Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

On February 11, 2009, 140 guests gathered at the Harvard Club in New York City for the presentation of the 2009 Frank E. Taplin, Jr. Public Intellectual Award to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In place of giving a speech, Dr. Gates participated in a question and answer session with Foundation president Arthur Levine. The following is a transcript of the award presentation and dialogue.

Arthur Levine: Tonight we celebrate the power of ideas. We recognize that ideas are enduring and consequential. We celebrate an individual who illuminates, educates and leads by virtue of ideas. We express our gratitude to an individual whose ideas have made a difference, a profound difference, in a world in which intellect is too often constrained by ideology and pap, sound bites and attacks dominate the airwaves. Since its founding in the years after World War II, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has been concerned principally with identifying and educating individuals with the capacity to address our nation’s most critical needs. In the years after World War II, what that mean was providing professors for GIs who were flooding this country, without enough faculty to each in their classrooms. In the years after, it meant providing professors who were men, who were women, who were majorities, who were minorities. It meant providing fellowships for understaffed areas of the Academy, international affairs, conservation, and it means providing fellowships in those areas in which we as a nation and we as an academic community found the greatest hurdles. Those fellowships produced an extraordinary array of individuals. They won, and I can boast about this because I have absolutely nothing to do with this, 13 Nobel Prizes, 32 MacArthur Genius Grants, 14 Pulitzer Prizes, two poet laureates and one Academy Award.

Today most of our work focuses on bridging the achievement gap, the enormous disparity in academic achievement between children who are rich and are poor, who are white and are of color, who live in our cities, and our rural areas and our suburbs. Research shows over and over and over again that the most powerful school-based intervention we can make in improving student achievement is a good teacher. There’s nothing that makes a greater difference, and so we created the new fellowship. We hoped it would become a Rhodes Scholarship for teachers, and the goal was to attract very talented individuals to careers in teaching in understaffed fields—math, science. The goal was to have those individuals, after attending a graduate program in teacher education, to make a three-year commitment to teaching in our highest-need schools, our most disadvantaged children. The goal was to encourage teacher retention, so teaching is not simply an experience, it’s not simply an episode in children’s lives. It’s a career for the people who went into the profession. And we wanted to create a program that would transform teacher education and teacher preparation in America and, indeed, we created a national program and we created a state program of teaching fellowships.

Let me tell you about the state program very briefly. We created a program, and we started in Indiana, and that program will increase the percent of math and science teachers certified in that state by 20%. It’ll provide all the new hires in math and science in Indianapolis, in Muncie, in five rural districts around the state. Next we will go into Ohio, we’ll go into Michigan, we’ll go into Minnesota. Beyond all of this, our work involves trying to improve high school graduation rates and college attendance by poor and minority and inner-city children, by developing a new kind of school, an early college, which joins high school and college, which includes four years of high school and two years of college. We’ve created 17 schools like that from New York to California, Los Angeles and San Francisco, that are finding among kids who graduate from high school at rates lower than 50%, that we’re sending 94% to college, poor, disadvantaged children. At Woodrow Wilson, we believe in talented people and important ideas, and we believe they’re the foundation of a better future.

Tonight, we’re here to recognize an individual who epitomizes both. We’re here to confer the Frank Taplin Jr. Prize on Henry Louis Gates. Let me tell you about him, before we bring him up. Skip Gates is one of our generations most influential minds. His work has challenged traditional notions of identity and race, and he has more than anybody I can think of, placed a spotlight on the human condition. He’s produced an extraordinary body of path-breaking research and scholarship on the history, culture and contribution of African Americans in America, a body of knowledge which for too long was ignored or dismissed in the Academy. He set the standard for excellence of academic instruction and scholarship in America’s great universities. He’s spoken to the nation and the world, not simply through the traditional academic routes, but through our newspapers—he wrote a biweekly column in The New York Times—through our magazines—a cover story in Time magazine—radio, television and new media. He has a program airing on PBS in a half hour. Most recently, he founded and edits the Washington Post daily online newsletter of African American perspective. Henry Louis Gates is an educator. He’s a scholar. He’s a director. He’s a producer. And he’s a leader, who’s had a profound influence on this country and our globe. He has accumulated more awards and honors than, I think, everybody else in this room combined. He has won the George Polk Award, the MacArthur “genius grant,” Time magazine’s list of the 25 most influential Americans, and 44 honorary degrees, which do not include his undergraduate diploma. What I’ll ask you to do now is join me in saluting Henry Louis Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard. [APPLAUSE]

