A Vision of a New Racial Tapestry

Harvard scholar Gates talks about racism and multiculturalism in US

FOR affable and impish Henry Louis Gates Jr., it was the morning after. One of his former students at Yale University, Jodie Foster, had won an Oscar at the Academy Awards late the previous night.

And now Dr. Gates, head of Harvard University's department of Afro-American studies, was sinking into an armchair in his Cambridge office, still a little sleepy from watching a night of TV. "I predicted a sweep for 'Silence of the Lambs,' " he said happily. Then, as if such prophecy were clearly normal, he said with a playful, Jack Benny-like gesture, "What can I say?"

Along with his light side, mix equal parts of a solid reputation for black scholarship, outspokeness on race problems, welcomed public visibility, a commitment to multiculturalism, and here is the black scholar that Harvard expects to mold its Afro-American program into the heavyweight champion of black studies.

With plenty of fanfare a year ago, Harvard hired Gates away from Duke University in Durham, N.C. Prolific and peripatetic, Gates brought with him enough energy to have already written or edited a number of books on black literature and black writers, including "The Signifying Monkey," which won an American Book Award in 1989. His most recent book is "Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars."

Gates also received a MacArthur "genius" grant while teaching at Yale, has written a number of essays on pop culture for newspapers, lectured widely, and was an expert witness at the trial of 2 Live Crew, a black rap group charged with obscenity in Florida last year. To the delight of his Harvard students, Gates managed to get black filmmaker Spike Lee to campus this semester to lecture on black films.

Seated in his office just off Harvard Square, Gates talked for an hour.

In this election year, what's missing from the candidates' discussion of issues?

What's missing is a serious explanation of a remedy for the class divisions in this country. I see the racial divisions as metaphors for deeper economic differences unlike we have seen in this country before. Look at the black community; simultaneously we have the largest black middle class that we have ever had along with the largest black underclass we've ever had. None of the candidates has given a sufficient explanation as to why this is the case. There's been a lot of jibberish about racism, but no systematic analysis of what caused this problem, and no analysis leading to a systematic solution.

Why don't candidates talk about it?

Because nobody wants to hear it.

Why is that?

Well, I think it was President Reagan or Nixon who said, if there's 10 percent unemployment then there is 90 percent employment. There are more people satisfied than not satisfied in the middle class. I think [the candidates] have written off a large part of the American constituency and are defining everybody as middle class except people who are unemployed or unemployable, the constituency about whom they feel is no hope. [The candidates] are asking the black middle class to think of themselves as as p art of a larger American middle class rather than as part of a black community. And that's very different from [the past]. I just don't see social compassion in this.... I saw a statistic last week that said 44.8 percent of black children live under the poverty line. This is totally unacceptable. Is it a form of racism when the candidates seldom mention the problems of the black communities in the inner cities?

This is the racism of blindness, the sort of thing Richard Wright wrote about in "Native Son." The people in the upper class were blind, and they wanted to be blind to [problems].... You and I have every opportunity, I suppose, to try crack and become addicted to it, but somehow this option doesn't occur to us. Now, why is it occurring to the people on the street? Because they have no hope. And I think until they are given a way out, we aren't going to break the cycle. I also think that there are some fo rces in American society that are just delighted that this kind of homicidal behavior is occurring in black communities.... Each year the National Urban League calls for a Marshall Plan for the cities. It's the only hope.... I think that many African-American intellectuals and those with professional degrees are wrestling with the problem of what is their responsibility to the larger Afro-American community.

There is a great deal of fogginess about how the black community still coheres, if indeed it coheres at all.

So many young people today - blacks, whites, and Hispanics - are illiterate. What good does it do to have an Afro-American program at Harvard, if many young people won't be able to read it?

All issues of multiculturalism go by-the-by if we have a society of illiterates. Our concern has to be basic literacy as well as changing the curriculum on the higher end of things. The two are not necessarily unconnected. I think we can use nontraditional materials, say Afro-American materials, in the teaching of literacy. Many scholars have pointed out over and over again that the dominant theme in Afro-American literature is the relationship between freedom and literacy. In a way it's fair to say that

we have always been a people of the book too, but this heritage is being lost out there in the inner city, and perhaps more variegated subject matter could make for more compelling lesson plans. There is a process of mediation between scholarship and social change; sometimes it takes decades. For instance, here's Thomas Paine, and [many years] later, here's the American Revolution.... You are an advocate of multicultural curriculum in higher education. What are the benefits as you see them?

When my colleagues and I insist on diversifying the curriculum, what we are trying to do, along with other institutions that are conduits into this great vat that makes up the common culture, is to include more of the other elements that have been systematically excluded from entering into this great pot.... Society is already fissured by race, class, and gender. Unlike what [columnist] George Will says, a multicultural curriculum doesn't contribute to the fissures; it's meant to address the fissures, to

redefine what our common culture is. I think all Americans should be fluent in English and Spanish, because we are headed toward a bilingual society. I like going to Miami and hearing all the languages. Anyone who needs to wonder about the true identity of America should jump on a plane and go to Los Angeles or San Francisco; you get off, and you are in a different country. It's great! It makes me proud to be an American.

What other country has the potential to house so many ethnic identities and produce a new blend? We are talking about the weave of a new kind of tapestry. The bland monochrome that is a part of official American ideology, which we can no longer afford, no longer [fits] with the facts of the world.

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