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Viewpoint: Gates and Jive Talkin' 101 at Harvard

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Boston Herald on April 23.

What's going on at Boston Magazine, in the national media, and at Harvard with Mr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. must concern everyone who has serious interest in the integrity of African-American scholarship. The recent Boston Magazine article, "Head Negro In Charge: Why Harvard's Skip Gates May Be the Most Important Black Man in America" (April 1998), reveals distressing issues beyond its title.

The title of Boston Magazine's article, "Head Negro In Charge," is actually superb, but the subtitle declaring Mr. Gates to be possibly "the most important black man in America" is foolishness. Yet, the article itself--notwithstanding its errors of fact, stereotypes and fantasies--is insightful (but disturbing) in its portrayal of Mr. Gates. I am reminded of the Trinity--the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost--where the true believer is discouraged from distinguishing one from the others--the title from the subtitle from the article.

The title may have emerged from Mr. Gates himself, who has been cited within the Cambridge academic community for using this phrase, among both blacks and whites. Having lifted the title from him, Boston Magazine perhaps has been both too pleased with its own increased visibility and too contrite by its decision to apologize.

Curiously, Mr. Gates has experience in devising appropriately self-referential titles, as with his earlier work of literary criticism, The Signifying Monkey. What is most striking to me about the Boston Magazine title is how appropriately it, too, is self-referential and perceptively depicts the contents of the article, though aided and abetted by a grossly exaggerated subtitle.

For several years now, major media, including the New Yorker, Newsweek, The Boston Globe (most frequently and most trivially) and the New York Times have been trying to sell the idea of Mr. Gates's importance, with Harvard's complicity and Mr. Gates's own billboard advertising. Never mind that blacks in and out of academia see Colin Powell, Bill Cosby, Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, David Satcher, Tiger Woods, Frank Raines, Arnold Rampersad, John Hope Franklin, and the two Jordans (Michael and Vernon)--to name a few--as more influential by a long shot.

Furthermore, Mr. Gates is careless with the truth, even in small matters, as with his claim to be the first black American to earn a doctorate from Cambridge University. Having earned a Cambridge doctorate in engineering, I was on the MIT faculty while Mr. Gates was still a sophomore at Yale. I have informed Mr. Gates of this fact, yet he persists in this claim. The media have been trying to peddle these and other asinine goods such as the head coach of the so-called Harvard Dream Team, not only on the Lower East Side but uptown as well. It won't work--at least, not along this part of the Charles.

Anyone who sees the Boston Magazine article as beneficial to either Mr. Gates or the black community is shortsighted. Mr. Gates's caricatures of black life and culture, punctuated by his constant uses of stereotypical and derogatory language, reinforce the article's title in many of its historical interpretations. The reader is being told that gratuitous profanity is a substitute for critical analysis, that celebrity replaces scholarship, and that name-dropping is preferable to the difficult task of intellectual creativity.

From Mr. Du Bois to Mr. Gates, it appears that Harvard's Afro-American tradition has gone from innovative and cogent analysis to public posturing and Jive Talkin' 101. In the words of the great patriot, and no doubt, Harvard Af-Am icon, Don King, "Only in America."

The article's image of Mr. Gates throughout is that of a modernized and updated Stepin Fetchit--shameless, grinning and bowing, shuffling around the globe, incidentally becoming "an accomplished literary archaeologist." This mocking image comes full force in the article when the author describes Mr. Gates's own childhood fantasy--one which he seems to be constantly evolving in adult life and which I quote with editorial suggestion for effect:

"One of his [Mr. Gates's] favorite Amos and Andy episodes is 'The Punjab of Java Pour,' in which Andy [Mr. Cornel West] dresses up as a turbaned Oriental potentate with Kingfish [Mr. Gates] as his servant, so they can enjoy a vacation [of academic tenure] at a luxury hotel [Harvard University] for free."

Now we have a much clearer understanding of Harvardian Afro-American studies!

This is the stuff of People Magazine and TV Guide, Court TV and Geraldo, but not evidence of substantive scholarship. Harvard knows better. So the question is why? Why is Harvard arbitraging in this spurious currency, trying to unload this counterfeit onto the black community and the world? Why is it hosting media spectacles, featuring the New Yorker's Tina Brown, to anoint a serious academic program? The rock goddess Tina Turner would have been a better choice. She could have mesmerized the crowd with her fille de joie "Private Dancer" and invited Mr. Gates to join her on stage. What meshuggas!

Cut the buffoonery, Skip, and get to work--scholarly work, that is.

Professor Williams is the SEPTE Professor of Engineering and a Charles F. Hopewell Faculty Fellow in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 29, 1998.

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