BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Henry Louis Gates Jr., author of "Colored People." Why the title?
HENRY LOUIS GATES JR., AUTHOR, "COLORED PEOPLE" Well, we were colored in the 1950s, and this is a book that attempts to recount what it was like of African descent in the United States between 1950 and roughly 1970. And partly it's a book about names and naming, and not only the names that the race has given itself -- colored people to Negro to black, ultimately to African-American -- but also one's own names. As you know, I talk about the names that were given to me at different points in my life and then finally, when I was 25, I took my father's name.
LAMB: Where did you get the name Skippy?
GATES: From the time I was born -- the day I was born, my Uncle Raymond called me Skipper, and then it became Skippy. We were Piedmonts on the river -- Piedmont, West Virginia, is on the Potomac River, two hours west of Washington, so there's a whole Marine mentality there, and so I became “The Skipper.”
LAMB: Before we go back and talk about the past, what are you doing now?
GATES: I'm the chairman of Afro-American Studies at Harvard and a professor of English.
LAMB: And how long have you been doing that?
GATES: This is the beginning of my fourth year.
LAMB: You write to your daughters in the beginning and you suggest that, eventually, after going through all the different names, they may get back someday to calling people of African-American descent or whatever colored. Do you really think so?
GATES: Yeah, it could well be. I mean, stranger things have happened. You see, most people don't realize that we called ourselves African in this country in the 18th and throughout the 19th century. I mean, not African-American, but African. For example, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was formed in the late 18th century, has that name to describe black people. So the names have always been mutable. We've always been at war with racism in this country. And one of the arenas of the crucial arenas of that war was the issue of names because we had the most hideous name put upon us by the most hideous aspect of the American public and that, of course, was nigger. So nigger was always at the base, the foundation, the bottom line, and we were always running away from that kind of aspersion.
LAMB: I didn't do it, but if I had more time, I think I would have gone through and counted the number of times you used the word nigger in the book.
GATES: Quite a lot.
LAMB: What's the point?
GATES: Well, I'm quoting people. I'm quoting my father, I'm quoting my uncles, I'm quoting sometimes my mother, the people I grew up with. This is a book about black vernacular culture. This is a book about what black people thought and felt when no white people were around. I tried to imagine myself as a video camera on the sofa of our living room circa 1955, 1960, 1965 and finally 1970, and we use the word `nigger' all the time. Sometimes it's used very lovingly, sometimes it's used in a mean-spirited way, but it's a natural part of our culture, of our language.
LAMB: Where did the word come from?
GATES: Well, it's a debasement of negro, which is Spanish for black.
LAMB: Did you ever go and find the exact spot where that word started?
GATES: No, linguists have. They can trace it to the 17th century. And it's, again, a debasement of negro or a debasement of Niger, N-I-G-E-R, like the Niger River, or nigars, N-I-G-A-R-S, the word which was used to describe the first 20 or so slaves who came to Jamestown in 1619.
LAMB: How many daughters do you have?
GATES: Two daughters, Maggie and Liza, ages 14 and 12, going on 40.
LAMB: Now have they read this book?
GATES: Yeah, they have, actually. And they've attended two readings that I've given of parts of the book. And I always read the preface when they're in the room because as you know, it's in the form of a letter written to them. The whole book, in its first draft, was written in the form of letters to Maggie and Liza. I was in Italy at the Rockefeller Foundation Conference Center at Bellagio, which is on Lake Como near Milan, and I woke up the first day there and it reminded me so much of Piedmont. It's on this beautiful lake; Piedmont's on the banks of the mighty Potomac. Bellagio has the pre-Alps coming down to the left, hitting the lake; and we had the mighty Allegheny Mountains. And so by extension, I reimagined myself at home, and it was wonderful. And the girls were back in Boston and so I wrote them a letter every day. So each chapter was called a date -- the first was July 10th, the second was July 11th -- and I wrote them 20 to 30 pages a day for two weeks. I lost 10 pounds doing it. I went down to Milan and came back, and then I finished the first draft of the book over the next four weeks. It was quite exciting for me.
LAMB: By the way, how does somebody get to go to Italy under the Rockefeller aegis to do this kind of thing?
GATES: Oh, you just contact the Rockefeller Foundation. They'll send you an application. It's quite competitive. But lots of scholars and creative writers and creative artists and potters and sculptors, dancers, musicians apply. I think there are 14 or 15 scholars and artists in residence at any given time and you stay for five or six weeks. You're very well treated and it's a glorious experience.
LAMB: I'm going to jump to something that you and I had in common, after I read this book, and that was growing up listening to John R.
GATES: You listened to John R.?
LAMB: Well, I remember him as John R., John Richbourg and I also listened to somebody by the name of Gene Nobles.
GATES: That's right.
LAMB: Now why did we both listen to that same radio station in Nashville, Tennessee?
GATES: I guess you're an octoroon and you've been passing all this time.
LAMB: Who was John R.?
GATES: John R. -- I saw an article about him in The Times in the '70s and he was this white guy who sounded black and loved black music and black culture. And I think many of us would have been shocked in the '50s and '60s to know that John R. was this white, Southern, mountain guy who was in love with black culture. But he played both gospel music and soul, rhythm and blues, and blues, and that was my first encounter with black music on a national scale, as it were. But I have been surprised by how many people throughout the South -- but you're from the Midwest -- who depended upon John R. and "Randy's Record Shop" for their nightly infusions of black culture. You certainly weren't getting it through WKYR or whatever it was called in Keyser, West Virginia. I mean, basically, I was raised with country music, hillbilly music.
LAMB: When I grew up in Indiana, we used to listen to "Ernie's, Buckley's, Randy's Record Shop," and they had these disc jockeys that talked the -- you know, it was the talk of the day and all that. And I just wondered how we both came to that radio station, what influence it might have had on that whole area. I mean, how could you -- was it difficult to hear it in Piedmont, West Virginia?