Our format’s going to be different than our format was in past. We are going to be privileged with seeing a film. This is what you’d be watching, if you were home.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Six-minute clip.

AL: A six-minute clip. We tried to persuade him to do an hour or two or three, but he refused. And then what we’re going to do is a question and answer session. I will ask questions and then he will give superb answers. I give you Henry Louis Gates.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.HG: Thank you, Arthur. You’re so lucky to have this man at your helm. Really, give it up for the sixth president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. He’s the man. Now Ann and Arthur wanted me, they asked me if I would like to make a speech and I said no, but I would love to do a Q&A with Arthur. I’ve always wanted to do that. He gave me, in his capacity as President of Teacher’s College, he gave me an award. We didn’t have a chance to do that, so we thought it would be fun. Somehow the Harvard Club couldn’t figure out how to put two chairs in a room, so we could do this, so we’re going to stand and do it. But first we’re going to see a clip of my new series on Abraham Lincoln. But before we do that, I want to say a word about one person in the room, and that person is the reason I’m here, half the reason I’m here. My mother passed in 1987, unfortunately, but my father’s here. My father’s 95-1/2 years old, ladies and gentlemen. Henry Louis Gates Senior is right there.

My father, ladies and gentlemen, worked two jobs for 37 years to put my brother and me through college. My brother is seated there. He is the Chief of Oral Surgery at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, and there’s little old me bringing up the rear. My father worked in a paper mill in the daytime. He’d go to work at 6:30. The mill whistle would blow at 3:30. He’d get off from work. He’d come home. My brother and I would get out of school. We grew up in a paper mill town, an Irish-Italian paper mill town in eastern West Virginia, halfway between Pittsburgh and Washington. My father would come home. He’d wash up. We have our evening meal at 4:00, and he’d go to his second job as a janitor at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company. And he did that every day for 37 years to send me to Yale and my brother through dental school. That’s my daddy, ladies and gentlemen.

My father’s also the funniest man that I know. My father, he’s so funny he makes Red Foxx look like an undertaker. When I was growing up—I was born in 1950—when I was growing up, I wanted to be a Rhodes Scholar. I wanted to go to Harvard or Yale or Princeton, and I wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge. So senior year, I did very well. I’ve always been blessed, as our people say, in the classroom. And so I was junior year Phi Beta, and I was something called Scholar of the House at Yale, and it looked like I was going to graduate summa. So I applied for all these fellowships. I applied for a Rhodes, and a Marshall, and a Fulbright, and a Keasbey, and a Mellon and whatever else was there, and I wasn’t getting any of these fellowships. I’d be a finalist. I was a finalist for the Rhodes, everything, and I wasn’t getting any of these fellowships. So a friend of mine, Linda Darling Hammond, whom some of you know, I went to her and I said, “Linda, what am I doing wrong?” and she said, “You’re not being true to yourself. You’re being artificial.” I was down to my last fellowship to go to Oxford and it was called the Mellon Fellowship. So I went in and I was just myself, and to my astonishment, I got this fellowship. And, ladies and gentlemen, other than the day that my daughter Maggie, who’s here, was born, and my younger daughter, Eliza, who couldn’t be here, other than the day that they were born, it was the happiest day in my life.

