Born in Piedmont, West Virginia in September 1950, Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. recalls the summer of 1965 — in large measure because of the infamous Watts riots that decimated parts of Los Angeles — as “the summer of transformation in my life.” It was, he explains, a time of “learning how to name aspects of what we might call my racial self, you know, my black racialized self to an American racist society.”
In a 1994 interview, Gates recalled that during his youth, “My mother hated white people.” “She never trusted white people,” he elaborated. “She didn’t like white people. She didn’t want to live with white people.” He remembered with particular clarity seeing his mother derive immense satisfaction from watching Malcolm X on television “talking about [how] the white man was the devil and standing up in white people’s faces and telling them off.” “It was great,” said Gates. “I mean, it’s what black people did behind closed doors, but they would never do it [publicly].”
With the assistance of a Ford Foundation Fellowship, Gates went on to earn both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in English literature at Clare College, which was part of the University of Cambridge in England. While there, he worked at Time magazine’s London bureau for six months per year from 1973 to 1975.
In September 1975 Gates enrolled at Yale Law School but withdrew a month later when he was hired as secretary of Yale’s Afro-American Studies department. He was promoted to the posts of Lecturer in 1976 and Assistant Professor in 1979. In 1981 he conducted research as a MacArthur Fellow, and three years later he became an Associate Professor at Yale.
From 1985 to 1989 Gates taught at Cornell University, followed by two years at Duke. In 1991 he joined the faculty of Harvard, where he has remained ever since. He currently serves as a Professor of English and as Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Newsman Michael Kinsley has characterized Gates as “the nation’s most famous black scholar.”
One of Gates’ first acts as a Harvard professor was to hire filmmaker Spike Lee as a guest lecturer at the University. Soon thereafter, in 1993, Gates lured Professor Cornel West away from Princeton University, convincing him to join the Harvard faculty.
Accusing academia of practicing “intellectual racism,” Gates complains that a “tone deafness to the black cultural voice” has led colleges nationwide to expose students disproportionately, and unjustifiably, to the literature of white European authors.
“African-American history,” says Gates, “… is generally taught only in Black History Month, which is February, the coldest, darkest, shortest month. It’s like the month that was left over, they gave to black people. I’m a big advocate of teaching history in our public schools on a multicultural level.”
Lamenting that “[w]e’ve always been at war with racism in this country,” Gates says that “because of white racism,” he must continually endure the indignity of knowing that “[w]hen I walk into a room, people still see my blackness more than my Gates-ness or my literary-ness.”
A proponent of reparations for slavery, Gates has declared that “had each slave got 40 acres and a mule, race relations in America would be completely different” today; that “racism has become fashionable once again”; that “the unwillingness of cab drivers to pick us [African Americans] up” is symptomatic of widespread discrimination against blacks in hiring, money lending, and criminal justice; that television programs routinely stereotype black people as antisocial; that a college curriculum focused on great Western works “represents the return of an order in which my people were subjugated, the voiceless, the invisible, the unrepresented”; and that white people erect innumerable barriers that virtually guarantee black failure, and then point to that failure as evidence of black inferiority.1
In 1996 Gates delivered a speech at the All Souls Church in Washington, DC, where he made the following remarks:
In the same speech, Gates expressed his belief that racial preferences were necessary to counteract the racism that was inherent in the hearts of so many white people:
“Without affirmative action we would have never been able to integrate racist historically white institutions in American society…. [T]he first fundamental question that we have to address is how to protect, preserve, and expand affirmative action…. I was able to go to Yale University because they were trying to diversify themselves…. [B]ecause of racism, I never would have been allowed to compete on a more or less level terrain with white boys and white girls. And for me, for someone who has benefited so much from the opportunities of affirmative action, to stand at the gate and try to keep other black people out would be to be as hypocritical as Clarence Thomas.”
In 1997, Time magazine listed Gates as one of its “25 Most Influential Americans.”
In March 2000—thirteen months after a high-profile police shooting had killed an unarmed black man named Amadou Diallo in New York City, Gates and 21 fellow Harvard professors co-authored a letter that read, in part:
“The problems of racism, conscious and subconscious, must be addressed immediately. We must not ignore the underlying pervasive and lingering rage that an incident like this generates…. This is also a moment for leaders to teach Americans about the continuing power of color in the lives of average people…. We share the somber view of many that had Diallo been a European immigrant in a white neighborhood, he would be alive and unharmed today.”