GATES: Yeah. You couldn't get it in the day. You could only get it at night. It was on AM. It was very scratchy, but you would solder your radio dial to its point on the dial and listen to it every night. And I had an older brother who was five years older, and so he was tuned in to the world and I was just the beneficiary of his wit and wisdom. And he would wait till my parents were asleep, then he would turn it on low, and we had bunk beds and I'd sit there and listen. And it was great. It was an aspect of black culture that I didn't encounter in my daily life. I remember ads for things like Black Strap Laxatives, and they would sing the song just like you would sing blues or rhythm and blues. So it was very important to me. Then you could -- as you know, then you could order the records. So we would order these 45s through "Randy's Record Shop" which, again, we could not get in our local record stores.
But the fact that you were raised on this just as I was, indicates how integrated black and white culture really was, even in the 1950s and 1960s, though America officially denied it. Officially, you remember, we had this white Anglo-Saxon-derived culture, and so everybody else's culture, particularly black culture, was subterranean, driven underground because it was an embarrassment. You know, it was the relative you couldn't take out to dinner. But through popular culture, through electronic culture, all those barriers started to break down. MTV, of course, is the example for this generation, though MTV took a long time to integrate. I don't know if you remember, but they wouldn't show any black artists. I mean, that's bizarre in the 1970s and 1980s, but they wouldn't show any black artists, and then they started showing Michael Jackson and then Prince, and now you might think of MTV as primitive as postmodernism. I mean, it's so black and sometimes I think it's even borderline racist.
LAMB: There's another thing that I used to listen to on WLAC in Nashville on these same programs that you talk about in an indirect way, and that was things like Silky Straight and Royal Crown pomade.
GATES: That's right.
LAMB: But why did you, in your book, talk about the colored people and hair?
GATES: Well, we were obsessed with hair. In my community we were obsessed with hair, and judging by the number of letters that I received from black people throughout the country in response to those sections of the book, I think the race was obsessed with hair. We were obsessed with hair and color, and that's a result of the slave system. The slaves who were mulattos were -- obviously had been fathered by the owners of the slaves, they had obviously been fathered by white people, and often they had privileged positions. In addition to having a light complexion, they often had straighter hair, obviously, because of the genetic mixture. And this class system which emerged throughout slavery, often the result of rapes or violent and forced sex, played itself out through our culture for the next century, so that having a fair complexion became very, very important for some people, so important that they bleached their skin. Having straight hair became very important to people as a status symbol, and so often they straightened their hair, or if they didn't straighten their hair -- I mean, I never straightened my hair, but I would put different kind of pomades on it, different kinds of oils, as we would call it, which basically was very thick grease, and brush it or wear a stocking cap to make your hair appear more naturally wavy, as we would put it, then it really was.
LAMB: Another thing that I did early in my life -- I think I was probably about 18 years old -- I interviewed Nat King Cole ...
GATES: Oh, you did?
LAMB: ...you know, when I started out in this business. And that was one of my fondest memories from starting in this business. And you also mentioned Nat King Cole in this book.
GATES: We were obsessed with Nat King Cole's hair. I mean, my Uncle Joe -- as I say in the book, my Uncle Joe said, “They can do things to his hair that the average Negro can't even have access to,” because he had this patent-leather process. I mean, his hair was so straightened -- it was silky straight. And people would marvel at this crown of hair on the King's head, but he had this beautiful voice and nothing could ever take away from that. I say in the book that I argue with an African friend of mine. The African friend is Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize laureate from Nigeria. He got the Nobel Prize in 1986. And he finds any form of straightening hair disgusting and a sign of Uncle Tomism and hopeless race self-hatred. And I would always defend -- and still would -- Nat King Cole's right to wear his hair in whatever way he wants. But Nat King Cole's hair is the equivalent for its time of what Michael Jackson's -- the treatments Michael Jackson does to his hair. Look at the pictures of Michael Jackson 20 years ago when he had a kinky Afro, and then look at his hair now.
LAMB: What about the Nat King Cole, though, that appeared on television? And how important was it to you when you were growing up?
GATES: Well, 1957, Nat King Cole became the first black person to have his own TV program and it was wonderful. I remember not only all the members of our family gather around the TV to watch it but neighbors came to watch it. I mean, it was a real test for the race. I mean, would we be able to pull this off? It was a major breakthrough. And he would have white guests and he was just the straight host. But, of course, he would sing at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of each of his programs. Whenever there was a black person on TV, we rooted for him like you'd root for your home team. I mean, we wanted the brothers to make it, we wanted the sisters to make it.
LAMB: Did you even call around to your neighbors?
GATES: “Colored on Channel 2.” We all did that. And today almost all the black TV shows are listed at the end of Jet magazine. But there was no such listing, so when an individual is being interviewed or Sammy Davis Jr. was making a guest appearance, or I remember a black team from Fisk University on the College Bowl. There was no way you would know, necessarily, and so we would have to use the grapevine. We'd have to call each other, we'd have to stand on our porches -- we all lived scrunched together in the same neighborhoods -- and say, “Sammy Davis Jr.'s on Channel 5,'“and we would all run to watch Sammy Davis Jr. or whatever it was.
LAMB: You are not offended by "Amos and Andy"?
GATES: No. I didn't think of -- and no one in my household thought of "Amos and Andy" as being the National Geographic anthropological treatment of the nature of the Negro. I mean, it it was bunch of buffoons. But "Amos and Andy" also had several different class types. For example, there were black lawyers and black doctors and black judges and black undertakers, as well as the black trickster figure, the Kingfish, who was, you know, Brer Rabbit, who was a figure straight out of black mythology, and Andy, who looked like a bear, was Brer Bear. I mean, these were myths that we had been raised with, which were playing themselves out on television. I was too young to have heard them on radio, but my parents, of course, did and my parents loved them on radio, too. But they took them as signs of human vulnerability and of arrogance, of hubris, of pain, of love. They took them as typical of the human experience, rather than typical black people.
