Harvard professor and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is this year’s Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. He spoke recently with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the growth of African American studies in this country. Gates, who is W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Humanities at Harvard, is the author of twelve books, among them The Signifying Monkey and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man.
Bruce Cole: You’re described as a cultural critic, a literary historian, various labels. If you were sitting next to someone on a plane and they asked you, “What do you do?” what would you say?
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: I would say I’m a literary critic. That’s the first descriptor that comes to mind. After that I would say I was a teacher. Both would be just as important.
I liken the role of the scholar of African American studies today to a Talmudic scholar, someone whose job it is to preserve the tradition, to resurrect the texts and key events of the past and to explicate them. I’ve always thought of myself as both a literary historian and a literary critic, someone who loves archives and someone who is dedicated to resurrecting texts that have dropped out of sight. As it turns out, there are a huge number of those texts. At the beginning of my career I didn’t realize quite how many there were.
Cole: What kind of history were you interested in then?
Gates: I was interested in American political history. My first degree was from Yale, in history, and John Morton Blum was my mentor. I was the scholar of the house. There are twelve scholars of the house at Yale, and I was one of the twelve. If you’re selected for that program, which in my day was very, very competitive and prestigious, you are relieved of all courses for your senior year and you are able to write a book, in my case, or compose a symphony or paint a portrait or create a ballet, whatever it may be.
I was selected to write a book about Jay Rockefeller’s gubernatorial campaign in West Virginia. I’m from West Virginia.
Cole: Yes. I’ve read your memoir.
Gates: I had met Jay Rockefeller when I interviewed to go to Exeter -- which I attended briefly -- and I really liked him. I love Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President. So, in my junior year, working with Blum, I decided that I would submit an application to be the scholar of the house, and my project was called “The Making of a Governor,” and the joke was, “by Theodore H. Black.” The only problem was that Jay didn’t win. So it was the unmaking of a governor.
I learned a lot about writing from John Blum, and I learned a lot about history from John Blum. It was like the laying on of the hands. That same year, my junior year, when I was thinking about this project, I also was writing a guest column for the Yale Daily News. That was our campus daily.
I had taken a year off from Yale in a special program called Five Year B.A. The only stipulation if you were chosen for this project was that you take the year off, that it was not an academic year, hence Five Year B.A.
I went to Tanzania, where I worked at a mission hospital for a year.
Cole: You were supposed to do something not academic?
Gates: Not academic. When I came back, I had to declare a major and I realized that I had taken six history courses and you only need twelve for a major, so I said, “Wow. I’m halfway there.” I decided to be a history major, a subject that I had always loved. On the way back, when I was sailing down the Congo River, I had written to Rockefeller saying, “I think you’re running for governor and maybe you’ll give me a summer job.” I was hitchhiking from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean with a guy who had just graduated from Harvard, who happened to have been a white guy named Lawrence Biddle Weeks, who’s now an Episcopal priest, having been a lawyer. We had run into each other by accident at the dock in Dar es Salaam. He said his fantasy was to go from the Cape to Cairo. Mine was to cross the Equator. We flipped a coin and the Equator won. We went from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean without ever leaving the ground.
Gates: Hitchhiking, yes.
Cole: That must have been quite an adventure.
Gates: It was amazing. It was about two-and-a-half months. I got deathly ill from amoebic dysentery. I must have lost twenty or thirty pounds. They thought I was going to die for a while.
Anyway, I get back finally to Piedmont, West Virginia, and there’s a letter, to my astonishment, from Jay Rockefeller. He’d offered me a job. So I went down and I worked for Jay in Charleston, and then I came back to Yale. My senior year, I wrote a book -- which I never published -- on his first gubernatorial campaign, which is called “The Once and Future King.”
But that’s a long way of saying that I had a very strong preparation in archival work. I remember that John Blum told me, when I finished my project, that I could either be an academic or a journalist. I said, “Well, isn’t there a big difference in the quality? Are you saying that on a good day I’m an academic and on a bad day I’m a journalist?” And he said, “Oh, no, no. I mean the best of journalism.”
Cole: You had been writing for a time.
Gates: Yes. When I came back from Africa, all my friends were seniors and I was a junior. One of my friends was the editor of the Yale Daily News. He asked me to start writing about my experience of living with these missionaries in the bush, way out in the center of Tanzania. So I did. It became a column and I got a lot of attention on campus.
