Posted by: zhiv | July 24, 2009

A Teachable Moment: Henry Louis Gates Jr.

I wrote this yesterday afternoon and then didn’t put up–sometimes it seems like I go out of the way to make sure people don’t come to this site. Now Obama has gone and called this “a teachable moment.” I didn’t reread or have the above excellent link to Gates’ Hubbell Award, which is all anyone needs to see. There must be all sorts of testimonials out there, but this is the one that shaped my thinking and response. Here’s what I wrote yesterday:

I was driving around at lunchtime today and listening to sports talk on the radio, the local power station that has recently become Fox Sports. It used to be a local show but now it is national, with Chris Myers and Steve Hartman. They can be a little conservative to begin with, and they’re on a Fox station, but I was surprised when they were standing up for the police in Cambridge and questioning Obama’s “stupidity” remark. It was all about respecting the police and daring to raise the idea that a cop might have made a rash move, and saying that if the President doesn’t know the facts of the case, then he shouldn’t have commented.

But the thing is, Obama knows one important “fact”: he knows Henry Louis Gates Jr. a lot better than the rest of us.

The radio guys are smart guys. Myers, formerly of ESPN, can be slick–he’s the new guy. Hartman is from my era, born the same year (Michael Jackson ’58ers), likes most of the same teams, and he has a photographic memory about sports statistics and lots of other things. He stores an amazing amount of information, some of it cultural. He’s sharp enough that he would definitely be able to spit back the basic wikipedia info on Henry Louis Gates Jr. That being said, he wasn’t looking in that direction, and was turned around the other way. A lot of people, most of them know-nothings, want to debate the police issue. That’s relatively minor, and a typical sideshow. The point, and the moment, is about who Gates is, what he has accomplished and what he represents. They can’t be blamed for it, but it would nice if the Cambridge police knew who Henry Louis Gates Jr. is. In an Obama presidency, everybody should know Gates. And it looks now like everybody will. Not the best circumstances to get started, but sometimes things happen in strange ways.

I don’t know his story all that well, and I might be exaggerating, but as far as I can tell Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a national treasure. This is the “fact” that Obama knows, and it has a special meaning to him as President and the role he has to fill. Others would know the situation better, but I don’t think the place and importance of Gates is in doubt. I wanted to explain it to the radio guys in their terms, and after last weekend’s events I thought of golf. Gates is a revered senior with legendary status like Jack Nicklaus, as sharp and “competitive,” still at the top of his game, as Tom Watson, and in his day he was as revolutionary and transcendent as Tiger Woods.

He didn’t do it alone by any means, but he stands at the pinnacle of the post-King intellectual follow-up to the civil rights movement. He is the dean of African-American Studies, which had very humble beginnings in the 60s and 70s. His steady effort, insight, and leadership changed the way that American History and Literature is understood, defines itself, and is taught.

I had the standard vague sense of Gates as a “name” in African-American studies and literature, up until the beginning of this year. I can’t remember how I became interested in reading African-American Literature, but Obama’s campaign and victory was a part of it, and I had read James Baldwin and some other titles last year–I wrote a post about all this. Delving in, Gates started showing up regularly. I became aware of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, a worthy companion volume to the English and American Literature tomes. The primary editor is Gates. That’s all I really needed to know, but I also recently read an essay that he wrote after winning a major prize in American Literary Studies. And I read a piece he wrote about Anatole France. If you dip into African-American Studies, it quickly becomes obvious that he’s a major figure.

I’ve been trying to figure out who the equivalent person might be in a different scenario. It’s the general issue of a black man being arrested after letting himself into his own house, and I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with a corresponding white intellectual figure, and someone who would be so close to and important to the President and his world and his worldview. Jack Nicklaus is pretty famous, and you would think that a cop would know who he is, when he’s in his own home, but who has the intellectual status? Bob Woodward and even Walter Cronkite come to mind. You would expect a DC policeman to know who Bob Woodward is, and if he’s in his own home, figure out a way not to arrest him if became belligerent.

Gates stands as a living representative of the entire field of African-American Studies, although that’s a simplification. It is now a fully-vested discipline and history and literature, a major part of the larger whole. There really isn’t anybody who “represents” English or American Literature or History in quite the same way, or at least I can’t think of one. I’ll be working on it.


  1. I almost can’t bear to follow the news these days, partly because of stories like this one. It just perfectly sums up what’s going on with race in America today — that the incident happened and then that Obama got criticized so heavily for saying what he did. What can’t police officers be criticized? But what really bothers me is that so many people refuse to recognize that racism still exists. They automatically go for any other explanation than the racism one.

  2. This is a wonderful post, and it shows how beaten down I’ve become that I never expected anyone to know who he is. If you wanted a comparable figure in American or English literature, maybe in England it would be someone like Christopher Ricks (who was knighted recently and also was the professor of poetry at Oxford, where they recently had that big brouhaha over Derek Walcott). But here I don’t think we value literature enough, much less Af-Am lit, to have one person who could be so iconic…

  3. I’ve been following the story as well, and quite disappointed/saddened at how events unrolled. In an ideal world, the police and the surrounding community would have known exactly who Gates is and so this whole adventure wouldn’t have even occured. But like Helen mentions above, literary figures working “quietly” in the background aren’t known publicly, especially those working almost exclusively in academia. The fact that a neighbor called the police (and here I don’t have access to the full story, so maybe this is a non-issue after all) but didn’t know Gates by sight as he tried to get into his own home – that raises some questions to me about US neighborhood dynamics. I do hope the dialogue that results from this event is a positive one…

  4. Thank you for a most provocative posting. It’s my impression that the concept of the “Public Intellectual” has circled round the drain and drowned. I tried hard with your challenge and could not come up with any name.

    I think that 50 years ago we could have said Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and WH Auden (although I did not mean to come up with only poets).

    It’s a sad commentary.

  5. An equivalent person in an equivalent, as opposed to different, scenario might be Anthony Appiah now at Princeton but I think at Yale or maybe even Harvard for a few years. I have often thought about him and he came to mind when I first read about this extraordinary case. When I was doing a thesis on Morrison for my MA a few years ago I kept coming across his name as a commentator on African-American issues, political, social and literary. Years and years ago I knew him when he was doing a PhD at Cambridge and, courtesy (I suspect) of the fact that I had a beautiful boyfriend who many of the gay men in Cambridge lusted after, I was invited to his soirées. Interesting times. But he was a very nice guy and hugely impressive. I seem to remember (though my memory is NOT reliable) that he had a passionate fiery nature and can easily imagine him reacting as HLGates did.

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