My father still cracks up at "Amos and Andy" and we have -- I guess we have tapes of 77 "Amos and Andy" episodes. We watch them every once in a while. I like showing them to my friends who say, “I would never watch "Amos and Andy." It's politically incorrect.” So I say, “OK. Well, let's watch it and analyze it,” and I put it on the VCR, and after about five minutes of cracking up -- because there are some hilariously funny routines, and those actors were brilliant to be able to create those parts. I mean, the Kingfish and Andy were very intelligent, very articulate individuals. Andy, for example -- Spencer Williams -- was a great director in the black film industry in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, a very subtle man, and the idea that they were the parts that they played is ridiculous.
GATES: The problem with "Amos and Andy," if I may, was that there weren't enough other types of Negroes represented on television at that time. There weren't enough blacks in -- I mean, there were no black anchorpeople, for example. There were no blacks represented as intellectuals outside of the judges and lawyers and doctors on that TV series. You know, there was no Oprah, etc., and so that was the dominant image. And what you remembered -- I think if you were white, what you remembered was not what you remembered if you were a poor colored kid growing up in Piedmont, West Virginia, which is, “Look at all these black judges.'“ What you remembered was the ignorance of Andy Brown and his dupability, as it were.
LAMB: Why did you write the book?
GATES: Well, I wrote the book, I think in retrospect, because I was grieving for my mother. My mother and I were very close. I come from a very close family, but my mother and I were particularly close. And she died in 1987 and, you know, contrary to what people say, the grief didn't go away. It became muted, it assumed other forms, but it didn't go away. I really missed my mother. And the older my daughters got, the more I missed my mother, the more I understood as a parent what she and my father had done, things which had made me angry or which had hurt my feelings, which had confused me. And I always wished that she was still around so I could call her and say, “Hey, Mama, you know, I remember -- now I understand why you did this. Now I understand why you did that.”
So I wanted to write the book as a tribute to my mother and father, a portrait of my mother, but in my father's voice. My father is a brilliant storyteller. My father puts Redd Foxx and Bill Cosby to shame. I mean, if my father had been trained, I mean, he would have been a great actor. And we were raised hearing these stories every night. I mean, every night he would come home from work in the afternoon from his day job at 3:30, and we'd get off from school at 3:30, and then we'd all eat dinner at about 4:00, and then at 4:30 he would go to his second job as a janitor at the phone company. Then he'd get back about 7:30 or 8. And then we would gather around the television, just like you imagined -- if you were growing up in Piedmont, you imagined that New England families did around the fireplace in the wintertime, and you would watch television till 9:30 or 10, whenever our bedtime was. And my dad would do a running commentary on whatever we saw on television. And he would read, he'd do crossword puzzles. He subscribed to Alfred Hitchcock's magazine. He loved detective stories, which is why I love them, too. And in between reading and looking at the TV, and we'd do our homework, he would comment on everything and say, “This reminds me of ...” “Once upon a time ...” “One day when we were at Camp Lee, Virginia, during World War II, such and such happened.” So these became our canonical stories, and many of the stories in "Colored People" are my father's stories. So I was imitating that voice. I was hearing my father's voice. And I think the most satisfying response that I got to the book who was my brother, who is a very distinguished oral surgeon here in New York. My brother called me after he read it in galleys and said, “You got Daddy's voice.” And that's what I was striving to do.
LAMB: At one point you had a line in there, something to the effect, “My mother despised white people.”
GATES: My mother hated white people.
LAMB: All her life?
GATES: Probably. I didn't know until -- in 1959 we were watching Mike Wallace's documentary called "The Hate that Hate Produced." It was about the Nation of Islam and I couldn't believe -- I mean, Malcolm X was talking about the white man was the devil and standing up in white people's faces and telling them off. It was great. I mean, it's what black people did behind closed doors, but they would never do it in -- I mean, they were too vulnerable to do it, say, where they worked, at the paper mill or downtown, as we would call it. And here was a guy who had the nerve to do that, and I think if I had been a character in a cartoon, my eyes would have gone Doing! -- like this. I couldn't believe it. As I sat cowering in a corner of our living room, I glanced over at Mama and her face was radiant. I mean, this smile -- beatific smile started to transform her face. And she said quite quietly, “Amen.” And then she said, “All right now,” and she sat up and she said, “Yes.”
And she loved Malcolm X and she loved what the Muslims were doing. And I couldn't believe it. It was like -- as I write, it was like watching the Wicked Witch of the West emerge out of the transforming features of Dorothy. This person I had thought of as this pioneer of the civil rights movement really had a hard time with white people. And the more I got to know her -- and, you know, these weren't easy anecdotes for her to repeat, but the older I got, she became more willing to share painful experiences of white racism -- the way that she was treated when she was a girl and a servant in the house of wealthy white people just a block down the hill from where we lived. My brother and I eventually went back and bought that house for her, and that's how we found out that she had been so horribly treated by these people. She never trusted white people. She didn't like white people. She didn't want to live with white people.
But she wanted us to go to integrated schools. She wanted us to live in an integrated economy. She wanted us even to live in integrated neighborhoods. She wanted us to be able to get the best that American society offered. She wanted us to be articulate, to speak white English, as we would call it, as well as black vernacular English. You know, she wanted us to know how to dress, how to talk, how to act, how to behave. She wanted us to go to private schools, to the Ivy League. I mean, she wanted us to be as successful as it was humanly possible to be in American society. But she always wanted us to remember, first and last, that we were black and that you could never trust white people. And so when I brought my fiancee home, who happened to be a white American, I thought World War III was about to break out between me and my mother, not to mention between my mother and my fiancee.
LAMB: And is your wife white?
GATES: Yeah. She's white.
LAMB: How did your mother react to the -- did she go to the marriage?
GATES: Oh, yeah. She was fine. I don't think I could have done anything to make my mother stop loving me. But my mother took a long time to decide how she felt about my wife. And they had many confrontations, many bad -- my mother used to do things like say, “I bet you hate black people, right?” And I'd say, “Mama, please,” you know, “this is not the way we should start our relationship.” She'd say, “Just checking.” And we'd all laugh and my wife got used to it, but she fought my mother back. The key was to stand up to my mother. My mother wanted to see what she was made of. And I'll probably do crazy things like that when my daughters bring their lovers home. I mean, who knows?
