Dr. Gates gets honest about Abe
Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. was born in Piedmont, W.Va., on Sept. 16, 1950, to Henry Sr. and Pauline Coleman. Today, he is a world-renowned scholar and educator, and the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University.
In his capacity as a public intellectual, Gates has served as host of “African American Lives,” a PBS series that employs a combination of genealogy and science to reconstruct the family trees of the descendants of slaves. And just last year, he co-founded “The Root,” a Web site dedicated to the concerns of the black intelligentsia.
In conjunction with the celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, Gates recently took a few moments to discuss with the Banner two new projects revolving around the 16th president of the United States — his new book, “Lincoln on Race and Slavery,” and his new PBS special, “Looking for Lincoln,” both of which were released earlier this month.
What approach did you take in terms of producing your new PBS series on Lincoln?
Lincoln’s myth is so capacious that each generation of Americans has been able to find its own image reflected in the mirror of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is our “Man for All Seasons.” There’s a Communist Lincoln, a Republican Lincoln, Lincoln the writer, Lincoln the orator, Lincoln the atheist, Lincoln the Christian, Lincoln the war criminal, Lincoln the savior of the Union, the Confederate Lincoln, the African American Lincoln, etc.
So I wanted to look at all these myths about Lincoln, deconstruct them and see what the actual man was like.
And frankly, I also wanted to confront the complexity of his attitudes towards slavery and racial equality, which weren’t exactly the same thing. For, while he was fundamentally opposed to slavery, it took him a while to embrace racial equality.
Did you enjoy doing research for the series?
It was a delight! (chuckles) Doing this film was a learning experience for me because I hadn’t explored much of the Lincoln scholarship other than George Fredrickson’s last book [“Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race”]. I went back to read Lincoln’s own words and what historians had to say about him.
What did you learn?
That he was an enormously complex man. … That he had his flaws, but he changed. He progressed. He changed during the Civil War. Through the efforts of Frederick Douglass and the achievements of the 200,000 black men who fought in the Union Army, he came to have new respect for black people.
And, in fact, in his last speech, he advocated the right to vote for the black veterans and for the “very intelligent Negroes.” That’s what made John Wilkes Booth kill him. Booth was in the audience, and said, “That’s it. That means [n-word] citizenship. And I’m going to run him through.” So Lincoln literally gave his life for espousing black rights.
On the show, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says, “It’s not Lincoln’s fault that he was mythologized. Lincoln had to live in his times.” You responded by saying, “Doris was right” and “I’ve come to admire him.” How did you get to that point?
I really got to that point in the middle of that interview. I had been walking around upset with Lincoln’s reluctance to support equal rights and his determination to free the slaves but to encourage them to migrate to Panama, Haiti or Liberia. Doris said, “You’re upset because you feel like you’ve been lied to. But Lincoln didn’t lie to you. The historians did.”
There’s a cult of Lincoln among some historians who feel almost like they’re the Disciples of Christ. Lincoln is like a secular Christ in America. So once I could get straight about who to be upset with, I was fine.
You also spoke about Lincoln’s being the seminal story in American history. Do you really think that Lincoln has replaced the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the rest of the colonial period?
Oh, sure, absolutely. The primal event in American history, other than the founding itself, is the Civil War, saving the Union, defending the Constitution and redefining the Declaration of Independence to include all men, which Lincoln did. Lincoln was very consistent about that. So whereas you can’t have subsequent events without the founding, it really was the Civil War which was the truly great American Revolution.
Talk a little about your new book, “Lincoln on Race and Slavery.”
In this book, I examine three strands of thought. Imagine a braid of hair. Most of just us say, “Lincoln freed the slaves, therefore he liked black people.” That’s the braid, but it turns out the braid has three strands. One strand is how he felt about slavery; another is how he felt about racial equality; and the third is colonization. We find contradictory impulses in Lincoln at least through 1863, when he finally begins to do the right thing, and all three strands are reconnected into a new braid.
What do you think about our new president?
I think Barack Obama is going to be one of the best presidents in the history of this republic.
Is there a question you’ve never been asked, that you wish someone would?
(chuckles) I’ve pretty much been asked everything. … Here’s one: Why do I do what I do?
Why do you do what you do?
Because I love black people, and my goal is to restore black history from the grand scale, the broad sweep of history, down to the level of each black person’s family tree.
Speaking of family trees, will there be a third season of “African American Lives”?
My next series is called “Faces of America,” where I’ll be tracing the roots of two Jewish Americans, two Arab Americans, two Latino Americans, two Asian Americans, two West Indian Americans, two Irish Americans and an Italian American. So we’ll be employing the same genetics and genealogy format, but for the broader American public. I’m very excited about it.
Why did you stay at Harvard during the great exodus of so many other African American professors after they were mistreated by then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who is now in the Obama administration?
I stayed to defend what I, Cornel West, Anthony Appiah, former Harvard President Neil Rudenstine and our other colleagues had all built. I felt that it would be vulnerable if I left. That’s why I stayed, and it was the right decision.
What advice do you have for young black kid who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Overall, by staying in school. Deferring gratification and believing in the power of education is the way that we can help ourselves as a people.
How do you want to be remembered?
As a man who loved black people and who fought to preserve their great cultural traditions.