Head Negro In Charge: Part 2

Wearing suspenders and dress slacks, looking more like a banker than a street-savvy pastor, Reverend Eugene F. Rivers 3rd glances up frequently at a mirror that lets him keep an eye on anyone coming into the renovated Victorian parish house in Dorchester that serves as his office and base. At 48, Rivers, the minister of the Azusa Christian Community church, in Dorchester, and founding member of the activist Ten Point Coalition, plays a dizzying repertoire of roles as a raise-the-rafters evangelist, old-fashioned moralist, and newfangled intellectual. Like Gates, Rivers travels easily in both the black world and the white. He is also, like Gates, a dazzling verbal gymnast. But that’s about where the resemblance ends.


A former gang member, Rivers studied at Yale and Harvard but did not earn a degree. He and his Jamaican wife, Jacqueline, in his words “committed class suicide” by living with their two children in a modest two-floor townhouse in a rough section of Dorchester known as Four Corners, where he cultivated the image of a renegade “outlaw minister.” On at least two occasions, gang members have pumped bullets into his house. Rivers mentions the holes as if to highlight the vast difference between someone like Skip Gates, living cozily on one of Cambridge’s poshest streets, and himself, here in the ghetto dodging bullets.

Stylish, intense, quick with a sound byte, Rivers has been Gates’s most persistent critic over the years. He took on Gates and the “let-them-eat-literature” crowd in a 1992 essay in the Boston Review in which he urged black intellectuals to take up activist roles in the betterment of the black community. In response, Harvard’s Kennedy School organized a public forum later that year titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack,” with panelists that included Gates, Rivers, Cornel West, and Boston University’s Glenn C. Loury.

In a followup essay, in 1995, Rivers called on black intellectuals to formulate an activist research agenda. And in January 1997 his wife, Jackie, who sits on the editorial board of the Globe, wrote an op-ed piece for the newspaper challenging the Harvard Dream Team to send its students into the Boston public schools to provide enrichment programs. “You see,” says Rivers, late one evening, “going into the schools, that’s a win. It’s a public relations coup, you could do something meaningful. You at last teach the unwashed and the unrefined.”

This time, however, there was no response from Gates. And that’s what disturbs Rivers most: that black intellectuals like Gates are not only unabashedly elitist but appear to be unconcerned by their lack of connection to the grassroots black community. At a time when the chasm between the black underclass and black aristocracy has never been greater, Rivers has assailed Gates as nothing more than “the emcee at the Cotton Club on the Charles.”

“W.E.B. Du Bois would be horrified by an approach to Afro-American studies rooted in a let-them-eat-literature approach regarding a people who are suffering,” says Rivers. “How is it that the best we can do are parties with Tina Brown as opposed to looking at a menu of social policy? Professor Gates provides an important function entertaining the readership of The New Yorker—but beyond that, then there’s not much to talk about. Just enough sepia so that fairly uninteresting people can get a form of easy-listening, quasi-hip entertainment. It’s not hard funk. It’s 98.5, easy listening, Kenny G. lite. Professor Gates gives them Kenny G. blackness served up in a brilliant literary format—and that’s it.”

Charging that Gates is squandering Harvard’s immense resources rather than using them to address crucial public-policy questions more seriously, he asks, “How do you explain how an institute with all these folks does not have a coherent research agenda after seven years? What difference does a Dream Team make for black people who need new policies and perspectives?”

Dream Team Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, 52, sees some merit in Rivers’s criticism. “To be honest, I think Harvard could do more,” she says. “I do have this uneasiness about how we relate to the black community. But it’s not that we are consumed with how great we are; it’s that the demands here are so great. Skip’s out there giving us visibility and that makes this other stuff happen. So who’s out there talking to the little guy? Cornel West is doing it. I’m doing it. It might not be in the newspapers, but we’re getting out there and we’re doing all we can.”

At times, Rivers refers to Gates’s Dream Team as “Harvard’s Tuskegee Machine.” It is an allusion, half-ironic, half-serious, to Booker T. Washington, the most influential black leader and scholar of the late 19th century and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama. Asserting that with education and hard work, African Americans would ultimately win the respect of whites, the Tuskegee Institute so dominated black scholarship of the time that few other black academics could get financial support or even employment without Washington’s approval.

A hundred years later, in many ways the same issues and the same debate are going on, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. is at the center of them. In addition to Rivers, such other black intellectuals as the University of Illinois’s Adolph Reed Jr. (in a 1995 piece in the Village Voice) have deplored what Reed called the “academic celebrity system” and a “a log-rolling lovefest” as nothing more than a chance for a bunch of academics to lavish superlatives on one another instead of engaging in serious debate. And Gates is always the lightning rod because he has become the most eloquent voice articulating the middle-class black experience to white America.