And I went back to Calhoun College at Yale, named for that great liberal John C. Calhoun—we called it the Calhoun Plantation. You have to remember, at the time I had a crew cut, Cornell West’s afro looked like a crew cut next to my afro. I had a two-foot-high afro. I was bad, too. And I went back to Calhoun College and I called home, and it was about 4:00 in the afternoon and daddy picked up the phone. Now remember, in those days you didn’t have two phones. You had a phone and an extension phone. So I said, “Daddy, daddy, I have some good news. Put mama on the extension. Is mama home?” and he said, “Yeah,” she was upstairs. So mama got on the extension phone. So when she picked up, I said, “Mama, daddy, you’ll never believe it, you’ll never believe it. I’m going to Cambridge. I got a Mellon Fellowship. I am the first Afro American to get a Mellon Fellowship.” And without missing a beat, daddy said, “You’re the first Negro to get a Mellon Fellowship?” I said, “Yeah, daddy.” He said, “Huh, they’re gonna call it the watermelon fellowship from now on.” So if you want to know why I am, ladies and gentlemen, now you know. But please, one more time before he leaves give it up to my daddy. You know, he and his friend Barbara want to leave and I said, “Daddy, is it because my series on Lincoln airs at 9:00?” He said, “What? It’s the Knicks game.” He heard that. And you know he’s never been sick. He plays bridge six days a week. He’s never been sick, but about a month ago he had pneumonia, so he’s a little bit tired and this is his first public event. But that’s all I’m going to say other than, before we have our dialogue, except, Arthur, if you could show the clip, we’ll watch that. Then Arthur will come back and then we’ll have a little discussion. We’ll talk to you some more, okay? Great.


AL: That was wonderful.

HG: Thank you.

Arthur Levine and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.AL:    So my first question to you is can you tell us then an embarrassing incident in your life you’ve never revealed to anybody else? Oh, no, that’s wrong. I’m sorry.

This past year has witnessed an avalanche of books about Lincoln. There’s a new one in the bookstore every time you look. What did you hope to accomplish by adding to this canon?

HG: There are over 15,000 books written about Abraham Lincoln. The only person about whom more books have been written is Jesus himself. It’s just an extraordinary thing. Lincoln is, his myth is so capacious that we can all find our own image reflected in Lincoln’s mirror. There’s a Lincoln for all seasons. He’s the American man for all seasons, the man for all reasons. Each generation of Americans remakes the image of Lincoln, in order to remake ourselves, and there’s no other figure quite like that. For me, I wanted to do an honest film about Lincoln and show that he was even greater as an historic figure, if we understood him warts and all, if we understood him in his complexity, and if we were honest about it, instead of trying to sweep all of that complexity under the carpet. And as I began research, I didn’t even want to do this film. My co-executive producer Peter Kunhardt is descended from a man, his grandfather started collecting, or great grandfather—can’t remember which—started collecting Lincoln memorabilia in the 19th century, and they have this huge collection of Lincoln memorabilia and their family has done a book called Looking for Lincoln, a big coffee table book, which Knopf has published. And Peter and I have made several films together and he said, “I want you to be the host, and the narrator and the writer for a film that will air in the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.” I said, “I don’t know anything about Abraham Lincoln. Freed the slaves, that’s all I know.”

But as I got into it, and I decided I would do it, because it was like going back to graduate school. It was like taking a seminar in Lincoln, which making a documentary is akin to. And I realized, Arthur, that as I began to read Lincoln’s words on race and slavery, that there really were three sub-discourses in what we think of as his feelings or his thought about race. One was how he felt about slavery. He was firmly opposed to slavery his whole life. But second, how did he feel about African Americans? Ah, he was shaky about African Americans. Lincoln did not embrace racial equality for a very long time. It’s questionable whether he ever embraced what we would think of as racial equality. And third is something that you probably haven’t thought about, which is colonization. And colonization was removing people from the United States and sending them back to Africa. And Abraham Lincoln, a fundamental part of his dream of emancipation was voluntary colonization.