LAMB: How long you been married?
GATES: We've been married 15 years this September 1st.
LAMB: And how does the society that you live in and Harvard and places you travel deal with the mixed marriage?
GATES: Oh, I live in academic environments, and so it's removed from the world. I mean, what do we do? We go downtown Boston, downtown New York, downtown San Francisco, European countries. We function at a level where certain forms of racism don't impact upon you so immediately or so obviously. But on the other hand, we go for drives in the country or, you know, we stop at a country gas station, people might look at you in a strange way. But we experienced so much racism when we were first starting out in West Virginia. We met working for Jay Rockefeller in his gubernatorial campaign of 1972, and we took a lot of flack. And we lived together seven years before we got married, and we were harassed. We've been stared at, we've been cursed. But, you know, if this had been the typical aspect of our experience, I would talk about it. But it's been just the opposite. But had we been members of the working class or had we lived outside of an academic environment, then I think our experience would have been vastly different. And our daughters have lived in integrated, academic communities essentially their whole lives and have gone to integrated schools. So they have a thorough knowledge of African-American middle-class culture, we might say, but traditional African-American culture they didn't know very much about. And that's one of the reasons that I wanted to write this book. We also send them to West Virginia quite a lot, so they can be with all their cousins on my side of the family, and that's full immersion in traditional black culture.
LAMB: Where is Piedmont, West Virginia?
GATES: Two hours west of Washington on the Potomac River.
LAMB: How big is the community?
GATES: When I was born it had 2,500 people, and that was in 1950, and I think according to the 1990 census it has 1,100 people, and about half of them are my cousins.
LAMB: And how many black Americans live there?
GATES: Three hundred and eighty black Americans live there, I think. I checked the census when I was writing the book.
LAMB: What does it look like?
GATES: It's on the side of a hill. Piedmont means “the foot of the mountain,”so there’s a Potomac River Valley basin and then the Allegheny Mountains come right down to the river, and this little village is smeared alongside that mountain. And there's the traditional black neighborhood downtown and the traditional black neighborhood up on the hill, though more and more of the town is becoming black.
LAMB: How long did you live there?
GATES: Till I was 18, and then I went away to Yale.
LAMB: You had how many brothers and sisters?
GATES: I have one brother, Paul Gates, and no sisters, and my mother was one of 12 and so I have lots and lots and lots of cousins, most of whom work at the paper mill Westvaco, and most of whom are very content.
LAMB: Are those the Colemans?
GATES: They're the Colemans, and the Gates' live 20 or so miles away.
LAMB: Now if I remember correctly, one of your grandparents on your mother's side -- I think it was your grandmother, correct me if I'm wrong -- when she died or or your grandfather died, that there was a white preacher?
GATES: That's right.
LAMB: And there was a strong reaction to that?
GATES: Yeah. One of the costs of integration, which is one of the subthemes of the book, was that traditional black culture -- because of the force of integration, would disappear. So that the black church where my grandmother went every Sunday, I mean, she died when she was about 90 years old -- I want to say every Sunday for 90 years, but certainly every Sunday for 70 years. That black church effectively doesn't exist anymore. I mean, it's still there, it has a very, very tiny congregation, but it was too small to hold all the people who wanted to come to my grandmother's funeral and even that church has, as its minister, the local white Methodist minister, who, at least at the time she died, which is, I guess, about 10 years ago, would not rate very highly in the rankings of oratory from the pulpit. I mean, the black people with whom I grew up loved preaching. They loved singing. They loved preaching. And what they didn't get through integration was great preaching.
LAMB: You tell lots of little stories through the book. One that I remember is the one of the barbershop -- would you recount that story about...
GATES: At Mr. Comby Carroll's barbershop. But Mr. Comby had one good arm and one bad arm. So he was a one-armed barber, and he would give everyone a straightedge cut across the back of the neck. We called it a Washington square because the back of your head looked square. I don't know where that came from. But he would hold the leather strap between his legs and then he'd strop that razor, and then he would make this perfectly straight line across the back of your neck, and then -- at least he had my neck -- within 24 hours, all these razor bumps would break out. But what was important about it for an adolescent was that was where Sex Education 101 took place. It certainly didn't take place in the public schools in Mineral County in West Virginia. So all these men would sit there all day long, rain or shine or winter or summer, and hear Mr. Comby Carroll tell the filthiest, most risque jokes and look at these magazines that would come through the mail wrapped in three layers of brown paper. And I didn't even know what the words meant sometimes that they used. I had no more idea what they were talking about. But I knew that it was juicy and good.
LAMB: Was he black or white?
GATES: He was a black man. Oh, yeah. It was nothing but black people. What I tried to do was to collect memories that had been registered at ritual black cultural spaces -- the black church, black funerals, the black undertaker, the black barbershop, the black male picnic, the black family reunion, etc., etc. These were sites that allowed black people to be totally relaxed and just say what was ever on their mind. Sometimes they might talk about white people and white racism, sometimes they would talk about President Eisenhower, President Kennedy or Richard Nixon, sometimes they would talk about baseball or football or food -- I mean, how to fry chicken or whatever. I mean, it was just what normal human beings talk about. I guess if you had to boil it down, mostly we talked about love and death in one sense or another, which, after all, are the great themes of modernist art, right? I mean, that's what all art boils down to in the end, in one form or another. We would talk about political oppression sometimes. So often in traditional black literature -- that is, black literature written before 1970, when black women started to write in great numbers -- so often in that literature you would think that all we sat around and talked about was white people, that all we were concerned with was white racism. And that was a valid area of our concern, but that's not all we talked about. It wasn't even the majority of what we talked about. We were human beings first, vulnerable and frightened and eager and ambitious and passionate, and we were black human beings second.
LAMB: Somewhere along the line you went from being a Methodist to an Episcopalian?
