Henry Louis Gates Jr., fierce and gentle, balances the contradictions

May 29, 1994|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times

When Henry Louis Gates Jr. applied to Yale in his springtime of militancy in 1969, he began his personal essay: "My grandfather was colored, my father was Negro, and I am black." Now, in a preface to "Colored People: A Memoir," his affecting, beautifully written and morally complex memoir, Dr. Gates addresses his two daughters:

"In your lifetimes, I suspect, you will go from being African Americans, to 'people of color,' to being, once again, 'colored people.' (The linguistic trend toward condensation is strong.) I don't mind any of the names myself. But I have to confess that I like 'colored' best, maybe because when I hear the word, I hear it in my mother's voice and in the sepia tones of my childhood."

Dr. Gates, a social and cultural historian who is chairman of Harvard's department of Afro-American studies, is not choosing politico-linguistic sides but he is making a point. It is a singularly open point; throughout his book Dr. Gates scatters the different racial terms with only seeming casualness.

The author, along with such writers as Stephen Carter and Cornel West, belongs to a current in African-American thinking that might be called "the new openness."

It does not fall along older left-right lines; it tends to strike a shifting center as it considers the ways in which quotas, government redress of economic imbalances, racially based politics and the like help and harm the advancement of African-Americans.

It is no bland center, but an explosive one, based not on denying the contradictions but on bringing them into difficult dialogue. The civil rights and black power movements have accomplished great things, the thought goes; but while enlarging one part of black reality, they have -- as revolutions tend to do -- denied or constricted another part.

In "Colored People," Dr. Gates uses not abstract arguments but a colorful account of his childhood to explore and consider the contradictions. Instead of trying to square the circle, he has done what circles are best suited to: put a circus in it. It is a circus of memory, by turns entrancing and instructive, and mustering at times an anger that any militant would envy.

He starts, as I mentioned, with his daughters. When they visited the zoo in Washington, he nodded to another black man. "Why?" one daughter wanted to know. And he begins his circus overture.

Why should he feel linked to another person because he shares his color? "Thirty million Americans are black, and thirty million is a lot of people."

He resents having his views tactfully canvassed when a Mike Tyson misbehaves. But he cannot squelch his joy in a Jessye Norman, a Toni Morrison, a Nelson Mandela and a Joe Louis who, asked what he would have done if Max Schmeling had failed to go down for the knockout punch, replied: "I'da run around behind him to see what was holdin' him up."

Dr. Gates writes: "I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time -- but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color." And he can admire those who say they've transcended any particular group attachment -- "but I always want to run around behind them to see what holds them up." And he has "stopped trying to tell other Negroes how to be black." And so:

"I am not Everynegro." He cannot tell the story of urban blacks in the '80s and '90s. He was brought up in a strong family in a West Virginia mountain town in the '50s and '60s.

It was a place rigorously though peacefully segregated and then gradually and not violently integrated. Dr. Gates will tell his story: privileged in some ways, hard and combative in others.

Piedmont was one of three little towns linked by the paper mill that gave them jobs. Shabby enough, except for a handful of mansions, it had a glorious outdoors of mountains, woods and streams. A quarter of its population was black; the rest was mostly Italian or Irish.

Each group had its own neighborhood; downtown, there seemed to be mingling but on limited terms. Blacks could patronize the luncheonette but only for takeout. They could not own property, and so they rented their homes. At the mill, they were loaders; the craft unions excluded them.

All these things changed gradually as Dr. Gates grew up. The first and most important change in Piedmont took place the year before he entered school: It was desegregated.

This meant that at one point his two best friends belonged respectively to the groups "whose names ended with 'O' (Italians) and those whose names began with 'O' "(Irish). It meant that with his first aptitude test, scoring 487 out of 500, he became one of the school's princes -- eventually its valedictorian -- and that he was thrown into close friendship, which suffered strains and distance as the years passed, with the school's brightest -- white -- girl. It meant that the same society that discriminated against him was also a source of support and encouragement.

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