Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Head Negro In Charge

For all its power and prestige, Harvard had been no more successful than any other university in making black studies work. Occasionally there had been good people in Harvard’s Afro-American studies department and its research arm, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, but because of the program’s political baggage and the difficulty of attracting scholars, it had not succeeded. “I think a lot of people didn’t want to touch it,” says Henry Rosovsky, the former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and former chair of the economics department.

Nevertheless, in 1991, Rosovsky and Harvard president Derek Bok—under considerable pressure from student activists—decided to take one last stab at upgrading black studies. Having chaired the committee that started the department in response to student protests in 1968, Rosovsky was skeptical. But he helped put together a meeting of 10 or 15 people to talk about it, including Peter Gomes, then the acting director of the Du Bois Institute.

“I remember that meeting as the epochal turning point,” says Gomes, who is now a Harvard Divinity School professor and the minister at its Memorial Church. “Many of us were shocked. Harvard is not accustomed to being criticized for inadequacies or craven stupidity. We had tried to make a number of distinguished senior appointments, and none of these people would come because signing on to Afro-American studies at Harvard was like signing on to crew the Titanic. It was a big ship, but it was sinking fast. And who wanted to sacrifice their career even for the glory of a Harvard appointment? Names were floated about, and one name that consistently appeared was that of Henry Louis Gates Jr. He was known to everybody but me.”

Until that point, Gomes, a black, openly gay conservative Republican and Anglophile, was, as he puts it, “the spook who sat at the door” at Harvard. The moment he met Gates, however, he knew those lonely days were over. “All of the formalities dissolved in what I have since called The Gates Treatment,” he says. “I am as subject to flattery as anybody else is, and he had flattered me by saying he had read something of mine. Thirty minutes later, we were the oldest of friends, and I would do everything in my power to make sure that he would come here. I realized that anybody who could do this to me in 30 minutes could do anything. I liked this guy, I trusted him. I saw that he’s not going to be intimidated by this place, but he’s smart enough to know what he needs to know. And he’s fun. I made that decision within the first 10 minutes.”

Gates’s sense of himself as a player on a national, even international, playing field that went far beyond the confines of the university was far better received at Harvard than it had been at Duke. In fact, Harvard had a long tradition into which Gates fit quite snugly. For generations, scores of high-profile professors had used Harvard as a power base. In government, John Kenneth Galbraith, John Thomas Dunlop, Samuel P. Huntington, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Henry Kissinger had put the university and its enormous resources to use as a foundation from which to exercise vast influence. Likewise, Harvard scientists like James D. Watson and Walter Gilbert had used their research at Harvard to give birth to the fields of genetics and the biotech industries, respectively.

No one, however, had done anything comparable in black studies. But in June 1991, Gates, taking the position as chair of the department of Afro-American studies and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, put his skills as an intellectual entrepreneur in overdrive, reaching out to movie stars, entertainers, executives, and media moguls all over the world. For the first time, black intellectuals would have money, power, and glamour.

For Gates’s family, though, the move from North Carolina was not an easy one. “I’d heard enough about Harvard to anticipate the worst, in terms of demands on Skip’s time,” Sharon says. “The kids were young. I wanted a partner, and I didn’t want an absentee spouse—which is what happened.” To make matters worse, the weather was terrible, and the kids were unhappy in school. Gates’s father had joined them and was adapting well to Lexington, where the family lived. But Sharon’s friends were elsewhere, and she was stuck in the suburbs without a job. Walking around the Lexington town common the day they bought their house, Skip and Sharon saw a buckboard with a banner on the side that said, “John Birch Society. Join Now!” They did not.

Nor were their children immune from racism, even in this bastion of enlightened liberalism. On one occasion, Liza, their youngest daughter, heard an older Yankee woman sitting on a park bench, muttering “nigger” under her breath. “I had moved my kids with the best possible intentions to this fucking little suburb, and they have to live like that,” Sharon says.

At Harvard, Gates was busy confronting the legacy of failure around black studies. It was a thorny problem. His predecessors, he figured, had been smart, energetic, and ambitious, so there had to be a reason why they had all failed. After being ambushed at Duke, Gates decided the first thing he needed was a mentor. He went to Henry Rosovsky.

“I knew about raising money for grants,” says Gates, “but I didn’t know anything about running a department. Rosovsky and I talked about everything. He was like an uncle to me. It was like teaching somebody how to drive a car. Here’s a door, open it, get in, here’s the steering wheel. I knew nothing about running a department—how to recruit people, how to negotiate with the dean, how do you persuade people to come. Rosovsky taught me about Harvard, how people work here. One time after we’d talked, I was walking through Harvard Yard, and I thought, This is like a minefield in Cambodia, and I just left the guy who has the map to where the mines are. There is a way of functioning here, a way you’re supposed to be. It’s not like being a robot or a clone or being a pseudo white boy. It is about a kind of decorum, a kind of modus operandi. You have to build consensus. You can’t storm the gates. Just because somebody tells you that there’s a hole in your idea that doesn’t mean that they’re a racist.”

Even before Gates started at Harvard, he had begun consolidating his power base. He had met with all the department chairs and with the senior black faculty. “I told them I needed them,” he says. “I told them I want this to be successful and I need your help and advice. They could see I was sincere.”

Gates exploited his position as a consulting editor for Oxford University Press and other publishing houses. (“I went to all the black guys and told them I could be helpful in their various publications.”) He also brought in his own people, plus Transition magazine, with Henry Finder as managing editor, and The Black Periodical Literature Project. Anthony Appiah moved up from Durham.

Gates’s highest priority was to put together what he called a Dream Team of the greatest black scholars in the world. At the top of his list was Cornel West, the best-selling author, political activist, theologian, philosopher, and commentator on social theory and race relations, who was then a professor of religion and director of Afro-American studies at Princeton. The author of 11 books, including Race Matters, and coauthor, with Gates, of The Future of the Race, West was a media star in his own right. His arrival in 1995 suggested that black studies there had moved out of the academic ghetto and into a much nicer part of town, and his course became one of the most popular at the university.

Gradually, the Dream Team came together. Gates brought in Suzanne Preston Blier, an expert in African art and architecture; Lawrence D. Bobo, a specialist in race relations; and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, an expert in African American women’s history. Then there was James Lorand Matory, a scholar specializing in African and Afro-Latin religions; and literary historian Werner Sollers, who was the sole professor in the department when Gates took over. In 1996, Gates scored another coup, luring away from the University of Chicago William Julius Wilson, an expert on urban poverty whom Time magazine had named among its 25 most influential people. This fall another high-profile intellectual, Lani Guinier, recently recruited to the Law School faculty, will become the first black female tenured law professor at Harvard and is expected to join the board of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute.

Gates claims he is sensitive to the frequently voiced criticism about the shortage of women on the Dream Team, only two of whose nine members are female. “We do not have enough black women,” he concedes. “We’ve made offers that were turned down. We should have more black women here and I hope that we are able to get them. It ain’t for want of trying.”

For Gates, the Dream Team would put the final nails in the coffin of the One Nigger Syndrome. “If anybody is in doubt that the One Nigger Syndrome is over,” he says, “just walk down the corridor: Bill Wilson, Cornel West, Evelyn Higginbotham, Anthony Appiah—there is room for everybody.” Sitting at the head of this Round Table, of course, is Skip Gates.