It's nearly impossible to talk about race in America without invoking the work and research of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the most distinguished authorities on African American history in America.
Gates' list of accolades is long: The Alphonse Fletcher University professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, cultural critic, author and much more.
For Black History Month, Gates has a full agenda of exciting events, from leading a multi-generational panel, sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, on the topic of race in America at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., to a new PBS documentary airing this month, Africa’s Great Civilizations, about the continent's fascinating 200,000-year history.
To hear more about his work, we sat down with Gates to discuss some of the major issues facing society today, including the role entertainment plays in diversity, how to have a productive conversation about race, and what brings us together as a community.
Let's start with a question about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If he were alive today, what would he say about current race relations?
Dr. King would be surprised about two things. First, if you were to tell him that the size of the black middle class had doubled since 1968, and the size of the black upper middle class had quadrupled since 1968, he would be astonished.
Then he would say, “Does that mean our society has wiped out poverty?” And I’d say, “Sorry, Dr. King, I just gave you the good news. The bad news is that the percentage of black children at or under the poverty line is just slightly lower than it was in 1970." That figure was 48% when Dr. King was alive, and it’s 38% today. So for the black community, it is the best of times and the worst of times.
Also, Dr. King would be appalled and shocked that the incarceration rate for black men has increased phenomenally. I read recently that one in three black men face the prospect of going to prison in the course of their lifetime. One in three! If that is true, we should all be appalled.
Those figures certainly are appalling. But is there any other good news for Dr. King?
Absolutely. We have an appreciation of diversity that didn’t exist before. I was at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and it was one of the most moving moments of my life.
That it exists is significant, and I think all Americans should visit it. They would be astonished at how beautiful it is, how compelling the exhibitions are, and they’d be amazed at the contributions of the people of Africa to the U.S.
There’s also what’s happening in the media. There have never been more diverse television shows and films than there are today. This was evident with the list of Academy Award and other award show finalists. Movies like Hidden Figures turn little-known historical stories into widely-seen blockbuster hits, so that’s wonderful. And four of the five Oscar-nominated documentaries are by black directors—four out of the five! That’s incredible.
But we need more, especially for black women. That’s why I’m so glad for the accomplishment of Ava DuVernay, the first female African American director nominated for an Academy Award for Selma and her documentary13th.
You mentioned the dismaying statistics on the incarceration rates of African American males in this country. How can we begin to solve that problem?
The school-to-prison pipeline seems inevitable for far too many kids. Some of our kids in the lower socioeconomic ranks of society seem to be trapped in a web that leads straight from school to prison, and I think we all have to be alarmed by that.
The principal way to fight it is massive school reform. We need to make sure the amount of money spent per student in poor districts is exactly the same as in wealthier districts—that would be a radical transformation and I think it would yield good results.
I think the 'conversation about race' should start with diversity in classroom lessons—a history of America presented as the multicolored tapestry that our country’s history really was.
Secondly, we have to demand good behavior. We have to demand that every student work hard, defer gratification, learn math and computer skills—and realize that you’re far more likely to graduate from college and get a white collar job than become a basketball player, which is virtually impossible, in terms of statistics.
Far too many poor kids in the U.S. think it’s easier to make it into the NBA or the NFL than college, and that’s not true. There are far more black dentists and lawyers than black athletes. Becoming a professional athlete is like winning the lottery.
Does some of this also involve a change in values, like going back to those of an earlier time?
Yes, our values have gotten out of place. When I was going to school, in the 1950s, it was thought that the greatest way you could make a contribution to the African American community was to do well in school. If a teacher sent a note home to my parents and said I did something wrong, it would never have occurred to them to question the teacher. They questioned me!
I also think we can make use of another resource in the black community: church. So many people in our community go to church, and I think we should see Sunday school not merely for religion but to learn practical and scholarly skills, like computers, history—and heroes.
I think we should use our Sunday schools for black history teaching, much like, for example, Hebrew schools are used for the teaching of Jewish history.
People talk often about the need for an American “conversation about race.” How should we go about having one?
To have a meaningful conversation about race is most effective when we are not intentionally having a conversation about race—when the conversation is just natural.
What does this mean? Simply put, practicing good citizenship—an inclusive good citizenship—that starts at an early age. When I went to school, you learned good citizenship by osmosis. We said, “I pledge allegiance to the flag …” every morning. And we learned a lot of stories about George Washington, which were inspiring (even if some of them weren’t true).
So I think the “conversation about race” should start with diversity in classroom lessons—a history of America presented as the multicolored tapestry that our country’s history really was.
Not enough people know that, for example, while the Mayflower arrived on our shores in 1620, the first African Americans had arrived in Jamestown even earlier, in 1619. And black people fought, including my fourth great-grandfather, in the American Revolution.
My goal as a professor is to see the curriculum diversified so that the story of Americans of African descent is thoroughly and fundamentally integrated into the story of America.
Speaking of conversations, your new PBS series, Africa’s Great Civilizations, has surprises in store for Americans of all races who aren’t up on African history. Can you share some of this?
Since the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about it, Africa has fascinated those who have studied it because of its linguistic variety and its flora and fauna. And while we were raised to think Africa was isolated all that time, it actually wasn’t. The Red Sea, the Sahara desert and the Indian Ocean were all highways where people exchanged goods, ideas and even genes.
We really do have a 200,000-year-long history, from Mitochondrial Eve [the African woman from whom all mitochondrial DNA is thought to have sprung] to the out-migration of homo sapiens 50,000 to 80,000 years ago.
So our goal in the series is to familiarize viewers with the fact that we are all descendants of the people who left the continent about 50,000 years ago. It ties into the celebration of ethnic diversity in this country—and further supports why dialogue and information sharing are so essential.