On December 1st, 1862, a month before the Emancipation Proclamation became effective, he addressed Congress in his annual message and asked for a constitutional amendment that would fund any slave he was about to free to move to either Liberia, to Haiti or to Panama. And a month and eight days before he signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which he signed right after Antietam, on September 22nd, 1862. Lincoln invited five black men to the White House. There had only been one black man at the White House in history before that, and that was Paul Cuffee, in 1812, when James Madison was president. These guys were recruited. There was a big sign that said, “President Lincoln will be at the Bethel AME Church in Washington on Sunday afternoon at 2:00,” and all these black members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington showed up at this church, looking for Abraham Lincoln. And one of Lincoln’s ministers, his Minister of Colonization, was there, and he said, “The President’s not going to be here. He wants you to pick five leaders and they will come to the White House”—first time Negroes come to the White House as a group, except as servants. And they picked five leaders and they met with Abraham Lincoln at 4:00 in the afternoon at the White House. Lincoln had a reporter there, which is why we know this story, and he said to them, “Do you know who the founding fathers were?” and they go, “Yeah, like Washington and Jefferson.” He said, “You are going to be the five founding fathers of a new nation because I’m about to free the slaves, and when I announce it, we’re also going to announce we’re going to fund you, and you guys are going to take them all to Panama and you’re going to set up a whole republic.” Frederick Douglass wrote it was the dumbest idea he’d ever heard in his lifetime.

But these were the three warring tendencies within Abraham Lincoln’s thinking about the status of black people. One was he was fundamentally opposed to slavery, two, dubious about the status of black people interracial marriage, the capacity of black people to vote or to be jurors, and three, colonization. But the irony of Abraham Lincoln’s life, and this is the point of the film and my book, is that he changed, and he changed for two reasons. The pressures of the Civil War led him to realize the North was losing the Civil War and he needed more troops. And so where was he going to get those troops? By freeing the slaves in the south and allowing those troops to fight in the Union army. And so he did, and he fell in love with what he called his 200,000 black warriors, the 200,000 black men who fought for the North. And the other reason was Frederick Douglass, the great Frederick Douglass, whom he met and invited to the White House three times. Frederick Douglass was the first educated black man whom Lincoln ever met and whom Lincoln treated as an intellectual equal.

And the pressure of those two forces changed his attitude, so that the last speech that he gave in his life, April 11, 1865—the North had just won the Civil War. Crowds went to the White House and there, on the grounds of the White House, were chanting Lincoln’s name. And Lincoln comes to the window, the balcony at the White House, the second floor of the White House, and he flings open the windows and gives a speech. And in this speech he becomes the first American president to say that black men, some black men should have the right to vote—his 200,000 black warriors, as he put it—and, quote/unquote/ “the very intelligent Negroes.” Now there were 2.2 million black men, but he was going to give 200,000 the right to vote, which still is a big deal in the history of the White House. Guess who’s in the audience? Guess who’s standing on the grounds of the White House? John Wilkes Booth. And John Wilkes Booth turns to the man next to him and says, “That means nigger citizenship and I’m going to run him through.” And so Abraham Lincoln literally gave his life defending or advocating the right to vote for black men. It’s one of the great stories, I think, in American history, and that’s why I made the film, and that’s why I’ve written a book.

AL:    So let me ask you this—what would you have us learn? What would you have us do, as a consequence of this portrait of a flawed human being? It’s a man who wants a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, it’s a man who thinks that the smartest Negroes should be able to vote. But it’s a man who loves darky jokes. And it’s a man who wants permanent segregation, and it’s a man who wants colonization. What are we supposed to do with that portrait?

HG:    Well, I think that the fact that in spite of his attitudes, remember, Abraham Lincoln was a product of what? The frontier. There were 116 black people living in Springfield, Illinois, in 1840, and they were all either slaves, or servants or laborers. You know, he was a participant in redneck culture, we might call it today, and in spite of that, he did the right thing. In spite of his natural instincts, he used the N word, at least until he went to the White House. In spite of that, he still became the first president to begin the process of the abolition of slavery. In spite of that, he allowed black men to fight. In spite of those attitudes, he rammed through the 13th Amendment, which is really the only thing that truly abolished the institution of slavery, because the Emancipation Proclamation was of dubious legality, which is why it’s written like a legal brief. So I think that it makes Lincoln’s achievements grander to know his complexity. It makes his achievements more sublime to know his flaws.

