Byline: Lisa Miller
With the circus of the 'beer summit' behind him, the high-wattage professor turns his eyes to the black experience in Latin America.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., known to all as "Skip," remembers the day he became obsessed with the subject of race. It was 1960, and he was 9 years old, staring at his grandfather's corpse lying in state at a funeral home in Cumberland, Md. Gates himself has medium-brown skin, the color of walnuts, but his grandfather looked like a white man. In life, Pop Gates was so pale his grandchildren called him "Casper" behind his back. In death, he appeared even whiter. "I thought, how ridiculous he looks," Gates recalled during a speech last month at the World Bank, in Washington, D.C. "'He looks like he's been coated in alabaster and sprinkled with baby powder!' " So Gates, who even as a child had a healthy sense of the absurd, violated the first rule of funeral etiquette. He burst out laughing.
After the burial, Skip's grief-stricken father marched him and his brother into a back bedroom, where he showed them the newspaper obituary of Jane Gates, their great-great-grandmother and a slave. A formidable-looking, brown-skinned woman, Jane Gates had five light-skinned children, probably by the white man who owned her. Freed around the time of the Civil War, she worked as a midwife and lived in a house she paid for herself in cash. "An estimable colored woman," is what the obituary said.
Skip has called Jane the "Rosetta Stone" of his life. She showed him his hidden history and so gave him an expanded sense of identity. Gates believes that only by recovering such lost stories can the black experience be properly understood. And he is, above all, a meta-storyteller. Through narrative, which he spins in scholarly articles and New Yorker stories, on TV and online, he lives out his most deeply held conviction: the more you learn about the real lives of real people, the less able you are to subscribe to self-serving and nationalistic myths that feed a racist culture.
Gates's early academic career focused on slave memoirs but soon broadened to every aspect of the African diaspora. Genetics tells a different story than culture does, and with his PBS programs on DNA and ancestry, Gates showed viewers that blood does not always comply with people's self-conceptions. (Gates himself is genetically 49 percent white.)
Now with Black in Latin America, his 11th title for PBS, Gates gently eviscerates the fixed idea--held especially by North Americans who think of race in terms of black and white--that long centuries of racial mixing can somehow eradicate racism. It will air in four parts, starting on April 19. In each episode, Gates travels to another part of the Latin-Caribbean world where he discovers racial conflicts and justifications that appear, to an American, entirely strange.
As it begins, Gates is still grieving for his own father, who died over Christmas. After his grandfather's funeral in 1960, Gates interviewed both his parents about their family histories--an attempt, in retrospect, to bond with his dad. Back then, he was his mother's favorite. "I didn't feel particularly close to my father," he says. "But, you know, you're always trying to please your parents. [My career] is playing out that whole long thing since that day when I was 9 years old. It's fascinating how life works. I'm 60. It pleased him."
I spoke with Gates after his World Bank talk, and several weeks earlier, in his glass-walled office at Harvard, where he holds the title of University Professor--an honorific bestowed only on the most eminent scholars. Though he is best known as a TV host and (for better and worse) the "Beer Summit Guy," in academia Gates is the man who made African-American studies legit. "Afro-Am" was a nascent field when Gates joined the Harvard faculty in 1991. He built a ragtag, dysfunctional department into a national …