Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Head Negro In Charge

At Clare College, Gates began collecting the best minds of his time, albeit for a purpose he had yet to conceive. He was homesick at first, and desperate for any sign of familiarity. Everyone he spoke with kept asking if he’d met a young man named Anthony Appiah. “You figure when white people do that they’re talking about a black person but are too polite to say it,” Gates says. “I’m thinking, motherfucker must be black, right?”

After hooking up with Kwame Anthony Appiah (his full name), Gates was introduced to Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian who was then teaching at Cambridge. The three men formed an unusual trio. Very much the elegant aristocrat, Appiah, then just 18, was the son of Joe Appiah, a prominent Ghanaian lawyer and politician, and the nephew of the King of the Asante, Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II; on his mother’s side, he was the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps, former chancellor of the British Labour Party. Soyinka, 16 years Gates’s senior, was a playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist from the Yoruba region of Nigeria who would later become known in the West as the Shakespeare of Africa. Rounding out the trio was Skip Gates, a poor young student from Appalachia. Meeting Appiah, Gates says, “It was love at first sight. He is the smartest human being I have ever met.” He was also someone Gates constantly tried to emulate, by wearing little silk neck scarves, as Appiah did, by growing his hair like his. “He was everything I wanted to be. He was pure reason, but very sensual. He loved life. He loved to eat. He loved wine. He loved drama and art. And he seemed to respond to me and to Sharon.”

Adds Sharon: “Skip was taken with Anthony’s aristocratic lineage. He seemed like a prince to us.”

Appiah was a frequent dinner guest at Adams and Gates’s off-campus digs, where after a night of good food, wine, and talk, Appiah invariably ended up sleeping on the sofa by the coal stove. “Skip was sort of an evangelist for African American causes about which I knew nothing,” says Appiah. “He seemed worldly to me. He had a big Afro, and a big white felt hat, the kind you saw in blaxploitation movies. And as a stringer for Time, he was going to Paris to see James Baldwin and Josephine Baker, and Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. After I met Skip, I began to learn to think about race in western culture.”

But there was just one issue in their friendship that created a bit of awkwardness. “I’m sure I was as homophobic as anybody, I’m embarrassed to say,” Gates says. “Being American—blunt and unsubtle—I had to figure out how to deal with it.”

So on a dark, wet, and gray English fall day, Gates asked Appiah to go for a walk. “I just blurted out that I had the feeling he was gay,” says Gates. “I said I had never had a gay friend before, and probably had fears and phobias surrounding people who are gay. But I loved him very much, and I’d never had a brother I was really close to, and I didn’t want my awkwardness about it, or my own fears or doubts, to interfere with our friendship, and I would do my best to accommodate his lifestyle and overcome my own limitations. That’s what I remember saying, or I hope I said. It was very emotional, and I didn’t know if he’d ever talk to me. We had to deal with it. I was so nervous, and he was very sweet about it.”

Gates’s relationship with the older Soyinka was more that of a protege and a mentor. Before meeting Soyinka, Gates, hoping to impress him, had frantically boned up on African philosophy and literature by reading a book by Jahn Heinz Jahn called Muntu, which tried, in Gates’s estimation, to reduce 2,000 African cultures to five recurring principles.

“This was supposedly the thing that gave Africans culture and unity,” says Gates. “Totally wrongheaded. It was crap.” But it was in vogue at the time, and Gates memorized the five principles before walking over to meet with Soyinka. They talked about this and that. “Finally,” Gates recalls, “he looks at me, and he kind of looks at my Afro, and says, ‘Well it’s obvious you don’t know too much about African literature, but at least you didn’t give me any of that Muntu bullshit!’ I go, ‘Muntu? Never heard of it.'”

Some time later, Gates went to visit Soyinka and found a note on his door: “Unavailable. Come back in a week.” During that period, Soyinka was holed up day and night writing the play Death and the King’s Horseman, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1986. “It’s one of the truly great plays in the English language, certainly in the 20th century and, I think, of all time.”

In 1975, Skip and Sharon returned to New Haven, and Gates, then 25, enrolled in Yale Law School. He’d had many battles with the English department in Cambridge about African and African American literature, and was so demoralized that he was ready to abandon the doctoral dissertation he had started there.

But a week into law school, Gates realized his mistake. He sought the advice of Charles T. Davis, the chairman of Yale’s Afro-American studies program, who agreed to oversee his Cambridge dissertation and put him back on track as a scholar. “Now I knew what I was doing,” Gates says. “Charles had vision. He told me I should be an academic, that I should stick with it, that one day I would be chair of Afro-American studies at Yale.”

Consciously or not, Gates was preparing to take up the weighty legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois. As an undergraduate at Yale, he had read the celebrated essay in which Du Bois, the dominant black intellectual of his time, argued that social change would come through developing a small, elite cadre of college-educated blacks that he called “The Talented Tenth.” The notion was irresistible to Gates, who was already becoming the leader of an informal coterie of elite black intellectuals. He still boasted a strong relationship with Wole Soyinka from his Cambridge days, and Anthony Appiah was joining him to teach at Yale. He was growing close to Charles Davis and Davis’s Yalie son, Anthony, who was on his way to becoming a well-known jazz musician. The elder Davis regarded Gates almost as a son, and frequently referred to him as “the heir apparent.”

All of which made Du Bois’s dream seem tantalizingly attainable. “I loved Yale,” Gates says. “I loved everything about it. I wanted to commit my life to building Afro-American studies at Yale.”