And I filmed—that high school was a charter school in Chicago—at the Walter Payton Charter School, and that teacher with the hair is a guy named Kyle Westbrook. And it was the first thing that I shot, and I asked these kids, and they had been studying for a semester the true Lincoln, and I asked them, “How do you feel about him? What should we do?” They said he’s still the greatest president in the United States, and that they could imagine being Lincoln more because of his humanity, rather than being a marble or a statue in a granite monument on the mall, and I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

What this is is a postmodern Lincoln, a Lincoln—we’ve deconstructed him, but we put him back together again and he’s still the man.

AL:    So let me ask you this. You had this wonderful comment, among many wonderful comments. You were asked what Lincoln’s reaction would be to the election of Obama and your response was that if he got up and walked to the White House today, saw Obama, he would have a heart attack and die again.

HG:    That’s right.

AL: What are the implications of the election of Barack Obama for race in America today?

HG:    You know, I don’t know. I’m fascinated by Barack Obama. I have to say I supported Hillary Clinton. She’s an old friend of mine. She’d asked me a long time before I’d ever heard of Barack Obama. And I never dreamed—I thought that Barack would wait and then be president of the United States. I never dreamed that he would beat Hillary Clinton, let alone that the American people would vote for Barack Obama. And, in fact, you know the annual Alfalfa Dinner, and Donald Graham took me to the Alfalfa Dinner two Saturdays ago, so I went up to see Barack. Now I had a party for Barack Obama at our house in Martha’s Vineyard, when he was running for the Senate. Oprah Winfrey had a big, what we call the Big Negro Dinner, and I was one of the little big Negroes, I guess, and I was invited, and she seated me across from him. I have a photograph of Barack Obama, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, but I don’t really know him, but I contributed to his campaign. So we’re there at the Alfalfa Dinner, and we can walk up to say hello to the president of the United States and I wanted—look, I cried the night that Barack won. I didn’t let myself go until Wolf Blitzer at 11:00 said it’s official, because, you know, these white people, you never know what they’re going to do, right? But I was really happy and I wrote an essay about it, etcetera, and it’s a great day. It’s W.E.B. DuBois the day Brown v. Board was announced. DuBois was an old radical who was living in Brooklyn, and his wife woke him and said, “Bill, the Supreme Court just voted unanimously for the Brown v. Board,” and he just rose up and said, “I have lived to see the impossible.” And that’s how I felt, that I have lived to see the impossible, and I’m glad that my dad has lived to see the impossible. So I walk up to the President and I just wanted the pleasure of being able to say to a black man, “Mr. President.” So I stuck out my hand and I said, “Mr. President, it’s an honor to be here,” and he said, “Yeah, Skip Gates, who supported me from the very beginning, didn’t you?” Now that was cold, man, when the president of the United States—I was hoping he didn’t notice. That’s all a long-winded way of saying I don’t know the answer to your question.

But, no, I think that this stuff about a post-racial society, I think that’s a ton of rubbish. The percentage of black children living at or beneath the poverty line is exactly the same today as it was November 3 and a year before. There are structural causes of poverty, there are behavioral causes of poverty. Insofar as Barack’s election can inspire people to do better, to defer gratification, to value learning, in the way that our generation valued learning when I was growing up in the 1950s. In the 1950s, we were people of the book. The blackest thing you could be was a lawyer or a doctor. My mama wanted two doctors, and not a Ph.D. in philosophy. I mean she wanted two medical doctors. Not being an entertainer or an athlete, but being a lawyer, or a doctor or a dentist, an undertaker, preacher. Those things. Those were the great values, and our people have lost their way. So I think that if the way we behave can be affected by the model inspired by Barack Obama in the White House, the way black people behave, I think that will be a great benefit of his election.