One day John Blum called me out from the podium of this huge class, Politics and Culture in Twentieth Century America. This was a class that everyone took. It was packed. He said, “Is Mr. Gates in the room?”
I said yes. I stood up and he said, “I really enjoyed your essay in today’s student newspaper.” Everyone looked at me like, who’s that guy? I went like, wow, man, you know? But I had to sit down all cool, and go like, “Oh, yeah, it happens to me every day.” Inside I was hooked. I went to him and said, “Would you be my adviser?”
Cole: What happened next?
Gates: Then what happened was I got a Mellon Fellowship to go to the University of Cambridge. I was the first African American to get a Mellon Fellowship, and I called my parents.
Cole: In your memoir, you write about the closeness of your family in Piedmont.
Gates: When I was a kid growing up, my friends wanted to be Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. I wanted to be a Rhodes Scholar. I didn’t know why. I just wanted to go to Harvard or Yale and I wanted to go to Oxford or to Cambridge.
I rushed back to Calvin College at Yale and I called home to Piedmont. My dad answered the phone. My father is one of the funniest people I know. My father makes Redd Foxx looks like an undertaker, right? I said, “Daddy, Daddy, put Mom on the phone.” She got on the extension and he said, “What, boy? What’s wrong?” I said, “I got a Mellon Fellowship. I got a Mellon Fellowship. I’m the first black American to get a Mellon Fellowship.”
And my father said, “A Mellon Fellowship? You’re the first black American?” He said, “Huh, they’re going to call it the Watermelon Fellowship from now on.” So armed with my Mellon Fellowship, I went off to the University of Cambridge, by way of Time magazine. I had written to the head of correspondence at Time magazine and said I was a columnist for the Yale Daily News. I enclosed my resume and a few of my columns. They brought me down to New York and, in two weeks, they gave me a job.
Cole: That is extraordinary.
Gates: The day after commencement at Yale, I jumped on the QE II and sailed to Southampton. All summer I wrote for Time magazine. After I’d been there about a week, I wrote to Anthony Lewis, who was writing his famous column from London, and I said, “Here I am” and “This is who I am” and he took me to the Athenaeum Club, where all the journalists meet. It was one of the great days of my life.
Anyway, I went up to the University of Cambridge and then I fell in love, not with history, but with the study of English literature. There was an African there called Wole Soyinka, who thirteen years later would become the first African to get the Nobel Prize. To me he was just a bushy-haired African who wore dashikis. I didn’t know who he was.
It turns out that he had fled Nigeria, having been imprisoned during the Biafran War for twenty-seven months, twenty-four in solitary confinement. He wrote a prison memoir called The Man Died. After he got out of prison and the book was published, the government was trying to kill him all over again, so he fled to Cambridge. It wasn’t really a pleasant experience because the English department denied him an appointment. They said African literature was, at best, sociology or socio-anthropology, but it was not real literature.
As he writes in the preface to a series of lectures he gave that year at Cambridge called Myth, Literature and the African World, I was his only student. I fell in love with African and African American literature.
Cole: There have been other influences as well.
Gates: I’ve worked with Raymond Williams and with the great George Steiner, and a man called John Holloway. I realized that if I could combine my love for archival work with the theoretical developments that were sneaking their way across the English Channel from France and the continent, that maybe I could make a contribution to both the study of literature in the academy and to a nascent field which was perilously close to dying called Afro-American studies.
Cole: And you had the scholarly training and grounding to work in the theoretical part.
Gates: That’s what I got at Cambridge. I didn’t even know what literary theory was. When I wrote my first essay, my supervisor said it was the worst essay she had ever read, because I didn’t know how to explicate a text. I went to her and I said, “Surely there must be books to teach me this method?” She said, “No, no, you’re born with it. It’s some sort of sensibility that you get through your genes.” Well, being a practical American, I went to the bookstore and I asked for the literary criticism section and I bought it--the whole section. I bought one discrete title of each book, and I went back and I read those books and I ended up doing very well, thank goodness.
Cole: But you saw the light.
Gates: I saw the light and I realized, going back to my Talmudic analogy, that if I could bring to bear these two skills which I was busy trying to learn, then maybe I could make a contribution.
Cole: Obviously, you’ve had inspiring teachers, who have led you in certain directions and have given you great training and the like. Let me ask you about yourself as a teacher. What do you teach and what do you find the relation is between teaching and your criticism and your scholarship?
