How Henry Louis Gates Got Ordained as the Nation's "Leading Black Intellectual"
Post-Race Scholar Yells Racism
By ISHMAEL REED
Now that Henry Louis Gates’ Jr. has gotten a tiny taste of what “the underclass” undergo each day, do you think that he will go easier on them? Lighten up on the tough love lectures? Even during his encounter with the police, he was given some slack. If a black man in an inner city neighborhood had hesitated to identify himself, or given the police some lip, the police would have called SWAT. When Oscar Grant, an apprentice butcher, talked back to a BART policeman in Oakland, he was shot!
Given the position that Gates has pronounced since the late eighties, if I had been the arresting officer and post-race spokesperson Gates accused me of racism, I would have given him a sample of his own medicine. I would have replied that “race is a social construct”--the line that he and his friends have been pushing over the last couple of decades.
After this experience, will Gates stop attributing the problems of those inner city dwellers to the behavior of “thirty five-year-old grandmothers living in the projects?” (Gates says that when he became a tough lover he was following the example of his mentor Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka as though his and Soyinka’s situations were the same. As a result of Soyinka’s criticisms of a Nigerian dictator, he was jailed and his life constantly threatened.)
Prior to the late eighties, Gates’ tough love exhortations were aimed at racism in the halls of academe, but then he signed on to downtown feminist reasoning that racism was a black male problem. Karen Durbin, who hired him to write for The Village Voice, takes credit for inventing him as a “public intellectual.” He was then assigned by Rebecca Penny Sinkler, former editor of The New York Times Book Review, to do a snuff job on black male writers. In an extraordinary review, he seemed to conclude that black women writers were good, not because of their merit, but because black male writers were bad. This was a response to an article by Mel Watkins, a former book review editor, who on his way out warned of a growing trend that was exciting the publisher’s cash registers. Books that I would describe as high Harlequin romances, melodramas in which saintly women were besieged by cruel black male oppressors, the kind of image of the brothers promoted by confederate novelists Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon.
Gates dismissed a number of black writers as misogynists, including me, whom he smeared throughout the United States and Europe, but when Bill Clinton was caught exploiting a young woman, sexually, he told the Times that he would “go to the wall for this president.” Feminists like Gloria Steinem defended the president as well, even though for years they’d been writing about women as victims of male chauvinists with power, the kind of guys who used to bankroll Ms. magazine.
Not to say that portraits of black men should be uniformly positive--I’ve certainly introduced some creeps in my own work--but most of the white screenwriters, directors and producers who film this material--and the professors and critics who promote it-- are silent about the abuses against women belonging to their own ethnic groups. Moreover, Alice Walker, Tina Turner and bell hooks have complained that in the hands of white script writers, directors and producers, the black males become more sinister straw men than they appear in the original texts.
There are big bucks to be made in promoting this culture. Two studios are currently fighting over the rights to a movie called “Push” about a black father who impregnates his illiterate Harlem daughter. A representative of one, according to the Times, said that the movie would provide both with “a gold mine of opportunity.”
As an example of the double standard by which blacks and whites are treated in American society, at about the same time that the Gate’s article on black misogyny was printed, there appeared a piece about Jewish American writers. Very few women were mentioned.
Gates was also under pressure for making himself the head black feminist in the words of feminist Michele Wallace as a result of his profiting from black feminist studies sales because, as she put it in the Voice, he had unresolved issues with his late mother, who was, according to Gates, a black nationalist. The black feminists wanted in. As a result, Gates invited them to join his Norton anthology project. The result was the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. One of the editors was the late feminist scholar Dr. Barbara Christian. She complained to me almost to the day that she died that she and the late Nellie Y. McKay, another editor, did all of the work while Gates took the credit. This seems to be Gates’ pattern. Getting others to do his work. Mother Jones magazine accused him of exploiting those writers who helped to assemble his Encarta Africana, of running an academic sweat shop and even avoiding affirmative action goals by not hiring blacks. Julian Brookes of Mother Jones wrote:
“Henry Louis Gates Jr. has never been shy about speaking up for affirmative action. Indeed, the prominent Harvard professor insists that he wouldn't be where he is today without it. Odd, then, that when it came to assembling a staff to compile an encyclopedia of black history, Gates hired a group that was almost exclusively white. Of the up to 40 full-time writers and editors who worked to produce Encarta Africana only three were black. What's more, Gates and co-editor K. Anthony Appiah rejected several requests from white staffers to hire more black writers. Mother Jones turned to Gates for an explanation of this apparent inconsistency.