But Gates’s dream was far more ambitious than just becoming another department head. A lot had gone wrong in the early years of Afro-American studies. Heavily politicized, black studies had been a failure virtually everywhere. Given its origins, no one in the field had even bothered to study the history of disciplines and how they were institutionalized in the academy. Gates vowed to change that. “Imagine you were in a field that had been created by students occupying the library and the president’s office,” he once told the New York Times. “Chemistry wasn’t created that way. English wasn’t.” But black studies was, even at great universities like Harvard and Yale.

Like Du Bois, Gates was unabashed in admitting his desire to play on the world stage, to influence the course of events not only in his own time but for generations to come. He wanted to do nothing less than to reclaim black history and literature, to build the greatest center of African and Afro-American studies, to create an institution that would endure.

In 1979, he became an assistant professor at Yale with a joint appointment in the English department and Afro-American studies. The first black American to receive a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, Gates had other options, but if he followed this path with Charles Davis as his mentor, he reasoned, not only would he get tenure, but he would eventually run the program.

Even at that early age, Gates possessed more than his share of charisma. Indeed, he was a master of seduction, capable of charming even his wife’s avowedly racist father. Gates was comfortable in the white world and, equally important, he made white people comfortable in his. At a time when black militants still dominated the scene, Gates carried no such baggage. Having a natural affinity for literature and history, as opposed to politics and public policy, he avoided some of the more debilitating confrontations of the era. Now he turned his disarming charm and political acuity to the petty, brutal world of academic politics.

Meanwhile, in 1979, he and Sharon, then an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, married at his brother Rocky’s house in New Jersey. After living together for seven years, they viewed the actual wedding as only a formality. Still, it was important. “My father could never say, ‘I’m a racist and I hate Skip,'” Sharon says. “But he could say, ‘I’m a Baptist and you’re living in sin, so I hate you both.'” After turning that corner, Sharon gave birth to Maggie, their first daughter, in July 1980, and Liza was born 18 months later.

That same year, as part of the Black Periodical Literature Project, Gates and Charles Davis began collecting and annotating African American periodicals from 1827 to 1940. But in March 1981, before their dream could be realized, Davis died of cancer.

It was a bittersweet experience when, just two months later, Gates was chosen to be among the first winners of the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called genius awards, grants then worth $164,000 paid out over five years. At last, the financially strapped couple had some breathing room. To celebrate, Gates ran out and bought a coveted collection of videos from the old Amos and Andy TV series.

The purchase typified Gates’s sensibility. On one hand, he can be a rigorous scholar, a literary archaeologist unearthing an arcane, lost history. On the other, he delights in popular culture, even politically incorrect artifacts that have long been in disfavor. One of his favorite Amos and Andy episodes is “The Punjab of Java Pour,” in which Andy dresses up as a turbaned Oriental potentate with Kingfish as his servant, so they can enjoy a vacation at a luxury hotel for free.

When he was growing up in Piedmont, Gates says, “everybody loved Amos and Andy. I don’t care what people say.” Their world, he adds, was “all colored, just like ours.” Except, he noted, that it had colored judges, doctors, and lawyers, who, of course, didn’t exist in Piedmont. Gates saw a radical subtext beneath the minstrel show.

As a scholar, though, he was into more serious things. He devoted himself to carrying out Davis’s deathbed wish that he see the Black Periodical Literature Project through to its completion. While browsing in a Manhattan bookshop in 1981, Gates discovered a tattered edition of Our Nig, the first novel by a black person in the United States, written in 1859 by a free black woman named Harriet E. Wilson. Other discoveries of lost black texts followed, and People magazine ran a story about the young Yale professor’s finds, picturing him with his white wife and two daughters. Hate mail followed.

The main downside of such high visibility, however, was that some colleagues saw Gates as a flashy careerist at a university where a more understated demeanor was valued. That represented a real problem, especially after the untimely death of his champion, Charles Davis. When Gates came up for tenure in the English department four years later, he lost out to literary critic Robert Stepto. Gates was devastated and resigned immediately, his dream apparently shattered. “My whole intellectual life was dependent upon the expectation that I would get tenure at Yale,” he says. “It was meant to be an insult. I was hurt. I felt like I had let Charles Davis down. I lived and breathed African American studies through him. I gave the eulogy at his funeral. I wept at his grave. I loved Charles. I’d always thought he would live a long time, and we were going to raise our families together. That was the plan. I felt like I’d been hit in the stomach.”

Luckily, Gates had already been offered a full professorship by Cornell, so he, Sharon, and their two daughters packed for Ithaca. Sharon was not happy in New Haven anyway, and wanted to start over.

Appiah remained at Yale a few months until he received tenure. Then he did the unthinkable—quitting on the spot and following Gates to Ithaca. It was a courageous statement. “Without him, I don’t know if I would’ve made it,” Gates says. “We still held out this dream that somewhere, some way we would build a department.”

Gates soon discovered there was no hope, at Cornell, of building the kind of department he wanted. But a new wrinkle had been added: Appiah had a steady boyfriend—Henry Finder, a precocious Yale senior with the looks and manners of an English schoolboy, who would soon need a job and wanted to be an editor. “So here I am, thinking how can I keep the family together,” Gates says.

The solution was the revival of Transition magazine, a hip journal of black culture and politics that had been founded in Uganda in 1961. Wole Soyinka had edited it in the seventies, with Gates as his American editor, until funds ran out. Now Gates brought it back to life, with Soyinka as chairman of the editorial board, Appiah and Gates as editors, and Finder as managing editor. Not only would the journal keep his team together, it became an essential part of Gates’s larger plan. “You have to propagate your ideas,” he says. “You have to invite a multiplicity of voices, Marxists, conservatives, black nationalists, everybody. It’s just that they would all be smart. That would be their common denominator.”