But simultaneously, I believe that just seeing so much competence in a black body, I mean the man is enormously competent. I was at the inauguration. I was seated in the yellow section, freezing my buns off, like everybody else. And we looked up on the screen, and Barack was coming down that red carpet, and he had this look on his face, man, which I had never seen before. He was the President of the United States. It was his game face. The most powerful man in the world is an African American, literally. And just seeing him every day in January, before he became president, announcing his cabinet selections, etcetera, etcetera, I think that subtly, perhaps subliminally, that could have an effect on race relations, attitudes about the potential competence or the capacities of persons of color.

I remember when Colin Powell was the spokesman for the military, during the Kuwait War, and I was in a car and I had a driver who was from Argentina. And I said, “Look, I’m going to give you a tip, but I just want you to answer a question honestly.” He said, “Okay,” and I said, “How do your countrymen feel about having a black man represent the armed forces?” He was chief of staff, I guess. And he said, “Well, can I be honest with you?” and I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Well, we were in a bar. We were in Argentina. Colin Powell came on CNN.” He said the whole bar froze, because they couldn’t believe that any society would pick a black man, actually to run its military. Now expand that by 10,000 fold and what the effect must be, on one level or another, just to see a man who is so thoroughly in charge, in control of the most powerful position in the world, and I think that that will be the principal impact of the election of Barack Obama. But I don’t believe in this millinery transformation. I don’t believe that all of a sudden racism has disappeared because Barack Obama is in the White House. I think that’s rubbish.

AL:    So, look, let me ask you this question. By the way, I don’t mean to boast, but moments before he named his vice president, he sent me a text message indicating it was Joe Biden, and I sat in the red section. That’s the color of my couch.

So look, my question is this—what’s all this say about the state of black America, not the United States, black America and its leadership? Gwen Ifill just published a book that says what this represents is a generational shift. Guys like you and I are out. The next generation is in. And it also represents a change in black politics nationally, as well as black intellectual attitudes.

HG:    I think that—I like Gwen. In fact, I’m reading that book now. But what I like about Barack is that he went to the old black leadership and he asked them, kind of—he wasn’t serious. I mean he was going to run, no matter what they said, and they told him no, and he went around them and won anyway. I like that. It’s a paradigm shift, because they didn’t want him there. I mean it wasn’t his turn and they were all going to support Hillary. And so he changed the model. But I don’t think, you know, Al Sharpton is not going to go away. And Jesse Jackson is not going to go away, and the members of the Black Caucus are not going to go away. I think that there will be two paths to leadership within the black community, rather than just one. So it’s an additive, rather than a subtractive.

AL:    Let’s change topics just a little bit. You have written this enormous body of literature. You have produced books, and articles and op-eds, and you have produced CDs and TV shows. What difference have you made?

HG:    I don’t know what difference it’s made to anybody else, but it’s made an enormous difference to me. I have had so much fun. We had a cast party, you know, a launch party last night, and I just said spontaneously that sometimes I’m afraid that—I mean my life has been such a miracle that sometimes—I’m afraid that I’m just in a coma, and I’ve been dreaming, and I’m going to wake up and there’s no Yale. There’s no Cambridge. There’s no Harvard. There is no PBS. I fantasized about making films, when I was at Yale, when I was an undergraduate. Now I’ve made eight documentary films, either series or one-offs. It’s just a blessing. I’ve been able to fantasize about writing certain kinds of books and doing certain kinds of projects, and those things have come true. It’s just a blessing to me. I tell my students to pick a career that they love, something that will, when their spouse leaves them, when they’re going through a midlife crisis, when their kids are covered with acne, and can’t stand them and won’t talk to them, something that will make them want to get out of bed and go to work. And that’s what I did. It’s such an honor to win the Frank Taplin Award, and he’s such a special man, and I’m sorry that I didn’t have a chance to meet him, but we do have a couple things in common. I thought about going to Princeton. He did go to Princeton. My cousin, Stephanie Gates, went to Princeton and graduated in the class of ’75. He went to Yale Law School. I went to Yale Law School. See, you didn’t know that, Artie. I went to Yale Law School. I attended Yale Law School from September 1, 1975, to October 1, 1975, at which time I took a leave of absence, and the last time I checked, I was still on leave. And I wanted to go to law school because I wanted to be, I didn’t want my kids to have to depend on scholarships, and I wanted to be comfortable in this society, and I knew really right away that it wasn’t for me. There’s nothing wrong with the law. It’s just not what I wanted to do. I wanted, as I said at the table to Carl, I wanted to read and write books, and I have the best life, which is somebody pays me to read and write books and talk to some of the most intelligent young people in the whole wide world. And now, I even get, people give me money to make films about things that I fantasize about. I just try to call it the way that I see it. Everyone has that little voice, and I try to satisfy that little voice in my head, and that’s what I’ve done with my Lincoln film, and that’s what I’ve done with my work on genealogy and genetics, and that’s been a big surprise for me.

