2105th Stated Meeting | April 1, 2022 | Hybrid Event
Annual David M. Rubenstein Lecture
On April 1, 2022, the Academy presented Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with the Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies in recognition of his groundbreaking work as a scholar and public intellectual. The program, which was the Annual David M. Rubenstein Lecture, included remarks by Academy President David Oxtoby, the presentation of the award by Chair of the Academy’s Board Nancy C. Andrews, and a conversation between Gates and David M. Rubenstein. An edited version of the presentations and conversation follows.
David W. Oxtoby is President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2012.
I want to welcome everyone to our program honoring Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with the Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies. This is the first Stated Meeting of the Academy that we have held in person since February 2020. We have an intimate group of friends gathered with us here and a large group that has joined us on Zoom from around the country to celebrate our colleague.
I want to begin by welcoming our guest of honor, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Skip Gates is a scholar and public intellectual whose prolific output has changed our collective understanding of ourselves and the world around us. He is the true embodiment of the Don M. Randel Award, which is given in honor of remarkable humanistic pursuits. Skip’s contributions to both academia and the public humanities are groundbreaking, altering our understanding of the African American experience and our recognition of the significance of Black intellectual life in this country. As Director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and coauthor of twenty-five books, Skip’s scholarship has had a seismic impact on a number of disciplines. In his work as a documentarian and television host, he has brought greater understanding of history and our place in it to millions. Skip has been a member of the American Academy since 1993. We are proud to be conferring this award and grateful to Skip for the example he sets in so generously sharing his talents with the world.
I also want to welcome David Rubenstein, who will lead tonight’s conversation. David is Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of The Carlyle Group, a leading philanthropist, and a steward of this nation’s cultural and educational institutions. Among his many roles, David serves as Chairman of the Boards of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Council on Foreign Relations, the National Gallery of Art, the University of Chicago, and the Economic Club of Washington. David was elected to the American Academy in 2013. He is a member of the Academy’s Board of Directors and a member of the Academy’s Trust, and has made two transformative gifts to our institution, including a $10 million pledge last year that will both help preserve the nation’s past through support of the Academy’s archives and strengthen American democracy through the establishment of the Rubenstein Fund for American Institutions. David is a skilled, thoughtful, and thorough interviewer, who in recent Academy events has interviewed Justice Sonia Sotomayor, astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, and actress Anna Deavere Smith. We are grateful to David for his generosity and service.
I also want to acknowledge our prize committee led by Pauline Yu, president emerita of the American Council of Learned Societies, for the care they take in awarding the Academy’s eleven prizes. The Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies is named in honor of musicologist and former Chair of the Academy’s Board of Directors, Don Randel, who served as president of the Mellon Foundation and of the University of Chicago. Don is unfortunately not able to join us this evening, but he asked that I convey his warmest regards and great admiration for his friend Skip.
Now it is my pleasure to invite Nancy Andrews, Executive Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer of Boston Children’s Hospital and Chair of the Academy’s Board of Directors, to join me in conferring the award.
Nancy C. Andrews is Executive Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer of Boston Children’s Hospital and Chair of the Academy’s Board of Directors. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2007.
It is my pleasure to read the award citation and present the Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded by a group of patriots who devoted their lives to “cultivating every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”
Established in 1975 to recognize superior humanistic scholarship and renamed in 2017, the Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies is presented to an individual for their overall contributions to and influence on the fields of Humanistic Studies.
For his distinguished achievements, the American Academy confers the Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies on Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Son of small-town West Virginia, of whom great things were expected, you take as your subject the greatest theme of all: the reformation of the human community.
Coming of age as the fight for equal laws was ending, and the fight for equal opportunity just beginning, you help create a path for scholars once excluded from the classrooms and libraries of the world’s most prestigious universities. Following Davis, Williams, and Soyinka, you pursue a scholarship both rigorous and engaged.
Your research reveals the significance of an African American aesthetic, the ironies and serious play of a vernacular tradition that is and has always been at the very center of our national culture.