Gates: I mentioned John Morton Blum, who more than anyone else is responsible for my even entertaining the idea remotely that I could be a writer, and my debt to him will never adequately be repaid. He’s a person I love.
Most of my mentors have been white people, outside of my mother and father, because I grew up in an Irish-Italian town, a paper mill town, and there just weren’t any black teachers. I had one black teacher in twelve years and she was the typing teacher. She was a very nice person, but typing wasn’t going to be my life. My great inspirations were people who happened not to be black, that is, happened not to look like me but people with whom I shared a certain sensibility. So it has never ever occurred to me that to be a mentor one must look like one’s subject or share the same religion. One must just share a similar sensibility and, fortunately, that’s not defined by ethnicity or gender or sexual preference or religion or any of those other things.
Gates: It’s a magical relationship that just happens. Along with John Blum, William McFeeley, the great historian, was important to me. He taught African American history-the introduction to African American history at Yale-in 1969 and 1970, my sophomore year. There must have been a couple hundred kids in the class and after the end of every lecture, some black militant with a big afro -- and I had a two-foot-high afro, too - would stand up and say, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll ask it nice, but when are we going to get a black person in here?”
McFeeley was unflappable. If somebody said that to me, I would have been ticked off and I would have told them that they misunderstood the nature of learning and blah, blah, blah. But he was very, very patient. He said, “Look. We need to get more people of color into universities such as Yale, but in the meantime, I’m doing the best that I can.” And the man was brilliant. He’d gotten the Pulitzer Prize. He was a great scholar. But it was his patience in the face of political hostility, first, and second, his sheer brilliance.
Cole: That’s been a philosophy you have carried with you to Harvard.
Gates: Our notion of affirmative action is you hire the best person possible, without regard to race or gender, and that’s what we do in the department. Most of our students are white, most of the students in our Ph.D. program are white, and many of our faculty members are white. It can’t be real as a subject if you have to look like the subject to be an expert in the subject.
Cole: Yale in the 1970s was a world unto itself.
Gates: One of the great things about going to Yale was the library. I remember when I first walked in the Sterling Memorial Library, I thought it was the cathedral.
Cole: It is kind of a church, isn’t it?
Gates: Yes. I said, “What’s that? Is that the church?” And they go, “The church? Dummy, that’s the library.” I walked in and saw miles of card catalogs.
Then at the Beinecke Rare Book Library, where eventually I would write my Ph.D. thesis -- with a pencil because pens aren’t allowed in the Beinecke -- I realized that there was a huge archive on African American arts and letters called the James Weldon Johnson Collection. The great photographer, Carl Van Vechten, had been responsible for creating it.
There I found all this material on Bessie Smith. I was always fascinated with the blues, and I wrote a paper for McFeeley on her. He asked to see me and he said, “This is exactly the kind of scholarship, combining archival work with interpretation, that we want to see in this new field.” Remember, at this point, Afro-American studies as a discipline was two months old, three months old.
Gates: And he said, “That’s what we want to see happen.” You know, not just political rants, as was the wont at that time and it continues to be at some places.
Anyway, then later I had two fantastic black professors: Charles Davis, who was the first black master of John C. Calhoun College at Yale, and the first black American to get tenure in the English department. When I came back from Cambridge and dropped out of law school, Cambridge made him my dissertation supervisor. The other was the great historian, who unfortunately has died prematurely, John W. Blassingame, who also received many grants from the NEH.
Cole: It must have been very exciting to be there at that moment.
Gates: Oh, man. When I decided to drop out of law school, I went to see Charles Davis, and Charles’s mother- in-law was best friends with my great aunt, Pansy, who lived in New Jersey. They were part of this bridge club. My Aunt Pansy was married to a dentist and Jean’s father was a doctor and so they were in the same private clubs and that whole black social network. We were very close and they looked upon me as sort of a third son.
Charles said, “Look. I’m so glad you’re dropping out of law school. I’ll give you a job.” He said, “What can you do?” I said, “I can type.”
He said, “Well, I’ll give you a job as a typist.” I was secretary B in Afro-American studies from October 1, 1975 to June 30, 1976, at which time I was promoted to a lecturer convertible, as they say, which means I would become the assistant professor when I got my Ph.D. Davis joked it was the biggest promotion any secretary ever got in the history of Yale.
Cole: That typing class in high school paid off.
Gates: It sure did. Two years of typing, eighty-five words a minute, man. I was pretty good.
