this will change every American’s understanding of the history of this great country.

Tavis: If you do not have the good fortune, as I do, of being a personal friend of Skip Gates, how does one go about getting this collection now?

Gates: Well, they can go to OUP.com and get it online for a subscription, a small amount each month, or they can order it through Amazon.com or OUP.com. Basically, it’s very expensive; it’s about $1,000 a set. It’s for institutions and for junkies of African American history, such as Tavis Smiley.

Tavis: Like me, yeah, exactly. So that’s item number two. We talked about Obama and his speech yesterday; we talked about the new collection. Let me talk – because you’re so busy, let me talk about “The Root.”

Gates: TheRoot.com.

Tavis: Everybody has been linking me lately – you’ve got to go to “The Root,” you got to go to “The Root.” So you started this thing called TheRoot.com at “Washington Post.” Tell me about it.

Gates: Well, my friend Donald Graham, who’s the publisher of “The Washington Post,” we were on the Pulitzer Prize board together and we came to be friends after having many passionate discussions about (laughter) titles in the Pulitzer Prize. And one day he said to me, “I think that the world needs basically a Black version of “Slate” magazine, Slate.com, and would you consider doing it with me?”

And it took me about a half a nanosecond to say, “Absolutely.” We hired a brilliant managing editor, Lynette Clemenson, a great publisher named Don Bird, and we have been publishing since the end of January and we’ve done phenomenally well.

Michael Eric Dyson has been writing for it. We had a debate between Marcia and Michael about Hillary and Barack, of course.

Tavis: About Barack and Hillary.

Gates: And because of that, I can’t endorse a candidate, right? Because I’m the editor-in-chief of this site. But Larry Bobo, Michael Dawson, William Julius Wilson, Melissa Harris-Lacewell at Princeton and many, many other people are writing for it.

And you know what we wanted to do? We wanted to create a space, a journalistic space, where Black people could debate each other with the freedom that we debate each other in the beauty parlor or the barber shop.

Tavis: So in other words, you planned all this race mess so you could time (laughter) the launch of “The Root,” so y’all would have stuff to talk about every day.

Gates: The brilliant part of the timing, though, which is an accident of history, is that Barack’s candidacy and his contest with Hillary are unfolding precisely as we unfold TheRoot.com. So that it’s an historical record or chronicle of the first Black serious attempt to be the president of the United States. And I think it’s very valuable because of that.

But the main thing is the idea that some of us an Uncle Tom or an Aunt Jane because they disagree with you or me is rubbish. No one seriously can embrace that kind of attitude anymore. So want positions on the left, positions on the right, positions in the center in the same way that we find in church or we find in barber shops or at a Black family reunion.

And you know as well as I do that – you haven’t been Black as long as I have, but – (laughter)

Tavis: I’m trying to get there.

Gates: I’ve been Black 15 years, I believe, longer than you have. But Black people have been arguing with each other behind closed doors since 1619 when the first 20

Tavis: Got to Jamestown.

Gates: Yeah, that’s right – Angolans got to Jamestown. We’ve been arguing about how the hell to get out of here. That is as Black as the Black tradition itself. But somehow we have suppressed dissent among ourselves and called each other names. That’s over.

Tavis: Can’t democracy without dissent.

Gates: You can’t have democracy without dissent.

Tavis: Let me ask you, about a minute to go before I let you out of here – did I read somewhere the other day a big announcement about this African American live series that you’ve been doing on PBS?

Gates: Oh, yes.

Tavis: Did I read something the other day?

Gates: Yeah, you did. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS announced that they were authorizing three more series. I’m going to do an eight-hour series on the history of the African American people. We’re going to do American lives, but we’re going to call it “Faces of America,” and we’re going to do two Asian-Americans, two Latino-Americans, two Jewish-Americans, maybe two Catholic-Americans, two Caribbean-Americans using the same format of genealogy and DNA.

The response to that has been fantastic. I want to do one Blacks in Latin America. Most people don’t realize, Tavis, that there were 12.5 million Africans brought to the new world between 1514 and 1867, and of that 12.5 that we can count, there is a huge database called the Transatlantic Slave Trade database, under David Eltis at Emory – only 388,000 – 388,000 – were shipped directly to the United States. All the rest went to the Caribbean and Latin America, but nobody knows that there is a huge, vital culture in not only the Caribbean, which people know about, but throughout Latin America, and I want to do a series about that as well.

Tavis: For all of his students at Harvard and Cambridge, make a copy of this tape. Because when you’re going to see him in class, I do not know.

Gates: I never miss a class. (Laughter) Just like –

Tavis: With all the other stuff he’s doing, yeah.

Gates: Just like Cornel West.

Tavis: Never missed a class.

Gates: Never miss a class. Never miss a class.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you here, though.

Gates: Thank you, brother.

Tavis: Good to see you. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., out of Harvard. You’ve got to get this collection, this “African American National Biography.” It’s good stuff.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm