Henry Louis Gates

The achievements of an academic in the eye of a very public storm are questionable

Academia Literature Overrated

The United States was once a country that prized self-reliance and assimilation. We were Americans not by birth, but by outlook and action. This has given way to today’s society of multicultural victimhood, with an expanding number of groups out to get theirs by loudly proclaimed grievance. Sonia Sotomayor’s main qualification for the Supreme Court was her Hispanic heritage; without it no one would have bothered to pretend that hers was one of the country’s finest legal minds. There is no better exemplar of this modern temper than Henry Louis “Skip” Gates.

Gates is a privileged figure in America: one of just 20 or so “university professors” at Harvard — and director of his own institute, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research. But his stage stretches far beyond academia. He’s the first stop for commentary on Black America for the New Yorker, Time and the New York Times. He’s a television star, a regular on the talk show circuit and maker of multi-part TV series like America Beyond the Color Line, and African American Lives. When the Washington Post wanted to start an “online magazine for blacks,” it went to Gates, who was happy to add founder and editor of The Root to his long curriculum vitae. He’s co-editor of Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience. Ditto for the Dictionary of African-American National Biography

Gates, now 58, has been in the news lately due to the fracas outside his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which ended with him being arrested by a white police officer. The event sent the nation into paroxysms of handwringing about the racism of American society and eventually engulfed President Obama. What’s most notable about an ultimately meaningless misunderstanding is what Gates said when confronted by the police officer, called by a neighbour who feared that a break-in was in progress: “Do you know who I am?” 

Gates is famous. He was famous long before his friend Barack Obama turned his arrest into a cause célèbre. But, like Paris Hilton, he is famous for being famous. When his achievements are cited, they are a litany of events that seem more to do with the colour of his skin than the nature of his scholarship or intellect. He was the first African-American to receive a Mellon fellowship at Yale, the first to cross the Atlantic and get a PhD at Cambridge, the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant at 30, a tenured professor at 33 (at Cornell). He was lured away by Duke after five years, but they kept him for just two, as Stanford and Princeton made big money offers, only to be aced out by Harvard, where Gates arrived in 1991 at the age 41. He’s on numerous boards, from the New York Public Library to the Whitney Museum of American Art. He has been awarded 49 honorary degrees. 

Almost 20 years ago a cover story in the New York Times Magazine noted: “With a phone in his Mercedes-Benz, a literary agent in New York and an impressive network of contacts in the academy, publishing and the arts, he sometimes seems more like a mogul than a scholar.” Gates has been a smashing success at exploiting the guilt of a liberal white society and badgering them to make amends through him. To be fair, he is charming and accomplished in public and an antidote to the harsh race-baiting of figures like the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. But the tendency to treat Gates as a major thinker — “Black America’s foremost intellectual” (Guardian) and “unquestionably one of the great public intellectuals” (New Yorker) — is vastly to overrate a pop cultural phenomenon, a public performer happy to comment on gangsta rap and the O.J. Simpson trial, to write a book on Oprah Winfrey’s family history, and to discover lost novels not in dusty archives, but in auction catalogues.

Gates certainly worries over his intellectual standing. In 2002 he said, “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.” He was trying to place himself in the tradition of our best literary scholars, who worked to elucidate and deepen the American canon, figures like Lionel Trilling, who insisted on the moral aspects of literature and opposed critics who emphasised ideological criteria. Yet Gates added: “One of the reasons I started writing for the New Yorker was that I’m addicted to writing, but I couldn’t really do the kind of archival research that I wanted to do, particularly in the first four or five years that I was [at Harvard] because it was such hard work building the department. I started writing for the New Yorker because I didn’t have to go to the library to do that.” Skip Gates, cultural mogul and academic empire-builder, is just too busy for  scholarship. 

In an attempt to defuse a situation rapidly threatening to spin out of control, Obama invited Gates and the arresting officer to the White House for a “beer summit” which received massive media coverage. Gates has promised “to devote my considerable resources, intellectual and otherwise, to making sure this doesn’t happen again”. And just what does devoting those “considerable resources” entail? “I’m thinking about making a documentary film about racial profiling,” he said.