You uncover new voices from the past, introduce new texts, and advocate new standards of cultural inclusion. You gather communities of scholars, across disciplines, to attend to the gaps in our knowledge of literature and art, law and philosophy, and economics and sociology that have been unattended for far too long.
Having found the origins of your own family in the life story of your great-great grandmother, you help all Americans find their roots, the complex and branching pasts that feed our present lives and from which our futures will flourish.
Literary critic, teacher, theorist, public intellectual: by studying the many and varied codes of the past, you have revealed the complex ancestry of American culture.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993.
Thank you so much. I’m a bit overwhelmed. It’s great to see so many of my dear friends in person and on Zoom. This truly is a great honor for me, all the more so because it was completely unexpected. As I mentioned to David, I wasn’t even aware that this award existed, let alone that I could ever be considered as its recipient. And that the award is named in honor of my friend Don M. Randel makes it even more special, since Don and I met and became friends when we were young and brash professors at Cornell University in the mid-1980s.
A word about Don Randel. Don is one of the great musicologists in the academy. It’s fitting that his specialties include the music of the Renaissance, because Don is the quintessential “Renaissance Man.” As a scholar, he has generated fascinating and important studies on everything from Arabic music theory to Latin American popular music to Mozarabic chants. And here’s something that resonates with my own work and intellectual interests: Don is concerned about canons and the relation of a canon to a discipline, to all that we understand to be proper to study – or to be the proper object of study – in a given field. This is a matter of enormous import to those of us who reform traditional or received definitions of a discipline – in Don’s case musicology, in my case, English and American literature, as well as literary history and literary theory. Don understands this relation between canon reformation and disciplines exceedingly well, for Don is a canonizer, having edited the Harvard Dictionary of Music, the Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, and the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Not bad for a Princeton man!
But it doesn’t end there. He also served as president of both the Mellon Foundation and the University of Chicago, so he understands intimately the power of institution-building and the relation of institutional rituals – whether they be academic or cultural – to traditional disciplines and to larger social issues, especially issues such as sexism, homophobia, and racism. It’s such an honor to be associated with his remarkable record of academic and administrative excellence, and, not least, his curiosity for knowledge and how best to share it with the world.1
- 1See “On Race, and the Arts and Sciences,” Reflections from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on Receiving the Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies, in this Bulletin issue.
Conversation between David M. Rubenstein and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
David M. Rubenstein: Where did you get the name Skip?
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: My mom was reading a book when she was pregnant, and the character was called Skipper or Skippy or Skip. So I was Skip and that’s the way it’s been for seventy-one years. But my name wasn’t Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Until I was twenty-five, my name was Louis Smith Gates. My high school diploma, my Yale diploma, my Phi Beta Kappa diploma: all have Louis Smith Gates. And I was Louis Smith Gates because my mother’s best friend was Olivia Smith, and Olivia Smith was a brilliant teacher at the colored school, as we would have said then.
In Mineral County, West Virginia, in the year I was born, there were two thousand people in Piedmont, a paper mill town, and 380 or so were Black. Brown v. Board is in 1954. Schools integrated in my county in 1955, and I started school in 1956. And when the schools consolidated, there was a Black county high school, Howard High School, and a Black elementary/middle school called Lincoln. They fired all the Black teachers except for one teacher from the elementary school, Miss Olivia Smith, and the principal of the high school, Mr. John Edwards, who was my father’s best friend. My mother somehow promised Miss Smith, who was single, that the child that she was carrying, who was going to be a girl, would be named Olivia. But when Olivia came out it wasn’t Olivia! Now, Oliver wasn’t playing in Piedmont, West Virginia, at that time. So, they named me Louis Smith Gates. My brother Paul is five years older, and he was named for two grandfathers. Paul was my mother’s father and Edward was an old Gates name. And so he was Paul Edward, and I was supposed to be Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Instead I became Louis Smith Gates. After I came back from Cambridge to go to Yale Law School, which I attended for thirty days, I changed my name to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I had to go to court and my father and mother were there, and my father cried and I cried, and it was wonderful. And then I had to go and change all these diplomas.
RUBENSTEIN: Have you ever thought about how much more you could have done for society if you had become a lawyer?
GATES: You know . . .
RUBENSTEIN: How did your family wind up in West Virginia?
GATES: I knew a lot about my family because they were property owners, but now I know a lot more because some of the finest genealogists in the world have unearthed my family tree. Growing up, I knew on the Gates side that Jane Gates was a slave until Maryland abolished slavery in 1864. She had five children. They all looked white, and in 1870 she paid $1,200 in cash for a house in an essentially all white neighborhood in Cumberland, Maryland.
RUBENSTEIN: What did your father do?
GATES: My father had two jobs. He worked at the paper mill in the daytime, and he was a janitor at the telephone company in the evening. But you have to get from Jane Gates to my father.
GATES: Jane’s oldest son was Edward Gates. He was born in 1857 and he had several sisters. Jane never told them the identity of their father. She just said that their father was white. So, Edward, the first, had a son and three daughters and my grandfather was that son. He was born in 1879. The three daughters at the turn of the century went to Howard University. The son worked on the Gates’s farm in Mineral County, a two-hundred-acre farm, and I am descended from that son. He and his father had a chimney sweep and janitorial business.
RUBENSTEIN: When you were growing up, did you say, “I want to be the leading African American scholar in the country?”
GATES: Are you kidding? My parents would have thrown me out of the house if I had said that.
RUBENSTEIN: What did you want to be?
GATES: I was going to be a doctor. As far as my mother was concerned, in heaven there was the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, and a medical doctor. You know, being a doctor was what smart little colored boys and girls were supposed to be.
RUBENSTEIN: Were you an athlete when you were growing up?
GATES: I was, but I broke my hip playing football when I was fourteen years old. But I was never a jock. My brother was a jock. He was the captain of the basketball team, but I became the scorekeeper, the statistician.
RUBENSTEIN: Is it correct that because you got poor medical care you never really recovered from that injury?
GATES: Yes. It was a misdiagnosed slipped epiphysis, which is very common among overweight adolescent boys. The ball and socket joint separates. It was misdiagnosed in the Potomac Valley Hospital in Keyser, West Virginia. When my parents, outraged by this situation, took me to West Virginia University Medical Center, a doctor looked at it and said, “He has a broken hip.” They pinned it but that didn’t work. So they did arthroplasty, and I have had two hip replacements.
RUBENSTEIN: You must have been a pretty good student?
RUBENSTEIN: Did you know you were going to get into Yale? Were a lot of Black people being accepted at Yale in those days?
GATES: No. Remember my father’s cousins, the three daughters who were sent to Howard? One, my Aunt Pansy, became a nurse at Freedman’s Hospital. She married a dentist. The other two became teachers. One married a pharmacist, and one married a sign painter. And the son of the pharmacist went to Harvard, got a master’s degree, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1949. He married a Black woman, Dorothy Hicks Lee, who is the second woman and the first Black person to get a PhD from Harvard in comparative literature. So, I was raised with stories about these people.
RUBENSTEIN: Did you apply to Harvard?
GATES: I’m going to get there. It’s a funny story. When I was twelve years old, my mother was very, very sick. My mother went through severe menopause. It doesn’t sound like much to people who don’t understand the chemistry of menopause and the history of the treatment of women who were suffering severe hormonal imbalances because of menopause. My mother was hit hard when she went through menopause. I was twelve years old, and I was sitting on the floor of our living room on a Sunday. I looked up and my parents were all dressed up. My mother bent over, and she told me she was going to the hospital to die and that I should be good and obey my father. She cried and I cried. My mother and I were very close. They went off to the hospital, and I went up to my bedroom and I prayed to God. I made a deal with Jesus that if he let my mother live, I would give my life to Christ, as we say. Three days later, miraculously, my mother came home. I was so happy and then I remembered my promise.
RUBENSTEIN: What happened? Were you going to be a minister?
GATES: Not exactly. I had to join the church. The Gates are Episcopalian. My mother’s family was Methodist. And my grandmother – Big Mom – and Miss Sarah Russell were the Sister Holy Ghosts. They were the anchors of the church. There was one Black preacher for two segregated Methodist churches: one in Keyser, the county seat, and one in Piedmont. Church was on Sunday morning in Piedmont, and on Saturday afternoon in Keyser. So, without telling my parents, on the following Saturday I hitchhiked to Keyser – I was twelve – and I went to the service. The average age of the people at the service was about eighty. There’s a place in the church service called the call to worship for anyone who wants to give their life to Christ. I can’t remember it verbatim. So I stood up and the minister thought I had to go to the bathroom. He said, “Skippy, the toilet’s back there.” And I said, “No, I want to join the church.” Everyone got around me, and it was very moving. It was one of the most moving things that I have ever experienced. They asked questions like, Do you promise this? Will you do this? And I answered yes. Everyone cried, I cried, and then I hitchhiked home.
This was in 1962. We had three television channels then. On Saturday night, we watched Gunsmoke. Bonanza was on Sunday. So, we are watching Gunsmoke and my dad asked, “Anything new happen today?” And I answered, “I joined the church.” And my parents said, “What? Are you crazy?” They thought I was joking. But then my dad said, “Well, you have to obey all the rules if you’re going to do it.” He thought that I would break. And so for two years I sang in the choir. I like to sing. And I didn’t play cards even though I loved to play; I come from a big card playing family. My brother and my father have perfect memories and my mother’s memory was fabulous. I have a very good memory for text, but not for cards. But I didn’t play cards, I didn’t dance – though I like to dance – and I didn’t listen to rock and roll.
RUBENSTEIN: So what did you do?
GATES: I read the Bible. I went to church. I sang. I prayed. And I thanked God that my mother was alive.
RUBENSTEIN: You later applied to Yale and Harvard?
GATES: My brother is a third-generation dentist in the Gates family; the other two generations graduated from Howard in 1919 and 1947. While he was in dental school, he came home in the summer of 1964. I think the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night was playing in the Cumberland Mall. And he said to me, “This is so crazy that you are in a fundamentalist church. I’m going to take you to a movie.” I hadn’t been to a movie in two years. And I was beginning to feel like a hypocrite because I had the same mind as I have now. I was worshipping with people who believed the world was created in seven days and everything in the Bible was literal, and I knew better than that. I was feeling embarrassed and awkward. So, he took me to A Hard Day’s Night and I loved it. I was exhilarated, but I thought a bolt of lightning was going to come down and strike me dead. I decided then that I was going to join my father’s church, the Episcopal church, because you don’t have to believe in God to be an Episcopalian.
Now, the part about Harvard. I had to be confirmed and the diocese of West Virginia’s church conference center is about 18 miles from Piedmont. By the way, where I grew up is very near where Drew Faust grew up. They sent me to Peterkin, the church camp. There were 102 kids there but only three Black kids. All the cool kids were rich white preppy kids. And the coolest kid of all was Mark Foster Etheridge III; his father was the editor of the Detroit Free Press. Mark was the editor of the camp newspaper, and he ran an editorial accusing the bishop of cheating in softball. And I thought this guy has chutzpah. This guy is my man. I asked him where he went to school, and he answered Exeter. I had never heard of Exeter. I said, “How do you spell that? X what?”
So I applied to Exeter. Someone from the school called me and said that I had to be interviewed by an alumni representative and there were two choices: Billy Campbell, the golfer, who was in Huntington, or John Rockefeller IV, who had just moved to West Virginia. And I said to myself, what is this, an IQ test? I chose John Rockefeller IV. I was accepted to Exeter. That’s where I met Joel Motley, Connie Motley’s son, one of my oldest and dearest friends to this day. But I was only there for six weeks. I was horribly homesick so I came home and I never went back. I graduated from Piedmont High School and was valedictorian. I applied to Exeter for a postgraduate year (PG), and I was sure that they were going to let me in. I apologized; I said I had made a mistake. But they turned me down.
So, I spent my freshman year at Potomac State College, which is a junior college five miles away in Keyser, West Virginia. It’s a branch of West Virginia University. My brother had gone there before he went to West Virginia. And I got straight A’s. I sent a letter to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. And Harvard – remember my name then was Louis Smith Gates – thought my name was Louise Gates and sent my letter to Radcliffe and Radcliffe sent me an application. So that killed that, and I didn’t apply to Harvard.
RUBENSTEIN: So, where did you apply?
GATES: I applied to Princeton, but the school had the wrong vibe for me. And I applied to Yale.
RUBENSTEIN: When you got to Yale did you think the people there were not as smart as you thought they would be or were they a lot smarter than you thought they would be?
GATES: I thought everybody there was Alberta and Albert Einstein.
RUBENSTEIN: So how did you do at Yale?
GATES: When I went to Yale in September 1969, two things happened that were fundamentally different than any other class before. First, there were 96 Black students and there were 250 women. And among my classmates were Sheila Jackson Lee, Congresswoman from Houston; Kurt Schmoke, first Black mayor of Baltimore and a Rhodes scholar – his example, in part, prompted me to apply for fellowships to go to Oxford; and a young geeky premed guy who was quiet and didn’t hang out much: Ben Carson. We were all there together. It was really exciting, and I was terrified. On a Friday night I was studying hard, and I had said I’m not going to go out because this is Yale. My brother called me, and he said, “What are you doing at home?” I said, “It’s Yale, man.” He said, “If you can’t go out on Friday and Saturday night and relax and recover yourself then you don’t belong there. You need to quit and come home.” And that changed my attitude. After that I went to movies and parties.
RUBENSTEIN: And how were your grades?
GATES: For my first paper in Afro-American history, the first Black history course I ever took, I got an honors. At the time you had honors, high pass, pass, and fail. And then I realized they were rating on a curve, and if I got an honors then almost nobody else did. So, I did very well.
RUBENSTEIN: Why did you apply for a scholarship to go to Cambridge? Why didn’t you go to Yale Law School?
GATES: Well, I wanted to go to Harvard or Yale, and I also wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge. So, I applied for everything. I was a junior Phi Beta Kappa; I was scholar in the house; I was going to graduate summa. And I was Black from West Virginia. I figured I had a good chance of getting a Rhodes or a Marshall or a Fulbright. And I was a finalist for all these fellowships, but I didn’t get any of them. I was blowing the interview. I wanted to get a medical degree and a law degree and nobody could wrap their head around that and I couldn’t articulate why I wanted that, but that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to Oxford, which has a PPP major: psychology, philosophy, and physiology.
RUBENSTEIN: Did you ever meet the people on those Rhodes committees that didn’t select you? Have you ever told them they made a mistake?
GATES: I have never heard from them again. I was down to my last fellowship, which is the Mellon Fellowship. At Yale, the Mellon Fellowship is given to two Yalies to go to Clare College at Cambridge, where Paul Mellon went, and two people from Clare go to Yale. I’m sitting in the waiting room and the guy who went in for the interview before me said, “I want to go to Cambridge and I want to work with this professor in English.” I didn’t know anybody at Cambridge. I just wanted to go there. So, when I went in and they asked, “Why do you want to go to Cambridge?” I answered, “Well, I don’t even know what I want to study.” But Yale had an amazing program called Five Year BA that was funded by the Carnegie Corporation, and I had been selected for that. It was very competitive. It was a gap year between your sophomore and junior years.
I always wanted to go to Africa from the time I was ten years old in 1960. I believe seventeen African nations became independent that year (1960). I memorized the names of all the capitals, the countries, and the presidents. I had this thing about Africa that nobody in my family could figure out. So, I got this fellowship, and at that time I was premed and Episcopalian. And that’s important because the Anglican Communion is divided up between what we used to call first world and third world dioceses. The sister diocese of West Virginia was the diocese of Tanganyika, as it was called then. I got a job working in the operating room in a mission hospital in the center of Tanzania. And I took the year off from Yale.
RUBENSTEIN: Should I assume that cured you of wanting to be a doctor?
GATES: When I came back to Yale after that year, I wrote a guest column for the Yale Daily News about the experience, and I realized that I was more interested in writing about the experience than being a doctor.