GATES: Yeah, that's right. I went to that black Methodist church that Big Mom attended, and it bordered on being evangelical. It would lurch in the middle of the service toward the Pentecostal. And Big Mom kind of liked that, and Sister Holy Ghost, as we called her, the dominant figure in the church, Miss Sarah Russell, clearly had a fax machine to the Holy Ghost. I mean, she had a hot line. She talked directly to the Holy Ghost every day, and she would get possessed of the spirit in sort of modified Methodist way. I mean, she wouldn't do the holy dances that people across the street in the Pentecostal church would do, but I think sometimes she would have liked to have broken out of that girdle and gotten down in the aisles. But she didn't do it; she restrained herself. But it was a fundamentalist church, and at the age of 12 I joined that church and I became a born-again Christian, as we'd say now, and I didn't dance, I didn't swear. I didn't even know what lusting was, but had I known, I wouldn't have lusted in my heart. I didn't do anything for two years. I just prayed and went to church, and I did that because I felt responsible for my mother's illness. My mother became sick when I was 12. She went through a very severe menopause and the resultant hormonal imbalance, which no doctor there could treat adequately, threw her into a deep depression. I mean, she became another person.
And the day that they first took her away to the hospital, I was sitting -- it was a Sunday, and I was sitting just like this -- I had my legs crossed in our living room, and I was a very obsessive child. I, mean I did everything the same way. I'm still obsessive. I mean, I have the same breakfast, I wake up at the same time, I go to bed at the same time. I have all sorts of routines. And I broke one routine, which was to cross my legs, which I always did left over right. I crossed them right over left. And I did it defiantly. I mean I sort of dared God or dared the holy order or dared the order of the Earth to do something about it, and three hours later they were carting my mother off to the hospital. And so I felt responsible. I mean, as incredible as it might seem, I felt that this act of hubris had led to my mother's illness. And so I couldn't tell anybody. I was so ashamed, I was so embarrassed, I was so guilt-ridden. And I went upstairs and I got on my knees and I prayed to God -- and my mother thought she was going to die.
And before they took her off she hugged me and she said, “Look, I'm going to die, and I want you to love your father and be good,” you know, all that stuff. And I cried, of course, hysterically. Then I went upstairs and I prayed that God would bring my mama back, and if he did, I would give my life to Christ. And a week later my mother came back and two weeks later I joined the church. Well, when I realized two years later that Mama was going to be depressed but she was not going to die and also that I couldn't really stand having a mind that I hated -- I loved ideas, I loved -- I certainly never had a fundamentalist or a literal understanding of anything. I mean, you can't grow up with a storyteller and be a literalist. I mean, everything's an allegory almost, everything's a metaphor. It's the nature of the story. And so the idea the Earth could be created in seven days or that the sea would actually part or whatever was very hard for me to take. And my father's family had been Episcopalians for 100 years.
My great-grandmother, Maude Fortune founded the colored Episcopal church in Cumberland, Maryland. And so this was part of my tradition, but when my father married my mother and moved to our village, he just stopped going to church because the white Episcopal church was very upper class, was not integrated. And when he had tried to go there, they told him he would have to sit in the back of the church at the last pew because each family had its own pew. And he just said, “Thank you very much, but I'll pass on God.” So when I was 14, I started to -- I had broken my hip playing football, which was misdiagnosed by this racist doctor. I ended up in the hospital for a long recuperation -- six weeks. And the local Episcopal priest, who was from New England, started driving 60 or so miles out to the University Medical Center in Morgantown, West Virginia, to see me, and he would talk to me about ideas and religion, and he said, “I understand you're very religious,” and ...
LAMB: He was white.
GATES: He was white. And he started giving me books like "Are You Running with Me, Jesus?" by Malcolm Boyd and he gave the works of James Baldwin and lots of books that named me as a personal color and named me as an adolescent who wanted to be religious but who also wanted to be rational. I wanted to believe in reason. I wanted to be an intellectual. And I didn't want the two to be mutually exclusive. And I found that I could do that through the Episcopal church. And so when I was 15, my mother and I converted to the Episcopal church.
LAMB: You went to camp.
GATES: Went to Peterkin...
LAMB: But that was a big change, though, the camp?
GATES: That summer was the summer of transformation in my life. It was the summer of the Watts riots. And Father Smith gave me -- the day that we saw the headline that Negroes were rioting in this place called Watts -- I mean, I didn't know where Watts was. Well, Watts might as well have been on Mars as far as Piedmont, West Virginia, was concerned. He gave me a copy of James Baldwin's the "Notes of the Native Son." I looked down and saw this face. It was Jimmy Baldwin staring at me. I couldn't believe it. I mean, here's a black man -- I mean, visibly black -- who had written this marvelous book. I used to keep a commonplace book where I would write down great quotes -- quotes that named an emotion or an idea that I wanted to remember or often that I had vaguely felt, but couldn't articulate. And basically, I just rewrote James Baldwin's chapters. I fell in love with James Baldwin's use of language. I fell in love with the idea of being a writer. Though I had been primed to be a doctor, just like my brother because all smart little black kids were going to become doctors, right? And then all of a sudden there was this possibility of being a writer which has opened up for me through James Baldwin's example, and it was an exhilarating experience. And between retaining a belief in God as an intellectual -- as a budding intellectual and learning how to name aspects of what we might call my racial self, you know, my black racialized self to an American racist society, it was a summer like one experiences once in a lifetime.
LAMB: The book "Colored People" -- did you have a person in mind when you sat down to write this besides your -- you talked about your daughters, but beyond that, are there people out in the world that you want to read this? And for what reason?
GATES: Well, I wanted my daughters' generation of black people to know about an era that will never come back again for good and for ill; to be able to encounter, at least through one memoir -- and, no doubt, others being written and some recently published -- what that world was like for them. That world is as strange to them as Tibet. They have no more idea --as I say in the preface, one day we were riding along on Route 2, which connects Cambridge with Lexington, Massachusetts, and it was 1991, it was on Martin Luther King's birthday, and they were hearing for the 10,000th time “I have a dream” on the radio. And so Maggie said, you know, “Daddy, what was the civil rights movement all about?” And I said, “Well, you see that motel?” And she said, “Yeah.” And I said, “I couldn't have stayed in that motel 30 years ago.” I said, “Your mama could have stayed at that motel, but your mama couldn't have stayed at that motel with me.”
