27 July 2009

THE WRITTEN WORD: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in another context

Several years ago, on assignment for The Denver Post, I wrote a piece on Aspen Summer Words, the annual literary festival in the high country of Colorado. The festival that year focused on African literature. I chose to focus on Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Laureate who would make an appearance in the famed ski town.

During the interview with Mr. Soyinka, he mentioned his friend and colleague Skip Gates. I learned that Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. is regarded as one of the foremost experts on African literature, so I decided to try to get an interview with him, too, to round out my piece.

I learned that--at the time, I’m not sure about now--Gates also served on the board of the Aspen Institute. He was a professor at Harvard. He was scheduled to travel with Soyinka to Berlin, to accept the City for the Cultures of Peace Prize award. He was, in a word, accomplished.

During our telephone interview, Gates was not only brilliant and articulate, but also polite, friendly, unassuming, congenial, and funny. We probably talked for half an hour. I used a couple of quotes from him. He put Soyinka in context: “Wole Soyinka is one of the few people who also could have won the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

Gates singled out “Death and the King’s Horsemen” as his favorite Soyinka work.
“A thousand years from now, people will still be reading it. It’s a play of the stature of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. He had a uncanny capacity to write about the particularities of Yoruba people in a way that makes the work about the experiences about the entire human condition. He’s not writing as an anthropologist, and you don’t read him to learn just about the Yoruban people any more than you read Hamlet to learn about Danish princes.”
Gates himself seemed princely.

Which is why I was deeply disturbed to learn that on July 16, an Anglo police officer arrested Gates at his own home—handcuffed him on his front porch even after he had shown identification proving that he lived there. He was arrested for disorderly conduct. I have to wonder how disorderly I'd be if the police arrested me at my own home after I showed valid identification. Gates denied a statement that the officer said he made--something about "your mama"--and I tend to believe him. Yet why would an officer trained in race sensitivity suggest such a thing? The whole encounter perplexes.

Gates directs Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. He is arguably our nation’s most important and influential African American academic.

Sadly, 40 years ago, Malcolm X put forth this question and answer: “What do you call a black man with a Ph.D? A nigger.”

The charge against Gates has been dropped. President Barack Obama intervened: He invited both men to the White House for a beer. The issue showed us once again a contrast between black and white. We still cannot seem to arrive at gray in these matters.

POSTSCRIPT: Sometimes, a beer can be an olive branch. Here's a comment from Professor Gates after the get-together with the president and the arresting officer at the White House, as reported in the New York Times--
"We hit it off right from the beginning. When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy." A silver lining in the black-white skirmish: Gates' name is not a household word. And since these two men found common ground, they've demonstrated that other can, too.


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