RUBENSTEIN: So what did you get your PhD in at Cambridge?
GATES: English literature. I was trying to decide among philosophy, art history, or English. As I mentioned, I had been very interested in Africa since I was ten and I had spent this year living in Africa. Someone told me that at Cambridge there was a Nigerian playwright who was in exile. He had been in prison for twenty-seven months during the Biafran Civil War, twenty-four months in solitary confinement, and that he was there in political exile because when he got out of prison, he wrote a prison memoir and the government was trying to imprison him all over again. So he had to flee. I went to see him, and he said that he would tutor me in African literature and mythology. His name was Wole Soyinka and thirteen years later he won the Nobel Prize. There were two other Black students in Clare College. One had been studying medicine his first year and hadn’t done so well because he didn’t want to be a doctor and he switched to philosophy. He was an Anglo Ghanaian and that Anglo Ghanaian and that Nigerian took me out for an Indian meal in October 1973. They wanted to dispel this foolish notion that I was ever going to be a doctor. They told me I was going to get a PhD in English, and I was going to come back to the states and rebuild African and African American studies. Those two people were Wole Soyinka and Kwame Anthony Appiah. In June, Cambridge is giving us all honorary degrees.
RUBENSTEIN: So that’s going to be your 59th honorary degree?
GATES: Yes. In fact, my degree was awarded on May 22, but because of COVID it will be presented in June. Theirs will be awarded in June.
RUBENSTEIN: When you came back from Cambridge, was it easy for an African American scholar to get a job teaching? Were there a lot of jobs for you?
GATES: Well, I went to Yale Law School from September 1, 1975, to October 1, 1975, and I took a leave of absence. The last time I checked I was still on leave.
RUBENSTEIN: What did your family say? You got a PhD from Cambridge, and then you went to law school. Did they say you should get a job?
GATES: I went to law school for a month. I’m a good typist. I used to play saxophone. And the boys in my high school, Piedmont High School, had to take typing in the ninth and tenth grades. The first Black teacher I ever had was our typing teacher and she was drop dead gorgeous. So I was highly motivated to learn how to type. Charles Davis, the first African American to get tenure in the English department at Yale and the second chair of what was then called the Program in Afro-American Studies, and his wife, who was a member of the New Jersey Matrons – one of those Black sororities and fraternal organizations behind the veil; her best friend was my Great Aunt Pansy Gates: they knew me. Linda Darling, who was my girlfriend junior year and she is now the great Linda Darling-Hammond – a professor at Stanford, and by the way she’s watching this program tonight – she and I took a seminar with Charles Davis my junior year. When I came back after dropping out of law school, he said, “We happen to have a vacancy for a secretary.” So they hired me as a secretary, and I typed letters for the faculty.
RUBENSTEIN: With a PhD from Cambridge, that was your job?
GATES: I hadn’t written my dissertation yet; I was ABD. I took Charles Davis’s graduate course in Afro-American literature and then the following June, they made me what was called a lecturer. I had two years to finish my PhD and if I didn’t, I was going to be fired. So two years later I wrote my thesis.
RUBENSTEIN: At the time, the state of African American scholarship was not very great in the United States?
GATES: Oh, there were great scholars, fabulous scholars. Harvard, by the way, has an amazing tradition, which should be celebrated by the history department, of training some of the greatest and earliest historians of the Afro-American experience. Du Bois in 1895, Carter Woodson in 1912, Rayford Logan, who was engaged to my great aunt, in 1936.
RUBENSTEIN: They were good scholars. What do you think you added to the scholarship that existed in that area? What did you do that was different than the others? How did you build on what they had done?
GATES: Well, I had been a history major at Yale as an undergraduate, but I switched fields completely to English literature and studied new literary theories under the rubric of structuralism and then post-structuralism and then eventually deconstruction. And it occurred to me that I could apply those to African American and African literature. I wasn’t alone. I was part of a young group of literary critics who were educated in traditional departments and with this new way of close reading. And our group of people fundamentally changed the way African American literature was studied and the way it was taught. We were fighting to integrate the canon of English departments and American studies departments, and to bolster fledgling programs in Afro-American studies, many of which had been set up to fail because they were a direct response to student pressure in the late 1960s.
