Resurrecting the Texts: A Conversation with Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Humanities, March/April 2002 | Go to article overview

Resurrecting the Texts: A Conversation with Henry Louis Gates, Jr


HARVARD PROFESSOR AND CULTURAL CRITIC

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is this year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. He spoke recently with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the growth of African American studies in this country. Gates, who is WE.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, is the author of twelve books, among them THE SIGNIFYING MONKEY and THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACK MAN.

BRUCE COLE: You're described as a cultural critic, a literary historian, various labels. If you were sitting next to someone on a plane and they asked you, "What do you do?" what would you say?

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: I would say I'm a literary critic. That's the first descriptor that comes to mind. After that I would say I was a teacher. Both would be just as important.

I liken the role of the scholar of African American studies today to a Talmudic scholar, someone whose job it is to preserve the tradition, to resurrect the texts and key events of the past and to explicate them. I've always thought of myself as both a literary historian and a literary critic, someone who loves archives and someone who is dedicated to resurrecting texts that have dropped out of sight. As it turns out, there are a huge number of those texts. At the beginning of my career I didn't realize quite how many there were.

COLE: What kind of history were you interested in then?

GATES: I was interested in American political history. My first degree was from Yale, in history, and John Morton Blum was my mentor. I was the scholar of the house. There are twelve scholars of the house at Yale, and I was one of the twelve. If you're selected for that program, which in my day was very, very competitive and prestigious, you are relieved of all courses for your senior year and you are able to write a book, in my case, or compose a symphony or paint a portrait or create a ballet, whatever it may be.

I was selected to write a book about Jay Rockefeller's gubernatorial campaign in West Virginia. I'm from West Virginia.

COLE: Yes. I've read your memoir.

GATES: I had met Jay Rockefeller when I interviewed to go to Exeter-which I attended briefly-and I really liked him. I love Theodore H. White's The Making of the President. So, in my junior year, working with Blum, I decided that I would submit an application to be the scholar of the house, and my project was called "The Making of a Governor," and the joke was, "by Theodore H. Black." The only problem was that Jay didn't win. So it was the unmaking of a governor.

I learned a lot about writing from John Blum, and I learned a lot about history from John Blum. It was like the laying on of the hands. That same year, my junior year, when I was thinking about this project, I also was writing a guest column for the Yale Daily News. That was our campus daily.

I had taken a year off from Yale in a special program called Five Year B.A. The only stipulation if you were chosen for this project was that you take the year off, that it was not an academic year, hence Five Year B.A.

I went to Tanzania, where I worked at a mission hospital for a year.

COLE: You were supposed to do something not academic?

GATES: Not academic. When I came back, I had to declare a major and I realized that I had taken six history courses and you only need twelve for a major, so I said, "Wow. I'm halfway there." I decided to be a history major, a subject that I had always loved. On the way back, when I was sailing down the Congo River, I had written to Rockefeller saying, "I think you're running for governor and maybe you'll give me a summer job." I was hitchhiking from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean with a guy who had just graduated from Harvard, who happened to have been a white guy named Lawrence Biddle Weeks, who's now an Episcopal priest, having been a lawyer. We had run into each other by accident at the dock in Dar es Salaam. …

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