My dad knows this story. He left, but since the day I saw his father buried, the day I went to his father’s funeral—I wrote about this in The New Yorker in December—I’ve been obsessed with—his father’s name was Edward St. Lawrence Gates—and I’ve been, since the day we buried him, I’ve been obsessed with my family tree, the Gates family tree. And that led by fits and starts to doing three documentary series about genealogy and genetics, and we just got the funding to do a new series, and I start next week, and we’re going to do—so far I’ve done 19 African Americans, and now we’re going to do two Jewish Americans, two Arab Americans, two Latino Americans, two Asian Americans, two West Indian Americans and two Catholic Americans. We’re going to do an Irish American and an Italian American. And so far, Yo-Yo Ma, Eva Longoria, Frank Gehry, Mike Nichols, Malcolm Gladwell, Sarah Jessica Parker, and somebody else I’m not thinking of. And I just asked Bruce Springsteen and Kristi Yamaguchi, and they’ve more or less all have agreed to be in this series.

But the relevance for you all is this. I have realized—25 million people watched these two series on the night that they aired, so I have realized, I’ve received thousands and thousands of letters, people doing their family tree, people having their ancestry traced through their DNA. So what we’re doing at the DuBois Institute is developing new curricula in the teaching of science to inner-city high school kids and history. And we’re going to, we hope, transform the way we teach them history by having them do their family tree. A six week unit, and they’ll do their family tree, and each week they’ll add another rung on their family tree, and they’ll go home and they’ll interview their parents, their grandparents. We’ll show them how to use all the census data that’s online up to 1930—only 1930 for privacy reasons—and then teach the context of America through the ancestors that they are finding on their family tree. And we’ll take them all the way back to 1870, when all the slaves first appear with two names in a legal census, and then we’ll teach them how to find their ancestors, where it’s possible, through the white people who owned them. Quite often, maybe 60-70% in some cases, like Oprah Winfrey’s great-great grandfather was Constantine Winfrey, in the 1870s living next door to a white named Absalom Winfrey. Turns out Absalom Winfrey was his master in 1860, and we’ll teach people how to do that. And likewise, if Arthur and I went into an inner-city high school and said, “Today’s lesson is Watson and Crick, and the structure of the double helix structure of DNA, kids would say, ‘Get out of town.’ But if we hold up this cotton swab and say, ‘You’re going to swab your cheeks, and in six weeks we’re going to tell you on your mitochrondrial line, your mama’s-mama’s-mama’s line, where your ancestor came from in Africa, and if you’re a boy, on your father’s line, your Y-DNA, where he came from in Africa possibly. And while we wait for the results, we’re going to teach you how DNA works, how this genetic fingerprint works and how this process works, and then teach them a little bit about the slave trade, and teach them when they get the result and it says that they are from the Akhaian(?) people, or the Yoruba people.’ They’ll do a PowerPoint presentation on the Yoruba people. Who’s not going to be interested in this? What is your favorite subject? Your favorite subject is yourself.

So we think that using genealogy and genetics could help to light that fire that we need to get a large chunk of inner-city kids to embrace the idea of deferred gratification and the importance of the book, and that’s what my next project is and that’s what I hope that I can accomplish.