And I looked in the rearview mirror and she was nudging Liza like, “God, you know, here's another lie.” I mean, they couldn't believe that this could be true. So the idea of separate water fountains, the idea of -- that you would have dogs sicced on you if you were trying to integrate Lexington High School maybe at one point, the idea that any of the ridiculously pernicious forms of racism that were visited upon persons of African descent in this country could actually have been visited upon us is alien to them, thank God, because we've made so much progress in certain ways. But on the other hand, I want that memory part of their historical consciousness. I want them to know how far we've come. I don't want them to take their freedom, as we would have put it in 1965, for granted. And it's important that we remember -- as Toni Morrison puts it, that we remember even the painful details of our past, but that we do it not through grandiose, abstract statements like, “Racism was a terrible thing,” but to particularize it, what it was like not to be able to sit down at the Cut Rate Drugstore with your white friends after a basketball game which the black players had won, a game in which the black players had played pivotal roles, and then be forced to stand at a counter and drink your vanilla rickey out of a paper cup and not be able to drink it out of a glass, sitting down with your white friends.
I mean, it sounds like such a petty thing, but it was of enormous importance. It was the kind of thing that seizes your imagination. I mean, you become determined that one day you'll sit down in that restaurant, being able to date who you wanted, to dance with whom you wanted, being able to encounter yourself in the American history textbooks just like all your white friends encountered themselves.
LAMB: You also talk a lot about shades of color and the different names that people have if they have dark skin, but -- blue black.
GATES: Blue black, sure. Some of these...
LAMB: What's a rhiney?
GATES: Rhiney is -- do you remember John Doggett? Daggett?
GATES: Doggett. Yeah, in the Anita Hill testimony? Right. Remember his color? And he had sort of bluish-green eyes and a kind of a reddish color and sort of reddish hair. I mean, that kind of -- do you know who I'm talking about?
GATES: Yeah, right.
LAMB: In the Hill-Thomas hearing.
GATES: That's right.
LAMB: I'm not sure -- I was trying to think of his last name is why I had that look on my...
GATES: Yeah, it's Daggett or Doggett. I get it mixed up with Bobbitt, which is a completely different ...
LAMB: We'll hear about it one way or the other.
GATES: Absolutely. But students say, “What do you mean by rhiney?” And I said, “That guy was rhiney.” I mean, it's a certain kind of reddish yellow color with light eyes. And for some reason -- I haven't been able to trace the etymology, but one day I hope we will -- and if anyone knows, I hope that they write to you or to me -- for some reason, people of that color are called rhiney. But we have a whole range of colors even in the Coleman family. One of them wrote to me and said, “Were you accusing our mother of sleeping with all these different men?” And you say, Of course not, you know. I was just saying that because of the complex racial genetics of black people, because of the intermixture, starting in slavery when many, many black families with Native Americans and with white people -- we come out, even in the same family, often from the darkest brown colors with kinkiest hair to very, very light colors with what we call straight hair.
LAMB: Do white people, from what you've been able to tell over the years, look at colored people and determine whether they like them or not like them based on whether they're deep black or light-skinned? And if they do, why do they do that?
GATES: Well, there's whole literature about that, suggesting that they do -- they have done that historically. But I don't think that it's true today. For example, I don't think that -- we used to call it being color struck. If you're black, get back; if you're brown, hang around; if you're light, it's all right. And we replicated a racist -- some of us replicated the racist system of the slave masters within our own community. When I was at Yale, for example -- I went there in '69 and...
LAMB: Studying what, by the way?
GATES: American history, though I took a lot of Afro-Am courses on the side, but I was a history major. I remember the first year I was there -- the first month I was there, we had this special meeting of the Black Student Alliance to talk to the black men -- young black men from New Orleans, some of whom were very light complected. And they wanted to have something called a bag party. So, you know, what's a bag party? They wanted to put this paper bag over the door and anyone who was darker than the paper bag couldn't get into the party. So, you know, I looked at them -- I was secretary of the Black Student Alliance -- everyone from the North and everyone who had any kind of sense and was not from New Orleans said, “We've never heard of a such a thing. You guys can't do this. I mean, this is some sort of antiquated, sick relic of the past. I mean, you can't do that.”
And that practice stopped, and then I later found out through black history classes that that sort of thing had been going on in New Orleans for a very long time. The point is that you can internalize your own oppression. You can take on the forms of sickness, through which oppressors try to control you, whether you're a woman or a gay person or a person of color. And our job, in part, as academics is to fight against those sort of tendencies within those respective groups. That's not sufficient reason -- I mean, reasons of self-esteem are not sufficient reasons to justify the existence of, say, women's studies or gay studies or African-American studies in the academy by any means. But that is an aftereffect of the kind of work that we do in the academy if you're in, say, ethnic studies.
LAMB: You worked at Time magazine. How long?
GATES: Worked at Time magazine for six months a year for two years between 1973 and 1975 in the London bureau.
LAMB: What were you doing the other six months?
GATES: I was a graduate student at Cambridge, so I'd go to Cambridge for two months, take a month off. They have long vacations in England. I'd go to school two months, a month off, two months and then four months off.
LAMB: Cambridge University...
GATES: In England.
LAMB: ...in England, and you got your PhD there?
GATES: In English.
LAMB: In what? English?
GATES: It's called English language and literature.
LAMB: What is African-American studies or the African-American studies program at Harvard?
GATES: Well, let me say that -- and this is important segue into the answer to your question -- there was no African or African-American studies at the University of Cambridge. I mean, I was told in no uncertain terms that I could write about Milton or Shakespeare, maybe even Pound and Eliot, who had just recently been introduced to the canon, but certainly not anything African or African-American. And after months of arguing, they allowed me to choose as a topic the Enlightenment, the 18th century, and to look at how Europeans wrote about the first African -- and what we would now call African-American writers who were published in English and French and German and Dutch. So it was sort of a compromise.