RUBENSTEIN: So after you did that, you built a great reputation as a scholar, one of the greatest scholars in this area. Then you started a television series on genealogy. Did you ever realize with the power of television, which would take you all over the world, how you would be much better known than you already were?
GATES: I watched Kenneth Clark in the television series Civilisation in 1969 and I was enamored of the whole process of a scholar standing in front of a camera and giving a lecture. I really wanted to do it, but I didn’t tell anybody. I couldn’t even admit it to myself because I was going to be a doctor. And there was no way that I was ever going to be able to do it. Then I watched Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man, and I watched him again and again. At Cambridge, I was very good friends with David Ignatius, who had graduated from Harvard, Jamie Galbraith, and E.J. Dionne, who was at Oxford, and we all would hang around together: the Americans. Jamie invited me to meet his father, John Kenneth Galbraith, who was making The Age of Uncertainty. This is 1975. I spent one of the greatest days of my life at 26 Francis Avenue with John Kenneth and Kitty Galbraith. He was telling me about making this documentary series, and I remember when I left, I turned around and looked at the house and thought, if I could ever be a professor at a place like Harvard, live on a street like Francis Avenue, and be the host of a documentary film series I would have died and gone to heaven. And that was 1975. In 1991, I was hired by Harvard and in 1995, I bought the house two doors from John Kenneth Galbraith.
RUBENSTEIN: So . . .
GATES: Be careful what you wish for.
RUBENSTEIN: Did your parents live to see your success as you became world-renowned?
GATES: My father lived to be ninety-seven and a half. The Gates have pretty good longevity. Mom died from heart disease when she was seventy.
RUBENSTEIN: Did they ever call you and say, “Hey, we did a great job raising you”?
GATES: The day that they were the happiest was the day I was a clue on Jeopardy. That was a big day. They loved Jeopardy. We watched every episode. Do you remember Mac McGarry of It’s Academic? We were close to Washington. Our daily newspapers were The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post. Cable was really invented for eastern West Virginia, western Maryland, and western Pennsylvania because no signal could get over the mountains. All of our television programs came from cable.
RUBENSTEIN: What did you learn about your own genealogy? Anybody in your past that you are happy about or embarrassed about?
GATES: I was raised with knowing my mother’s side: that J.R. Clifford was my grandmother’s uncle. He was a cofounder of the Niagara Movement with Du Bois and, in fact, the second meeting of the Niagara Movement was held in Harpers Ferry. Piedmont is near Harpers Ferry, relatively speaking. J.R. was the host, and he was the first Black person admitted to the bar in the state of West Virginia. He was the publisher and editor of his own newspaper, The Pioneer Press, in Martinsburg. So he was a big deal. In my office, I keep a photograph of him with Du Bois at the Niagara Movement, so I always knew about him. My mother used to say, “You come from people.” I didn’t really know what that meant. But after they did my family tree, I learned that I am descended from three sets of fourth great-grandparents who were free. Two sets were freed by the American Revolution and the third set, on my father’s mother’s side, was freed in 1823. And they all lived thirty miles from where I was born.
My impulse to search for my roots came from a bad case of Roots envy because of Alex Haley. I’m looking across the ocean to try and find the ethnic group that I belong to in Nigeria or Senegambia or Angola, and it turns out that the rich roots were right under my feet, that my family had been freed for two hundred years. These three sets of fourth great-grandparents all knew otherwise. They were the Cliffords and the Bruces and the Redmans. I’m a Redman on my mother’s side and a Redman on my father’s side. It’s amazing.
RUBENSTEIN: What about the genealogy that you’ve traced of others? Have you ever found something that might be embarrassing, and you can’t tell them? Or do you ask them if they want to know?
GATES: We have an ethics protocol that I keep in a file folder right by my desk. If you were a guest and we found out that the man you called your father was not your biological father, I follow the ethics protocol. It can be a very fraught issue; it’s complicated.
RUBENSTEIN: What do people say when you tell them that?