“Did the staff members who expressed concern that the Africana team was too white have a point?”
“It's a disgusting notion that white people can't write on black history--some of the best scholars of Africa are white. People should feel free to criticize the quality of the encyclopedia, but I will not yield one millimeter[to people who criticize the makeup of the staff]. It's wrongheaded. Would I have liked there to be more African Americans in the pool? Sure. But we did the best we could given the time limits and budget.”
While his alliance with feminists gave Gates’ career a powerful boost, it was his Op ed for the Times blaming continued anti-Semitism on African Americans that brought the public intellectual uptown. It was then that Gates was ordained as the pre-eminent African American scholar when, if one polled African-American scholars throughout the nation, Gates would not have ranked among the top twenty five. It would have to be done by secret ballot given the power that Gates’ sponsors have given him to make or break academic careers. As Quincy Troupe, editor of Black Renaissance Noire would say, Gates is among those leaders who were “given to us,” not only by the white mainstream but also by white progressives. Amy Goodman carries on about Gates and Cornel West like the old Bobby Soxers used to swoon over Sinatra. Last week Rachel Maddow called Gates “the nation’s leading black intellectual.” Who pray tell is the nation’s leading white intellectual, Rachel? How come we can only have one? Some would argue that Gates hasn’t written a first rate scholarly work since 1989.
CNN gave Gates’ accusation against blacks as anti-Semites a worldwide audience and so when I traveled to Israel for the first time in the year, 2000, Israeli intellectuals asked me why American blacks hated Jews so. In print, I challenged Gate’s libeling of blacks as a group in my book, Another Day at the Front, because at the time of his Op-ed, the Anti-Defamation League issued a report that showed the decline of anti-Semitism among black Americans. I cited this report to Gates. He said that the Times promised that there would be a follow up Op-ed about racism among American Jews. It never appeared. Barry Glassner was correct when he wrote in his “The Culture of Fear” that the whole Gates-generated black Jewish feud was hyped.
Under Tina Brown’s editorship at The New Yorker, Gates was hired to do hatchet jobs on Minister Louis Farrakhan and the late playwright August Wilson.
The piece on Wilson appeared after a debate between Robert Brustein and Wilson about Wilson’s proposal for a black nationalist theater. Gates took Brustein’s side of the argument. Shortly afterward, Brustein and Gates were awarded a million dollar grant from the Ford Foundation for the purpose of holding theatrical Talented Tenth dinner parties at Harvard at a time when regional black theater was heading toward extinction. Tina Brown, a one-time Gates sponsor, is a post-racer like Gates. Like Andrew Sullivan, a Charles Murray supporter, she gets away with the most fatuous comments as a result of Americans being enthralled by a London accent. On the Bill Maher show, she said that issues of race were passé because the country has elected a black president. This woman lives in a city from which blacks and Latinos have been ethnically cleansed as a result the policies of Mayor Giuliani, a man who gets his talking points from The Manhattan Institute. Thousands of black and Hispanic New Yorkers have been stopped and frisked without a peep from Gates and his Harvard circle of post-racers such as Orlando Patterson.
Even the Bush administration admitted to the existence of racial profiling, yet Gates says that only after his arrest did he understand the extent of racial profiling, a problem for over two hundred years. Why wasn’t “the nation’s leading black intellectual” aware of the problem? His exact words following his arrest were “What it made me realize was how vulnerable all black men are, how vulnerable are all poor people to capricious forces like a rogue policemen.” Amazing! Shouldn’t “the nation’s leading black intellectual” be aware of writer Charles Chesnutt who wrote about racial profiling in 1905!
The Village Voice recently exposed the brutality meted out to black and Hispanic prisoners at New York’s Riker’s Island and medical experiments that have damaged black children living in the city. Yet Maureen Dowd agrees with Tina Brown, her fellow New Yorker, that because the president and his attorney general are black--in terms of racism--it’s mission accomplished. Makes you understand how the German citizens of Munich could go about their business while people were being gassed a few miles away. You can almost forgive Marie Antoinette. She was a young woman in her thirties with not a single face lift operation.
What is it with this post-race Harvard elite? I got to see Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl perform in San Francisco the other night, the last of the great sixties comedians. During his routine, Gregory said that he’s sending his grand kids to black historical colleges because even though he lives near Harvard and can afford to send them there, he wouldn’t “send his dog to Harvard.” Maybe he is on to something.
When Queer Power became the vogue, Gates latched on to that movement, too. In an introduction to an anthology of Gay writings, Gates argued that Gays face more discrimination than blacks, which is disputed even by Charles Blow, Times statistician, who like Harvard’s Patterson and Gates, makes tough love to blacks exclusively. Recently, he reported that the typical target of a hate crime is black, but failed to identify the typical perpetrator of a hate crime as a young white male.
Moreover, what’s the percentage of Gays on death row? The percentage of blacks? Which group is more likely to be redlined by banks, a practice that has cost blacks billions of dollars in equity? Would Cambridge police have given two white Gays the problems that they gave Gates? Why no discussion of charges of Gay racism made by Marlon Riggs, Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde? How many unarmed white Gays have been murdered by the police? How many blacks? Undoubtedly, there are pockets of homophobia among blacks but not as much as that among other ethnic communities that I could cite. The best thing for blacks would be for Gays to get married and blacks should help in this effort, otherwise all of the oxygen on the left will continue to be soaked up by this issue.
For white Gays and Lesbians to compare their struggle to that of the Civil Rights movement is like Gates comparing his situation with that of Wole Soyinka’s. Moreover, Barbara Smith says that when she tried to join the Gay Millennial March on Washington, the leaders told her to get lost. They said they were intent upon convincing white Heterosexual America that “We’re just like you.”
Will the pre-late-80s Gates be resurrected as a result of what MSNBC and CNN commentator Touré calls Gates’ wake up call? (This is the same Toure, a brilliant fiction writer, who just about wrote a post-race manifesto for The New York Times Book Review, during which he dismissed an older generation of black activists as a bunch of “Jesses”.)
Will Gates let up on what Kofi Natambu the young editor of the Panopticon Review calls his “opportunism.” Will he re-think remarks like the one he made after the election of his friend, the tough love president Barack Obama? Gates said that he doubted that the election would end black substance abuse and unmarried motherhood?
Is it possible that things are more complicated than tough love sound bites which are designed to solicit more patronage? Will he reconsider the post-race neocon line of his blog, TheRoot.com, bankrolled by The Washington Post? Will he invite writers Carl Dix and Askia Toure, who represent other African American constituencies, as much as he prints the views of far right Manhattan Institute spokesperson and racial profiling denier, John McWhorter.
Will he continue to advertise shoddy blame-the-victim and black pathology sideshows like CNN’s “Black In America,” and “The Wire?” (Predictably CNN’s Anderson Cooper turned Gates’ controversy into a carnival act. The story was followed by one about Michael Jackson’s doctors. CNN is making so much money and raising its ratings so rapidly from black pathology stories that it’s beginning to give Black Entertainment Network a run for its money, so to speak.)
Predictably, the segregated media--the spare all white jury dominating the conversation about race as usual--gave the Cambridge cop the benefit of the doubt and the police unions backed him up. The police unions always back up their fellow officers even when they shoot unarmed black suspects in the back or, in the case of Papa Charlie James, an elderly San Francisco black man, while he was laying in bed. They back each other up and “testilie” all of the time.
Will Gates listen to his critics from whom he has been protected by powerful moneyed forces, which have given him the ability to make or break academic careers, preside over the decision-making of patronage and grant-awarding institutions. Houston A. Baker Jr.’s Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned The Ideals Of The Civil Rights Era offers mild criticisms of Gates, West and other black public intellectuals, who, according to him, are “embraced by virtue of their race transcendent ideology.” His book went from the warehouse to the remainder shelves. The Village Voice promised two installments of courageous muckraking pieces about Gates written by novelist, playwright and poet Thulani Davis; part two never appeared. Letters challenging Gates by one of Gates’ main critics at Harvard, Dr. Martin Kilson, have been censored. Kilson refers to Gates as “the master of the intellectual dodge.” And even when Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell at The Nation’s blog defied the 24-hour news cycle that has depicted Gates, a black nationalist critic, as an overnight black nationalist-- she calls him “apolitical”--she had to pull her punches. As an intellectual, she has more depth than all of the white mainstream and white progressive media’s selected “leaders of black intellection,” among whom are post-modernist preachers who can spew rhetoric faster than the speed of light.
It remains to be seen whether Gates, who calls himself an intellectual entrepreneur, will now use his “wake up call” to lead a movement that will challenge racial disparities in the criminal justice system. A system that is rotten to the core, where whites commit the overwhelming majority of the crimes, while blacks and Hispanics do the time. A prison system where torture and rape are regular occurrences and where in some states the conditions are worse than at Gitmo. California prisons hospitals are so bad that they have been declared unconstitutional and a form of torture, over the objections of Attorney General Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who leased his face to the rich and was on television the other day talking about how rough they have it. A man who is channeling his hero the late Kurt Waldheim’s attitudes toward the poor and disabled.
Gates can help lead the fight so that there will be mutual respect between law enforcement and minorities instead of their calling us niggers all the time and being Marvin Gaye’s “trigger happy” policemen. Not all of them but quite a few. Or Gates can coast along. Continue to maintain that black personal behavior, like not turning off the TV at night, is at the root of the barriers facing millions of black Americans. Will return to the intellectual rigor espoused by his hero W.E.B Dubois or will he continue to act as a sort of black intellectual Charles Van Doren? An entertainer. (An insider at PBS told me that the network is demanding that Gates back up his claims about the ancestry of celebrities with more solid proofs.)
Gates has discussed doing a documentary about racial profiling. I invite him to cover a meeting residents of my Oakland ghetto neighborhood have with the police each month. (Most of our problems incidentally are caused by the off-springs of two family households. Suburban gun dealers who arm gang leaders. The gang leader on our block isn’t black! An absentee landlord who owns a house where crack operations take place.) He can bring Bill Cosby with him. He’ll find that the problems of inner citizens are more complex than “thirty five year-old grandmothers living in the projects” and rappers not pulling up their pants and that racism remains in the words of the great novelist John A. Williams, “an inexorable force.”
Finally, in his 2002 Jefferson lecture, delivered at the Library of Congress, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., during remarks about the 18th-Century poet Phillis Wheatley in which he excoriated the attitudes of her critics in the Black Arts movement, one more time, ended his lecture with: “We can finally say: Welcome home, Phillis; welcome home.”
If Gate’s ceases his role as just another tough lover and an “intellectual entrepreneur,” and takes a role in ending racial traffic and retail profiling, and police home invasions, issues that have lingered since even more Chesnutt’s time, we can say, “Welcome home, Skip; welcome home.”
Ishmael Reed is the publisher of Konch. His new book, "Mixing It Up, Taking On The Media Bullies" was published by De Capo.