Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Head Negro In Charge

As chief interpreter of the black experience for white America, Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. may be the most influential black man in the United States today. Having created a power base that extends deep into the nation’s media-entertainment complex, Gates has brought money and glamour to the country’s great racial debate. In the parlance of black activists, he has become the new…Head Negro In Charge

It’s a wintry day in Cambridge, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and chair of the department of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, barely has time to squeeze an interview into his busy schedule. Just back from Timbuktu, he is 10 pounds trimmer, he’s happy to point out, than when he set out on his journey.

The offices in the newly renovated $25 million Barker Center at Harvard are deserted, owing to the holiday break. When he is rigged out in his professorial tweeds and tie, Gates can appear as stuffy as the next Harvard don, but on this day he is dressed casually in slacks and a warm pullover. His mustache and beard, lightly flecked with gray, are fashionably ragged. His eyebrows hold an arch that gives him a look of abrupt exclamation, of constant surprise. He’s not exactly handsome, but his energy combines with his astonishing verbal facility and a quick raw humor to project a strong charismatic charge.

Today, however, Gates looks weary. Maybe it’s jet lag, or the cold and cough he nurses with lozenges, or the spate of holiday parties for which he and his wife, Sharon Adams, are famous. Or those 10 pounds missing from a somewhat slight frame.

On the other hand, given the rigors of his schedule, it is not surprising that he is tired. At 47, “Skip” Gates, as he is widely known, is the nation’s reigning celebrity in academia. Arguably the foremost intellectual entrepreneur in the world, Gates, with his team of superstars, has managed to transform Harvard’s black studies department from a much-derided, ghettoized “academic backwater” into an institution whose power extends deep into America’s vast media-entertainment complex. Professor, administrator, journalist, television narrator, and author, Gates jets about the world, interviewing Hillary Rodham Clinton or Colin Powell for The New Yorker, writing books for Knopf, and hosting television series for PBS and BBC. He’s even an accomplished literary archaeologist. On a recent trip to Mali, one of five he took to Africa to star in a BBC-TV series, as a sidelight he rediscovered a collection of 4,500 ancient books long thought to have been destroyed that were part of a once-renowned university library in Timbuktu that dates back to the 15th century.

“I used to dream about this library,” he says. “You have to understand how important this is. There were thousands of books created by black people, coal black, kinky-haired, thick-lipped Africans. And I actually held these books in my hand.”

Gates’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. Time magazine last year included him in its roster of 25 most influential Americans. Newsweek listed him among “100 Americans to watch for in the next century.” The New York Times even coined a new term for academics like Gates, celebrating him as probably the top “academostar” in the country—a nod to a new era of academic free agency, wherein universities are bidding for glittering faculty star power to hype their reputations and boost their endowments. By leveraging his lofty positions at Harvard and The New Yorker and his access to the media-entertainment complex, he has emerged as the foremost interpreter of the black experience for white America. He is also an unapologetic elitist, not just in his avowed taste for the finer things but in his actions.

Positioning himself as the heir to the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois, the preeminent black intellectual of the first half of this century, Gates has been shaped in part by Du Bois’s idea of “The Talented Tenth,” the notion that the smartest and savviest blacks are destined to lead their race to its rightful place in American society. In that light, Gates has become an intellectual impresario, bringing together the best minds of his generation, using his power base to discover and document a lost history of the black experience- and, in the process, redefining a large part of American history for whites and blacks alike.

In achieving his goals, Gates is also trying to put an end to what he calls the One-Nigger Syndrome-the idea that the white world will make room only for one black icon at a time—be it a Nobel laureate, an army general, a Hollywood director, or a TV talk-show host.

“It used to be, Ralph Ellison, you get the National Book Award, James Baldwin, you can forget it for the next 20 years,” he says. “We are the first generation for whom the One-Nigger Syndrome is not true.”

Yet for all that—and perhaps because of it—Gates has attracted his share of controversy and criticism. In a particularly acerbic column last fall, the Boston Globe‘s Alex Beam characterized Gates as an empire builder perched atop “a self-promotion combine” at Harvard.

But most of the criticism aimed at Gates comes from black intellectuals and activists. It is the kind that has often been directed at black leaders who have moved center stage in the years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Sometimes it comes from rival activists. At other times it comes from academics sneering at his latest foray into the world of media and entertainment.

Some of these critics accuse Gates of dispensing a brilliantly framed but “Kenny G. lite”—as one activist puts it—version of what it means to be black. More important, they say, now that he’s at Harvard, he’s not devoting enough of the spectacular resources at his disposal to policy research designed to rescue the black underclass from its quickening slide into a social abyss. Has Gates become so vanilla in kowtowing to the Harvard establishment, they ask, that he isn’t really down with the brothers? Or is he just an opportunist who loves hanging with rich folk and driving around in his Mercedes-who is merely doing what it takes to become, in the parlance of black activists, the new HNIC? Translated politely, that stands for Head Negro In Charge.