Cole: Actually, I remember my typing class. I thought it was one of the most useful classes I had in high school.
Gates: Anyway, Blassingame was the king of archivists. Blassingame believed that historical reality has actually been preserved on a reel and that reel was in a cave somewhere, and if you were a diligent enough historian, if you could cut through the wilderness and climb the mountain, you would find that. The idea that there was any ironic relationship between the observer and the observed, between the historian and the facts, he thought was just post-modern nonsense. He said those were the excuses bad historians have made.
Cole: A true positivist, right?
Gates: Total, totally positivistic. Then there was I, who saw myself as being part of a generation bringing continental theory from Europe not only to America, but to Afro-American studies.
Gates: We became best friends. He was a tremendous inspiration to me. When I finally authenticated the identity of Harriet Wilson, I conferred with Blassingame every day. Every day, Blassingame and I met, along with a few other scholars on Afro-American studies and other departments, at Naples Pizza Shop and had breakfast, which is right next to Afro-Am at Yale. I would say, “This is what I found yesterday.” And he would say, okay, do this, do this, do this, you know? He taught me so much.
Cole: Kind of a restaurant seminar.
Gates: Yes, you got it. From Wole Soyinka and George Steiner, to John Blum and John Blassingame, you can see that I’ve been blessed with a rainbow coalition of mentors.
Cole: Absolutely. Inspiring teachers.
Gates: Inspiring teachers. That leads me to your question about teaching. Because I’m a department chair, I teach two courses a year, which is the standard load here at Harvard.
I teach one graduate course each year and one undergraduate course. And I rotate a series of courses. I teach a course on the Harlem Renaissance, a course on the African American literary tradition, a course on autobiography, a course on the slave narratives, a course on African American women’s literature, a course on African literature, and a course on writing autobiography. I rotate them. But my bread and butter courses are a course on the Harlem Renaissance, a course on African American women’s writing, and a course on the African American literary tradition.
Cole: How does your teaching inform your research and vice versa?
Gates: Blassingame taught me a couple principles. One was that: teach what you write, write what you teach. The second one was: give it as a lecture, do your research, prepare it as a lecture, give it all year, as many times as you can, because then it becomes like second nature to you. You can realize the flaws.
Cole: You keep clarifying it, you have to articulate it.
Gates: Then make it an essay, publish it in a scholarly journal, a juried journal, and then that essay becomes a chapter in the book. That is the law of political economy of essays, I guess you would call it.
Cole: I think that’s true. You know that old adage: Teaching is to research like sin is to confession: without one you don’t have the other.
Gates: That’s good. And it’s true. So for me the challenge has been since I came to Harvard: How do I satisfy that love for the archives, yet become a responsible administrator? When I came, there was only one professor and one student. Now we have sixteen, and I’ve hired all those people, except for the one person who was here. That took a lot of work. One of the reasons I started writing for The New Yorker was that I’m addicted to writing, but I couldn’t really do the kind of archival research that I wanted to do, particularly in the first four or five years that I was here because it was such hard work building the department. I started writing for The New Yorker because I didn’t have to go to the library to do that.
Gates: I would interview people and it was a different kind of writing, though it was very challenging and it was a lot of fun. But I’m particularly pleased with the results of my research on the novel by Hannah Crafts, the finding of this 1850s novel, The Bondwoman's Narrative. It’s like I’ve come full circle from twenty years ago. 1982 is the year that I found and authenticated Harriet Wilson’s book, Our Nig. Now this second long-lost novel will be published. What’s curious about it is that it was a medical emergency that gave me the leisure time to do it. I was at home recuperating. Reading though an auction catalog, I saw this item, I sent a friend to buy it, and then I stayed at home and worked on my computer. It’s amazing.
Cole: I want to diverge a bit. You had said you wanted a chance to talk about the NEH and the role it has played in your life.
Gates: One of the reasons that this is such an honor to be chosen to give the Jefferson Lecture is because of the great tradition in which I fall. It’s remarkable, and I still can’t quite believe it. The NEH has played an amazing role in my career, from early on. I got a couple of chairman’s grants. When I had this crazy idea, in 1979, that Anthony Appiah and I- I was age twenty-nine, he was twenty-six-we could be W.E.B. DuBois’s legatees, and edit the Encyclopedia Africana. Joe Duffy [Former NEH Chairman Joseph D. Duffy] was there when I decided to do a huge research project called The Black Periodical Literature Project. This is an idea suggested by John Blassingame at those breakfasts at Naples Pizza Shop. He was trying to annotate Frederick Douglass’s speeches, and he was using black newspapers. The oldest black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was first published in 1827. There were hundreds and hundreds of these black newspapers and magazines in the nineteenth century.