GATES: I say, “David, we have found something in our research that is forever going to change your understanding of your family. Do you want to know or not?”
RUBENSTEIN: What do most people say?
GATES: Everyone says yes. Because what are they going to do, say no? And then I tell them, “The man you called your father was not your biological father.” The effects can be quite dramatic. We have a privacy protocol – all the results are coded, we use pseudonyms – and only three people in our production staff, including me and CeCe Moore, who solves all those cold cases, know who John Smith is.
RUBENSTEIN: So you are a leading scholar, you are a University Professor at Harvard, you run the African American studies program . . .
GATES: Being a University Professor at Harvard is the greatest honor that I have ever experienced.
RUBENSTEIN: Next to the award you received today.
GATES: Well, yes, they are different.
RUBENSTEIN: So you have all these things. What’s left to accomplish?
GATES: I keep Du Bois’s complete works on a shelf in our living room. And I have a first edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary because I’m a Du Bois junkie and I’m a Samuel Johnson junkie. I was made a Johnsonian last year, which is a great honor for me. When I look at The Lives of the Poets by Samuel Johnson and I look at the dictionary that he essentially did by himself, with some amanuenses, I feel like I’m standing still. Every Saturday when I read Anthony Appiah’s Ethicist column I think, Jesus, how does he crank out that brilliant column every week? I feel like I’m just not keeping up. But I do the best that I can do. At Cambridge I had a fantasy with Anthony that we would edit the Du Bois Encyclopedia Africana, and we did that with Encarta Africana. And I just got a grant from the Mellon Foundation that hasn’t been announced yet . . .
RUBENSTEIN: Well, you just announced it now.
GATES: True, but it’s not a secret. Working with Oxford Press and with twelve other scholars, mostly linguists, we are going to do the Black version of the Oxford English Dictionary. And I’m very excited about that.
RUBENSTEIN: Two final questions before we wrap up. One, do you do anything outside of scholarship for fun and relaxation? Do you have any hobbies, sports, anything that would make people feel that you’re just a regular person?
GATES: I love to fish, and I go bone-fishing once a year with Glenn Hutchins, whom you know is a bone fisherman par excellence. And I like to shoot pool, though when Marial and I bought Niall Ferguson’s and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s house, there is this beautiful room on the third floor that was going to be my billiard room. My daughter Maggie – I have two daughters – had my only grandchild, Eleanor Margaret Gates Hatley, and when she saw that room she claimed it. So my pool room is Ellie-land now. It has pink castles and Barbie dolls and tea sets. I guess we have to wait until she goes to Harvard. Or Yale.
RUBENSTEIN: Second question: out of everything you’ve done in your life, what is the thing that you are most proud of? Your scholarship? Your genealogy work? Your other public work? Other than, of course, this interview that you’re doing.
GATES: That is a tough question. I’m proud of the fact that I stayed the course when I joined the church because that was very hard. My intentions were good. I believed in God, and I believed that my mother was given life in part because of that pledge. So I had to fulfill that obligation and I did my best to do that. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat. But I think that the success of Finding Your Roots pleases me the most because of one of the recurring themes of Finding Your Roots: that is, we are all immigrants, even my African American ancestors. Genetically I’m 50 percent European and 50 percent sub-Saharan African. But my Black ancestors didn’t come here willingly; they came here from elsewhere. And even Native Americans came here from elsewhere 15,000 or so years ago. We are a nation of immigrants, but at the level of the genome we are 99.99 percent the same. And I think that’s why people like the series so much. We also tell good stories. It’s a way of understanding world history, a way of understanding what we all have in common despite our apparent differences. Two million people watch the show every week, and the fact that so many people do I think reveals the hunger for programs, books, and messages that speak to healing, that speak to the fissures that we are feeling so acutely in our society today.
RUBENSTEIN: Skip, this has been a great conversation about a great life. You should be very proud of it. I assume your children and your grandchild are very proud of you. I’m sure your parents would be proud too of what you’ve accomplished. Congratulations and thank you for what you’ve done for our country.
GATES: Thank you.