Henry Louis Gates: 35 Million Ways to Be Black (interview)
Accompanying Henry Louis ("Skip") Gates Jr. across the Harvard University campus is like following a beloved small-town mayor."Hi Skip!""How're you doing, Skip?""How's that leg of yours, Skip?"—for he is on crutches today. And he has a kind word for everybody. A young woman approaches and greets him warmly; he gives her a friendly kiss on the cheek; they laugh and chat; we walk on, and he jokes,"Sexual harassment!" Then, barely missing a beat, exuberantly, with her still in earshot,"She's harassing me!" Typical Gates: to be laughingly relaxed about things that Americans often find hard to talk about.
Nowhere does he do that more than with the vexed issue of race. The 56-year-old Gates is the newly-named Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard, as well as the director of the university's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. For a decade and a half, ending in 2006, he also headed Harvard's Department of African and African American Studies, assembling what is widely regarded as the world's most distinguished collection of scholars, both black and white, of race relations. The first black person to receive a Ph.D. from Britain's Cambridge University, Gates has an impressive string of scholarly publications to his credit. But, as much as any living American, he is a public intellectual—and intellectual impresario—as well. He has made several series of films for PBS and written a string of profiles for The New Yorker. He is the editor or coeditor of numerous anthologies and of a large encyclopedia, both print and electronic, of African and African American life. He is also a past or present member of everything from the Pulitzer Prize Board to the committee that advises the Postal Service on new stamp designs.
Our conversation takes place in Gates' house, only a few blocks from
his Harvard office. Today he is sitting in a recliner, his right leg
propped up. It is encased in a strange metal framework whose arms
actually penetrate his skin and go into the bone. Over many months, he
has adjusted this frame a millimeter or two each day to force his leg
bone to grow longer, repairing a childhood touch football injury whose
treatment left it two inches too short. When, in West Virginia in the
early 1960s, the first doctor to examine the 14-year-old Gates heard
him express his ambition (at the time Gates wanted to be a physician),
he told Gates' mother the boy was an obviously unbalanced"overachiever"—a code word for a black person who didn't know his
place. The doctor misdiagnosed the injury as psychosomatic....
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