I needed to get this thing jump-started and Duffy gave me another chairman’s grant. Every two or three years, I would get another grant. It was through that that we were able to restore thousands, literally thousands, of black authors to the canon of American and African American literature. It was through the good graces of the NEH. Then there are all kind of other things that I did, you know, either as an adviser or a co-principal with the National Endowment. And I’ve always found the process fair, no matter who the president of the United States was. One of the most exciting days of my life was the invitation from Lynne Cheney [former NEH Chairman Lynne V. Cheney] to come down and lecture. We did an interview that was in the Humanities magazine, and we agreed to disagree and had lots of laughs about our different political stances.
Cole: You actually found a lot of agreement?
Gates: Yes, we found a lot of agreement, much to the chagrin of certain sectors of my profession. But I don’t think that ideology should be part of the deliberations for hiring a professor --
Cole: I agree.
Gates: -- or awarding a grant, and I thought that that was important and I think the NEH has an admirable record, in terms of walking that very fine line.
Cole: That’s very gratifying to hear. I think the review process at the NEH is the jewel in the crown here.
Gates: The staff was very supportive. One of the things that I learned early on was so many scholars will sit and fantasize in a vacuum, and they’ll write these five-hundred-page proposals, which nobody is ever going to fund. This way I can call and I can say, “This is what I want to do,” and they will say, “Well, you know, we don’t really have a program for getting black people to the moon; but we do have a program for this.” Doug Arnold, for example, with our Civil Rights Summer Institute, has been particularly good over the years in terms of answering my phone calls and saying, “Well, we can’t do that, but we can do this” and “How about this?” and “Why don’t you think about that?” Having a staff that not only possesses the strongest administrative skills but also strong academic skills is all too rare. I must have dealt with five hundred foundations in my career and there’s nothing like the National Endowment. It makes it even better for me to be honored in this way, because I wouldn’t be here without the National Endowment.
Cole: That’s wonderful to hear. One of the reasons I wanted this job is to be able to work with this staff, which is highly professional and dedicated and learned in many areas. It’s very gratifying to hear you say that.
Gates: It’s just the truth. If you made a list, you would find that the institutionalization of Afro-American studies has been enabled to a degree larger than any foundation by the NEH.
If you look at the great papers projects, twenty years ago there were no collected papers of African American scholars or thinkers or public figures or writers. None. Zero. Nada. Today, the Marcus Garvey papers, the Frederick Douglass papers, Martin Luther King papers, the black abolitionist papers, the Freedman’s Bureau papers, all of those were supported by NEH.
Cole: I agree. The publication of these papers is one of the most important things we do, and our funds, with the help of terrific scholars, make that possible. We’re very, very proud of those papers.
Gates: I am, too, and I happen to own all of them as well. Again, going back to mentorship, Blassingame’s role in the creation of the Frederick Douglass papers, and the coalition that he put together with the heads of each of those other papers projects, was very influential in shaping my understanding of the agenda for Afro-American studies as we sought to move it from a feel-good politically based, ethnic cheerleading orientation to a real academic discipline. You can’t do that without archives. You can’t do that without the organizational work.
Cole: That’s all from your archival training and your historical training and the like. And then your approach to theory through that historically grounded part of your education.
Gates: Absolutely. When I came back from England, there were very real worries that Afro-American studies -- because of its origins as an appeasement for political demands, by and large, throughout the academy -- would not survive. Many cynical administrators set it up so it wouldn’t survive. But because of people like Davis and Blassingame and others throughout the country, it has survived and now it’s in its golden age, really. It’s quite exciting to be a scholar in this field.
Cole: You’ve got to take credit for some of that yourself.
Gates: Well, I could never do that. But the thing I’m proudest of is that for us Afro-Americans, it is not only making a contribution to African American studies. All of us have joint appointments. We are transforming the traditional disciplines as well. The notion of what constitutes the canon of American literature is fundamentally different now because of the growth of Afro-American studies or the growth of women’s studies.