But even Wole Soyinka, who later got the Nobel Prize -- even he, who was a professor there, was not given an appointment in the English department. He was appointed in the socio-anthropology department because the English department said that African literature was anthropological or sociological, but it was not belletristic and it was not properly housed in the English department. Well, that's important because I began my career sort of fighting for what we call cultural pluralism or multiculturalism within the traditional disciplines, and the advantage of winning a battle like that within a traditional discipline is that you speak with more authority from the inside. You know, I satisfied their rituals. I passed their examinations. I had studied the great Western tradition and it was a great tradition.
The tradition of literature in the English language is sublime. There's no question about that. I would never want to get rid of Shakespeare or Milton or Virginia Woolf or any of these people, but I want to make room for other great writers -- writers like Wole Soyinka or Derek Walcott or Toni Morrison or Marquez or -- you know, the list could go on and on and on, and that's been a very important battle and it's a battle, quite frankly, that I think we've now won because most major schools of education now accept the principles and premises of a multicultural literary or multicultural historical curriculum. What we're trying to do at Harvard is to create, well, quite frankly, what I hope will be the greatest center of intellection concerning persons of African descent in the Old World and the New World.
There are many great centers -- Yale and Stanford and the University of Chicago has great scholars, Wisconsin and Michigan, and Princeton. Lord knows Princeton has a wonderful assemblage of scholars who do African-American studies, and we want one at Harvard. And we've, over the last three years, been able to make several major appointments. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and the federal judge, Leon Higginbotham and, most recently, Cornel West from Princeton and Anthony Appiah, the great African philosopher who was at Cambridge with Soyinka at the same time I was. We've been able to bring all these people to Harvard, and we expect to make, I hope, at least four or five more distinguished appointments so that we can eventually have a graduate program, what I hope will be a PhD program in African-American studies.
See, my generation of African-American scholars take African-American studies for granted. We have always been in the presence of African-American studies at historically white institutions. Cornel West went to Harvard, I believe, in 1970. I went to Yale in '69. Afro-American studies was there. There was a math department, there was a physics department, there was the history department and there was Afro-Am. So it's not out of place in the academy for our generation. And curiously enough, many of us who have PhDs, many of us who have chosen to be academics have chosen to be scholars of African or African-American studies, almost as if it's satisfying a vague political commitment, and I think because Afro-Am was under siege when we were undergraduates, that left a certain sort of imprint in our minds. So some of us liken our task, our privilege, our obligation to that of a Talmudic scholar in the Jewish tradition, that you preserve the text, you resurrect the text, you interpret the text, you live with the text and you take a stand for your community.
LAMB: How many African-Americans go to Harvard?
GATES: I don't know what the figure is, actually. I think about 12 percent of our undergraduate admissions -- 10 to 12 percent are black and I think about just under 10 percent of the undergraduate student body is black.
LAMB: Any whites choose African-American studies?
GATES: Oh, we have lots of white majors. Most of the people who take our courses in terms of total enrollment would, by definition, be white because most of Harvard is white. Most of our majors or concentrators, as it's put at Harvard, are black, but not all of them. I'd say the number's probably about two-thirds/one-third, and that number will balance out as we go along. I mean, we have 62 majors. We have more majors than the music department or the romance language department, and with Cornel West coming, who will, you know, draw lots and lots of students, I think that we'll have more than 100 majors. It's a very good time to be a scholar of Afro-American studies, and I think it's a good time to be at Harvard.
LAMB: You said you worked for Jay Rockefeller -- you and your wife did -- in 1972. Have you done any other political work since then?
GATES: No. That was the beginning and end of my career as a politician. I wasn't really a politician. I was something at Yale called scholar of the house. There were 12 people who were chosen to spend their entire senior year on one project, and I was writing a book about Jay Rockefeller and it was to be called "The Making of a Governor," but -- you know, by “Theodore H. Black”, right, but he lost. So all of a sudden, "The Making of a Governor" became "The Unmaking of a Governor," and I worked with John Morton Blum, who was my mentor when I was an undergraduate, the great American historian, and he was the first person that year to tell me I could be a scholar. He told me I had certain capacities, I could write fairly well and that I had what it took to be a scholar, and though I didn't believe him and I thought he was exaggerating, I was deeply touched. I got tears in my eyes, and it's like the laying on the hands for me. That's why mentorship is so important. I mean, you could take a child basically and say, “You know, I've been around. I have a great deal of experience and, you know, you can enter the guild. You have the stuff.”
And he cared about me. He cared about my work. And that experience, writing a 400-page thesis about Jay Rockefeller's campaign, launched me on my career to be a scholar. And in the middle of that experience, I got a Mellon Fellowship to go to Cambridge. And then when I went to England, instead of wanting to be lawyers and doctors and journalists, like all my friends did at Yale -- most of my friends -- the smartest people there wanted to become academics. And then I met Anthony Appiah, who was this brilliant African who was nicknamed “the black Wittgenstein” and I saw this great potential to be an academic, and then there was Soyinka, this great writer who had given his life over to arts and letters. And I had these two models in front of me every day, and I decided that's what I wanted, too, and I abandoned any idea of being a lawyer or a doctor, and I became a scholar.
LAMB: When did you know that you had the mental capacity to go to Yale and Cambridge and get a PhD and then teach at Harvard?
GATES: Well, my mother decided that my brother and I had all that two seconds after we were born. I mean, my mother -- like any mother, I mean, I would presume -- thought that we were God's gift to the Earth and she sort of told us that every day. I mean, it's not that she let us -- she didn't discipline this, but she reinforced over and over and over again that, in her opinion, we were beautiful and brilliant and whatever else. And I don't know if any of those things were true, but if someone says it to you every day like a mantra, you become hypnotized by that. I mean, self-confidence is bred in the home, and my mother bred a tremendous amount of intellectual self-confidence in my brother and me, and we always knew that we would be loved no matter what. And they would say, “As long as you do your best, we will love you.”