In 2005, Gates — along with such luminaries as Michael Posner and Eric Foner — served as an advisor] to the International Freedom Center (IFC), which played a leading role in determining how to proceed with the construction of a World Trade Center Memorial at Ground Zero in New York. (Other key players influencing the IFC project included billionaire funder George Soros and ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero.) Instead of a tribute to the victims of terror or the heroes of 9/11, the IFC — which received funding and support from such sources as the Open Society Institute, Human Rights First, and the ACLU — planned “a high-tech, multimedia tutorial about man’s inhumanity to man, from Native American genocide to the lynchings and cross-burnings of the Jim Crow South.” Due to public outrage, New York Governor George Pataki removed the proposed IFC project from plans for the World Trade Center Memorial in September 2005.
Gates reports that he felt unbridled joy on the night Barack Obama was elected President in November 2008. “I was at my friend’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” says Gates. “Everyone kept saying, ‘He’s winning, he’s winning,’ but I wouldn’t let myself celebrate until [TV newsman] Wolf Blitzer said he was President. Then I cheered, and we all cried and drank about another gallon of champagne.”
On the afternoon of July 16, 2009, Gates became involved in a high-profile controversy with racial overtones when a neighbor, mistaking him for someone trying to break into a Cambridge, Massachusetts home, called the police. (Unknown to the caller was the fact that the house in question, whose front door was jammed — thus making it impossible for Gates to open it with his key — was Gates’ own residence.) When a white police sergeant named James Crowley arrived at the scene to investigate, Gates became verbally abusive and accused Crowley of being a racist who was targeting him only “[b]ecause I’m a black man in America.” Ultimately Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct, though the charges were later dropped. For a comprehensive account of what transpired, click here.
After the incident, Gates told the media:
“I would be prepared as a human being to forgive him [Crowley]. That would not deter me from using this as an educational opportunity for America. Because if this can happen to me in Harvard Square, this can happen to anybody in the United states…. What it made me realize was how vulnerable all black men are, how vulnerable all people of color are, and all poor people, to capricious forces like a rogue policeman, and this man clearly was a rogue policeman.”
Between 1987 and 2009, Gates authored at least eleven books and edited five others, mostly on the subject of race. His 1996 book, The Future of the Race, was co-authored with Cornel West. (Gates has co-authored two books with West.) “My most cherished accomplishment is helping to edit the Encyclopaedia Africana,” says Gates. “Every people in the world had an encyclopedia but black people. There’s an Encyclopaedia Judaica, Encyclopaedia Britannica and finally, at the turn of the 21st century, we [blacks] have one as well.”
Gates hosted and co-produced African American Lives (2006) and African American Lives 2 (2008), a pair of television presentations that used DNA testing to trace the lineage of notable black individuals.
In 2012, Gates became the host of a new PBS series titled Finding Your Roots, which uses traditional genealogical research as well as genetics to piece together the family histories of famous Americans. In a hacked Sony email from July 22, 2014, Gates asked Sony USA chief executive officer Michael Lynton for guidance on how to deal with a special request by actor Ben Affleck, who was the subject of one episode of Gates’s program. Wrote Gates: “I need your advice…. One of our guests [Affleck] has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?”
Lynton replied, “… I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky…. [I]t is tricky because it may get out that you made the change and it comes down to editorial integrity.” Gates, in turn, responded: “It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity…. I’ve offered to fly to Detroit, where he is filming, to talk it through. Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”
In the end, the episode — which aired on October 14, 2014 — made no mention of Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor. When news of this censorship became public in April 2015, Gates released a statement that said: “… We are very grateful to all of our guests for allowing us into their personal lives and have told hundreds of stories in this series including many about slave ancestors — never shying away from chapters of a family’s past that might be unpleasant. Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program. In the case of Mr. Affleck — we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry — including a Revolutionary War ancestor, a 3rd great-grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother, who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.”2
Today Gates chairs the North Carolina-based Fletcher Foundation. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and he sits on the boards of such institutions as the New York Public Library, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.
Gates has close relationships with sociologist William Julius Wilson, who supports the Democratic Socialists of America, and with attorney Charles Ogletree, who was once a hard-core radical with roots in the Black Panther movement.
1 The quotes and assertions attributed to Gates in this paragraph were cited by Dinesh D’Souza in his book The End of Racism (New York: The Free Press, 1995).
2 On June 25, 2015, The New York Times reported the following: “PBS said that an investigation into the controversy showed that Mr. Affleck had exerted ‘improper influence’ over the editorial process and that the producers of the show, Mr. Gates included, had erred by not informing the network of the actor’s ‘efforts to affect program content.’ PBS said it would postpone the third season of the show until a fact-checker was hired and an ‘independent genealogist’ was added to the show’s staff. PBS also will not show Mr. Affleck’s episode anymore and removed it from its online archive.”