As you know, I am very conservative when it comes to values. I believe that not all texts are created equal, that a person who can’t tell the difference between pulp fiction and James Joyce shouldn’t really be teaching literature. There’s a big difference between popular African American literature and Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison deserves the Nobel Prize because she’s a formal genius. She redefines the way the language of the novel itself unfolds, its very possibilities. Other people tell a good riveting story, which is good to read at the beach. If a scholar can’t tell the difference, explain the difference, teach the difference to a student, then that person, to me, is not doing their job.
Far too often in the culture wars, we threw the baby out with the bath, and that’s not something that we do in our department and not something that our students are allowed to do.
Cole: Let me talk a little bit about something that you just touched on, and that’s aesthetics and art. I’m particularly interested in that because I am an art historian. Sometimes I think that art historians take the art out of art history. Is that a danger in literature, too?
Gates: When I went to Cambridge, my first choice was to read, as they say, the history of art. I’ve always been interested in art.
Gates: Yes, I live in a mini art gallery. I collect African and African American art. I would venture to say we have the only department of Afro-American studies that has not one, but two art historians as professors. It also overlaps with my own personal interests. I happen to be a former member of the board of the Museum of Fine Arts, I’m on the board of the Whitney, and I’ve been on the board of other museums, as well. I love art as both a scholar and as a collector.
So I’m very interested in the discourse of art history, and many of my friends are art historians. My rule is that if someone outside of my discipline writes an essay that I think that I could have written, there’s something wrong with that essay, by which I mean not in terms of the insight --
Cole: I understand that, yes.
Gates: -- but in terms of the whole tools of the trade. What I’ve found in a lot of art history was that people -- as a reaction to formalism or formalist criticism -- became so contextual that they forgot all about the text, that they weren’t talking about what made the art work as art. This was particularly true in African American art scholarship. Let’s say if you were writing about, as I have done, Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. Well, I can write an essay on the history of migration. I don’t need an art historian to tell me that. I need to know what produces this peculiar effect? Why is this a classic work? How does this redefine the ways that we see, the ways that we represent, on the one hand, black workers or migrants or subjects from the 1930s, on the other hand, why this particular use of color and shape? What did Lawrence do for his peers by representing the human form and the human experience in these particular colors and shapes? Did that change the way subsequent painters could represent human experience and human form? If not, then what good is it, because if you can reduce a work of art to an essay, then I don’t think that that work of art is successful.
Cole: I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that’s terrific. You’ve got two big projects -- the African art database and the project on photo archives. How are they going?
Gates: I want to talk about the archive just briefly. When I came to Harvard, I said to President [Neil] Rudenstine and Dean Jeremy Knowles-if we want this to be a major center for African American studies, we need an archive. And by a major center I meant comparable to Yale. Yale was the mark.
It just objectively, I think, had the best Afro-American studies program in the country, certainly under Charles Davis and John Blassingame in the seventies and eighties. They had the James Weldon Johnson collection, the Big Bertha of all archives for black studies.
Cole: It was a large challenge for you to meet.
Gates: We’re Johnny-come-latelies here. There were no archives for black people, virtually, in 1991 at Harvard. So Rudenstine said, “Well, what do you have in mind?”
And I said, “Well, there’s this huge archive in Houston, Texas, called The Image of the Black in Western Art.Cole: That was the de Menil --
Gates: Yes, Madam Dominique de Menil was looking for a home and the museum director, a very able director, Karen Dalton, happened to be marrying a prominent Boston architect. This was like dynamite. We negotiated and they made me go out and raise an endowment of, I don’t know, three million dollars, and I was able to do that with a lot of help from people here at Harvard. We moved that archive here, and we have twenty-six thousand images of black people in high western art, from the ancient Greeks to yesterday. That’s amazing.
Cole: You’ve already done four volumes?
Gates: Yes. They did four volumes and then four more volumes will be published from the archive here at Harvard.
This was of crucial importance. It’s the magnet effect: once you start with one archive, then you get others.
Gates: Now we have the papers of Wole Soyinka, the papers of Albert Murray, the papers of Chinua Achebe, the papers of John Wideman, and, most recently, we purchased the papers of Shirley Graham DuBois, W.E.B. DuBois’s second wife. If I could, I would buy the papers of W.E.B. DuBois, but they’re already gone.
Cole: So you are establishing an archival base that is visual, documentary, and literary.
Gates: Yes. For us in the humanities, history and literature are the twin pillars of Afro-American studies. In the arts, it is visual art and music that are the twin pillars.
Cole: It’s been fascinating having this conversation with you. Thank you so much.