LAMB: But you eventually had to score points, score grades.
GATES: Yeah, but from the beginning, in elementary -- by the time I was first tested -- and I don't know when my brother was first tested -- but I was first tested when I was 5 years old -- I always scored well on standardized tests, and I still do. I haven't taken one for a long time, but that had to do, I think, with the presence of literacy in the home, both my father's stories and the example -- my mother and father reading to us and reading in front of us, and ...
LAMB: Do you read to your kids?
GATES: I did when they were very, very young. Now they read to me.
LAMB: You say in the book that you used to read The Washington Post every day and you were two hours away from Washington.
GATES: That's right.
LAMB: What age did you start doing that?
GATES: Junior high school.
GATES: Well, because I would watch "It's Academic," which was this high school quiz show with Mac McGarry -- I think was the guy's name, and they would have black shows and integrated teams, and there were a lot of questions I could answer and a lot of questions I couldn't. We used to watch "Jeopardy" and all the quiz shows, and my father is a "Jeopardy" junkie. I mean, every night, he interrupts our dinner -- I mean, he lives with us part of the year, and he'll interrupt the dinner by running over to the TV and turning it on and said, “Dummy, I bet you can't beat me tonight,” and, you know, all of us, we'll sit there and compete with "Jeopardy." I mean, that became part of our culture -- sort of quiz show, encyclopedia culture.
LAMB: How old is your dad now?
GATES: He's 81.
LAMB: And you said that, growing up, he was a janitor.
GATES: That's right. That was his second job. He was a paper loader in the day and then he became a union official somewhere along the way, and at nighttime he was a janitor.
LAMB: How much of this book does the writing matter to you -- just the writing itself?
GATES: All of it.
LAMB: And what have people said about your writing that either you liked or didn't like?
GATES: Well, there have been several nice things said. The reviewer for The Washington Post, I'm blocking his name -- but you know who it is.
LAMB: Jonathan Yardley.
GATES: It was very interesting, actually. Jonathan said that I was trying to basically coddle up to the black vernacular community by imitating this voice artificially, because it was not a voice that I owned, that I possessed. It was not a voice that was natural to me. But Jonathan only knows me through books like "The Signifying Monkey" and op-ed page pieces in the Post and The New York Times and book reviews in The New Yorker. I mean, I have different voices, and this isn't my voice when I'm with my friends and, as it were, with my people when I'm in Piedmont, West Virginia. And that's the voice that I try to replicate in this book. Now I would love to be a writer -- again, from the time I saw James Baldwin, I've wanted to be a writer. I think most critics, deep down, are frustrated writers or feel that they're failures as poets or novelists and I would really like to write novels sometime.
LAMB: Do you write easily?
GATES: No. I mean, it's a lot of -- I write a first draft easily.
LAMB: Where do you do it?
GATES: At home I have a study, and in my office at Afro-Am at Harvard -- right in Harvard Square.
LAMB: What time of day?
GATES: In the morning. I do my best writing in the morning. I'm a real morning person.
LAMB: How early?
GATES: Well, I get up at 6:30 every day, and I make coffee for my wife and then I jump on the treadmill and read the op-ed page of The Times and the editorials, and then I start to work. That's ...
LAMB: How ...
GATES: ... every day.
LAMB: And how much do you write at any one time?
GATES: Well, when I'm on a roll, like when I was writing "Colored People," I was cranking out 25, 30 pages a day, but you can't do that. I mean, you burn up. It's like this machine will explode. Sometimes if I get one page a day -- sometimes I go weeks without writing anything. Because I'm an administrator now, because I'm chairman of Afro-Am and because I'm the director of the DuBois Institute, I'm not a free agent anymore. I spend a lot of time raising money for endowment campaigns and things like that and recruiting people like Cornel West, and that's very important to me. I want to leave, as part of my legacy, the creation of this institution, and I can't write like I used to, so that's why I do so many book reviews.
LAMB: Do you teach at all anymore?
GATES: All chairs at Harvard in the faculty of arts and sciences teach two courses a year, and I teach one undergraduate course and one graduate course, and I love teaching.
LAMB: In what?
GATES: Well, this year, one will be the introductory course for the sophomores in the major of Afro-American studies, and I'll do it on autobiography and the memoir, and the other's a graduate course on black women's literature.
LAMB: What's the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?
GATES: Well, mine is a memoir. An autobiography is something that attempts to explain how John Smith became John Smith. A memoir is more of an attempt to record an era, the sepia-toned era of the 1950s for "Colored People."
LAMB: And do you have another book you're ready to write?
GATES: Well, the joking by my friends is that now I'm stuck in this cycle, so the sequence will be "Colored People," then Negro, then black and then African-American -- there'll be four volumes. And by that time, my daughters will be neo-Nubian, so maybe I'll call the fifth volume that. But I don't think so. I would like to write a book about my father and with my father about his experiences in the segregated units at Camp Lee, Virginia, in World War II. I had some other chapters that didn't make it into the final form of this book, and while Daddy's here, I'd like to record those stories. I also would like to write about the years between 1968 and 1975, basically my higher education at Yale and at Cambridge, not so much a story about Yale or Cambridge but stories about the transformation of the Negro middle class into the sort of integrated middle class. Again, we were the first generation of sufficiently large numbers of black kids to enter historically white institutions at Yale and at Harvard and at places like NBC and CBS and Time magazine, The New York Times, etc., etc., etc.
LAMB: Final question. If after this book came out people began to refer to you as a colored person, how would you feel about it?
GATES: Well, it would depend on what kind of smile was on their face. I mean, I identify myself as an African-American. I like that because I'm an Africanist as well as an African-Americanist. I go to Africa two or three times a year, and you know, I write about Africa. And it has a great deal of dignity, but I don't really care what people call us.
LAMB: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., author of “Colored People: A Memoir,” thank you very much for your time.
GATES: Thank you, I enjoyed it.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.