Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Chair, Afro-American Studies, Harvard University

By Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. | The Nation, July 15, 1991 | Go to article overview

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Chair, Afro-American Studies, Harvard University


Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., The Nation


I WAS 23, STUDYING LITERATURE AT CAMBRIDGE UNIversity and listening with growing indignation to a fellow student--a Nigerian educated in England--hold forth about racism in "your country." In America, he was saying, blacks are victimized, downtrodden and lynched on every corner of every street. And they are all on welfare, scrounging for morsels in the trash to fend off starvation. And . . .

"I don't know where you get your figures," I finally broke in, bristling, "but according to the most recent statistics, most black people in America are firmly middle class." Even as I lied, the blood rushed to my face, betraying me. The truth was, I couldn't believe the things I heard myself saying: Racism in America? Pooh, what racism?

Dr. Johnson's gibe notwithstanding, it's at moments such as these that you learn the difference between "auto-critiqu" and, as it were, "allo-critique." Conservatives often challenge the good will of those to their left who take their country to task for its failings. (Don't you people have anything nice to say? they ask.) Why task our society for its sexism--aren't the Zulus as bad or worse? They don't understand that critique can also be a form of commitment, a means of laying a claim. …

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