Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Head Negro In Charge

From early childhood,
Skip Gates was marked to excel in school. As the years went by, he identified increasingly with his father’s side of the family— “doctors and dentists, lawyers and pharmacists” who had gone to “Howard and Talladega, Harvard and Radcliffe.” He had been shocked to realize that these refined, well-spoken characters in his father’s tales actually existed and were related to him. At his nearly all-white newly integrated school, Gates was the class prince, and his princess was Linda Hoffman, a white girl who taught him an early lesson in segregation.

“Nobody ever talked about race, but it was there in the lines drawn around socializing. ‘Look, but don’t touch,'” he writes. “Linda was my natural girlfriend, I desperately wanted to believe … [but] in public she would cut me dead.”
Meanwhile, Gates often found that his worldly ambitions were diagnosed as ailments. In those days, an overachieving black kid could be deemed pathological. After a knee injury, young Skip, who made no secret of his hope to study medicine, was grilled by his doctor about his knowledge of science. Afterward, the doctor came up with a new diagnosis.

“The problem’s psychosomatic,” he told Gates’s mother. “Because I know the type, and the thing is, your son is an overachiever.” Pauline didn’t buy it, and her son had three operations that year for a hip problem that has hobbled him ever since.

Then came the sixties. When a priest gave him a copy of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, in 1965, Gates heard, as he never had before, “a voice capturing the terrible exhilaration and anxiety of being a person of African descent in this country.” When he returned from summer camp, he saw Piedmont with new eyes as “a dirty, smelly mill town, full of people who cared more about basketball and baseball and eating than anything else.”

He devoured books by Claude Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Ralph Ellison, and Malcolm X, and listened to soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues. Stokely Carmichael announced something called “Black Power.” Negroes became black people, grew Afros, and donned dashikis. Gates spent hours discussing Vietnam, Black Power, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panthers, watching the war on TV, and the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy. He helped organize Piedmont’s first school boycott, staying home on the day of King’s funeral—and getting bad citizenship grades in return.

After graduating first in his class in 1968, Gates enrolled at Potomac State College of West Virginia University, in Keyser, five miles from home. He started dating his first real girlfriend, a white girl from his high school who was also enrolled at Potomac. Theirs was among the first open interracial relationships in Mineral County. In Gates’s mind, dating a white girl was making a political statement, albeit a vague one. Together, they integrated Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where she worked as a waitress at the Crab Pot.

At Potomac, an English teacher made literature seem more alluring than medicine and encouraged Gates to transfer to an Ivy League school. In 1969, he began his application to Yale: “My grandfather was colored, my father was Negro, and I am black.” He concluded less eloquently but more feistily: “As always, whitey now sits in judgment of me, preparing to cast my fate. It is your decision either to let me blow with the wind as a nonentity or to encourage the development of self. Allow me to prove myself.”

“I wince at the rhetoric today,” Gates says. “But they let me in.” And with a full scholarship.