AL: Now for years and years and years, I have known that you went to Yale Law School. I just wanted you to know that. But you’ve touched on a taboo subject. We don’t talk about genealogy. We don’t talk about genetics, with regard to race. What’s this about?

HG:    Well, the many—it’s a funny question, and I’ve been asked this before. There’s a man I respect named Troy Duster, who’s a sociologist at NYU and at Berkeley, and he thinks that I’m just—I mean he says it in a nice way—but I mean he’s deeply, he finds it very, very problematic, because he’s afraid that someone one day is going to say a family gene for intelligence and you people just don’t have it. Right? You have a basketball gene. I’m oversimplifying, but not by much. And I don’t think that, first of all, certainly I, obviously I don’t think that that’s going to happen. But secondly, I don’t think that you can just put your head in the sand and say, “Well, there are potentially danger zones here,” and so you slow down the progress of science. It’s just not going to happen. It’s just not how the world of knowledge works. It’s the sort of thing that leads to witch burnings and people being burned at the stake in the Renaissance. So I think that we have to be very careful. I think there should be protocols. I think that there should be guidelines. But you can’t stop the sequencing of the genome and all that it implies. And in fact, in this series, this will be the first documentary about sequencing genomes, because we’re going to pick two people and sequence their entire genome. All you can do is rigorously limit yourself, qualify, police the boundaries sort of, but you can’t stop it, and I don’t want to stop it. I want to contribute to it.

AL:    I have one final question and then you can watch the last hour of your television show.

HG:    Maggie taped it.

AL:    My question is this—here you are this kid, who grew up in segregated Piedmont, West Virginia, and now you’re one of the most eminent lights at ivy-colored—ivy-covered&mdHarvard University.

HG:    I like ivy-colored, too.

AL:    Did I say that?

HG:    Yes.

AL:    I know. At ivy whatever it is Harvard University. What do you want for your university? How does it need to be different than it is today?

HG:    My university?

AL:    Your university.

HG:    I’d like the endowment to go back up 30%. That’s the first thing I’d like, the way I’d like it to be different. I think Harvard is a great university. I mean there are so many great universities. I can’t think of a fundamental way that I would like it to be different. I would like our students to have, I think, a bit more social consciousness, a bit more awareness—you see what’s happened is that we have two self-perpetuating classes in the United States. When I went to Yale, largely as the result of affirmative action, and I say that because no matter how intelligent I may or may not be, I wouldn’t have gotten into Yale just a few years before because there were class distinctions within the black community. So that there were six black boys who graduated from Yale in the class of ’66, and if you look at their biographies, their fathers were doctors, lawyers or whatever, and you know what my dad did. So I would’ve gone to college. There are three generations of our family graduated from Howard, starting in 1910, with my great-aunt Pansy, but I wouldn’t have gone to Yale. But what happened was affirmative action allowed a larger percentage of us to compete at historically white colleges and universities, and we’re now—and my daughter, Maggie, is a second-year graduate student at Harvard—we’re perpetuating our class position, and we’ve left behind all those people that I’m trying to reach through that curriculum and all the people that you’re trying to reach through various programs in this marvelous foundation. Affirmative action, as Lani Guinier is fond of saying, was a class escalator. And I’m afraid that somebody’s pushed that button and that class escalator is frozen, it’s been closed off. And we don’t have enough people in the middle class, of all colors, and it’s certainly true of the African American community and the Latino community. And I would like, I think, our students to be aware of, and our universities to be aware of our role in creating this, restarting this class escalator, so that we could diversify our society economically in a way that affirmative action began to do in the 1960s and the 1970s. Thank you so much for honoring me this evening, ladies and gentlemen.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel: What you don’t know is that Skip also belongs to the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation. He participated in our Black Scholars program some decades ago and we are proud to claim him. My role now is to say thank you, thank you to the Taplin family, thank you to Carl Ferenbach, thank you to Arthur Levine, thank you especially to Skip Gates, and thanks to all of you for joining us this evening.


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