Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard professor in the humanities and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African American Research, shared his views on U.S. economic policy, affirmative action, and Barack Obama’s presidential bid with a Mandel Hall audience last Thursday in the annual George E. Kent Lecture.
Hosted by the Organization of Black Students, the talk was moderated by political science Professor Michael Dawson and explored the role of black identity in the context of globalization.
Gates began by embracing diversity within the black community. “There are 35 million black people. That means there are 35 million ways to be black,” he said. “We don’t need a high priest of blackness telling us how to be black.”
“Homophobia was rampant in the Black Power movement,” Gates said. “The only person that came out was [black Civil Rights–era writer] James Baldwin, and he was called Martin Luther Queen. I think we’re more mature as a people because of pressure from the feminist movement, and then from the gay community.”
Dawson echoed Gates’s sentiments. “When we were in college, there was only one way to be black,” Dawson said. He advocated the need to “reclaim our blackness and accept that there are multiple ways of being black.”
Gates also underscored the connection between racial intolerance and recent criticism of Barack Obama. “If you don’t like Barack’s politics, say you don’t like his politics,” he said. “Don’t tell him he’s not black enough.”
In response to an audience member’s question on his predictions for Obama’s presidential campaign, Gates said he thought the Illinois senator’s prospects were favorable.
“Yes, I think that he could win. I think the country is ready, it’s ready for Barack Obama,” he said. “There’s something about his personality that makes him electable, but it’s not because he’s interracial.”
When asked by another audience member how society can best help disadvantaged young people within the black community, Gates emphasized the need for both federal economic reform and personal responsibility.
He attributed his own success as an academic to his undergraduate years at Yale and to the affirmative action policies that enabled him to receive a premier education.
“No one in the American academy has benefited more from affirmative action than me,” he said. “I don’t see how any self-respecting black person in this country can stand against affirmative action.”
Gates also stressed individual agency in addition to state reform as a key factor in improving economic conditions for blacks. “Your first responsibility, if you’re a student at the University of Chicago, is to get As,” he said, prompting laughter from the students in the audience.
“We have to attack structure and agency simultaneously,” Gates said.
The lecture also included video clips from Gates’ recent film project, Finding Oprah’s Roots, a one-hour documentary tracing the genealogical and genetic history of Oprah Winfrey.
However, Gates emphasized that the roots of identity do not lie in public records, genetics, or the ivory tower. “Identity starts at home. It starts in your kitchen and your living room,” he said.
The Kent lectures were launched in the late 1960s by Univeristy of Chicago Professor George E. Kent. Past keynote speakers have included Cornel West, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Angela Davis, and Gwendolyn Brooks.