How Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Helped Remake the Literary Canon

Here is an excerpt from an interview of an exceptionally important thought leader, Henry Louis Gates, conducted by David Remnick, Editor of The New Yorker. To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Credit: Photograph by Andres Serrano for The New Yorker

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The scholar has changed the way Black authors get read and the way Black history gets told.

It’s important to say it up front: I can’t claim to approach Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — or Skip, as he’s known — as a subject of objective journalistic inquiry. We’ve known each other first as colleagues at The New Yorker, where he wrote the Profiles that make up his collection “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man,” and then as friends. Still, I don’t think it requires the prejudice of friendship to believe that Gates, who is now seventy-one, has left a lasting, multiform imprint on the culture.

Gates was born in 1950 and grew up in Piedmont, West Virginia, where his family has deep roots. His father worked in a paper mill. Town picnics were still segregated but, with the advent of Brown v. Board of Education, the schools were not. After a year at Potomac State College, Gates transferred to Yale, which was starting to open up to a sizable number of Black students. In New Haven, he began to explore the depths of African American literature and history. His awakening did not take place only in the classroom and university meeting hall. Gates was also fascinated by the trial of Bobby Seale and other members of the Black Panthers at a courthouse near campus, and joined in the student strike in solidarity.

After graduating from Yale, he went, on a fellowship, to study at the University of Cambridge, where his most important mentor was Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian playwright, essayist, and novelist. The English faculty at Cambridge did not take African literature seriously, according to Gates, relegating it to anthropology. Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1986, helped convince Gates to study African and African American literature.

As a literary critic, Gates made an impact on the field by helping to establish a canon of African American literature—one that was neither separatist nor a mere appendage to the traditional, white canon. In “The Signifying Monkey,” he employed the tools of post-structuralism and semiotics to bear on both the vernacular tradition and authors as varied as Zora Neale Hurston and Ishmael Reed. Gates also unearthed and brought forward nineteenth-century texts by African American authors including Harriet E. Wilson (“Our Nig”) and Hannah Crafts (“The Bondwoman’s Narrative”), and assembled the thirty-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. Gates is a prodigious cultural entrepreneur, editing countless anthologies and reference works (including “Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience”), co-founding the online publication the Root, and publishing popular volumes about Black culture and history. His book “Colored People,” which explores his family and upbringing in West Virginia, is an important chapter in the modern history of African American memoirs. A collection of Hurston’s essays, “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” which Gates co-edited with Genevieve West, came out last month; “Who’s Black and Why? A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race,” which he edited with Andrew S. Curran, comes out next month.

Perhaps his most important and lasting role has been as a teacher and an institution builder. Gates arrived at Harvard in 1991, and he swiftly recruited an extraordinary concentration of Black scholarship—William Julius Wilson, Cornel West, Lawrence D. Bobo, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Suzanne Blier, and others—all while reinvigorating the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute, which is now part of the Hutchins Center. Gates proved a dynamo of both intellectual energy and fund-raising finesse.

In recent years, he has been a prolific filmmaker, mainly for PBS, putting out documentary series on heritage (“Finding Your Roots”) and history (“Reconstruction,” “The Black Church,” “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” and “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross”). His book “Stony the Road,” a companion to the series on Reconstruction, credits the research of earlier historians, particularly Eric Foner, yet it is a superb account of the roots of American white supremacy and structural racism that afflict the country to this day. A new film on Frederick Douglass is about to appear.

Gates is married to the Cuban-born historian Marial Iglesias Utset; they live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the day of an immense snowstorm, we connected over Zoom for a few hours and talked about matters past and present. (We had a subsequent exchange over e-mail.) Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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I’d like to start out by looking back at your family and West Virginia. You write about this beautifully in your memoir “Colored People.” Tell me a little about Piedmont, where you grew up.

My family never moved, from fourth great-grandparents down to me. We lived within a thirty-mile radius in eastern West Virginia. I have deep roots in those mountains. It’s not what you read about in textbooks like “From Slavery to Freedom.” It is not a typical Black experience, but it is a real Black experience.

In the year I was born, 1950, I believe there were about two thousand people in Piedmont, and just over three hundred were Black. It was an Irish-Italian paper-mill town. And because my dad worked two jobs—in the daytime, at the paper mill, and then as a janitor at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company—he had the highest income of any Black person in Piedmont. We had the nicest house. Wealth and poverty are always relative. In that context, we were in the Black upper-middle class. My mother never worked a job outside the home in my lifetime. When she was a girl, she cleaned houses to make extra money. One of the reasons my father worked two jobs was so my mother would never have to work.

As I understand it, your father’s attitude toward white folks in town was more easygoing than your mom’s.

My mother was very suspicious of white people. To help support her family, by the age of twelve, she was cleaning the Thompson house. She told us this awful story of them planting a twenty-dollar bill in the cushions of a sofa, to see what she would do. And she, of course, returned it. But, even at that age, she had figured out that this was a test, and she deeply resented that.

Brown v. Board of Education, the pivotal school-integration case, came along when you were a kid.

In 1956, when I started first grade, the schools had integrated, without a peep, though big social events, like town picnics, were segregated.

You describe the school in very positive terms.

I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve been asked about it a lot. But I never once experienced racial discrimination in the classroom. Right before I started the first grade, someone knocked on our door, and it was a white person from the school system. They had tested all the kids entering our first-grade class. My parents took this white person into our formal living room, where nobody ever sat down and all the furniture was covered in clear plastic. They were whispering in hushed tones. And then the white person left.

My parents came out in the kitchen, where I’d been cloistered, and they sat down and they said, “Skippy, you took that test a couple weeks ago. And it had five hundred questions, and you got four hundred and eighty-nine questions right.” That set the tone for the next twelve years of my life. They expected me to be the smartest kid in the class. The classroom was my playground. I was one of those kids, those little assholes, who hated summer vacation, man!

Now, I said I never experienced racial discrimination in the classroom. But don’t even think about dating a white girl. We performed dances a lot and operettas every year. But never, ever was a Black boy paired with a white girl. What they would do is pair me with a Black girl in my class. And then, when they ran out of boy-girl combinations, they would put two Black girls together, or two Black boys together, or a Black boy and a white boy—that was very daring. But never did Skippy Gates dance with Brenda Kimmel!

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