Sunday, June 1, 1997

Q&A Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review 

Applying the Corrective

We need something we don't yet have: a way of speaking about black poverty that doesn't falsify the reality of black advancement; a way of speaking about black advancement that doesn't distort the enduring realties of black poverty. I'd venture that a lot depends on whether we get it.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West, "The Future of the Race"

HB: There's a strong sense in your memoir, "Colored People," about growing up in Piedmont West Virginia, of how much black people lost in the process of integration.

HLG: Whenever I'd go home on holiday, I'd go up to my cousin Jim's house. Jim's a mechanic at the paper mill, very articulate but also very nationalistic. He simultaneously despises white people and fears them. Through him, I understand Farrakhan getting standing ovations. Jim could never voice any kind of rage or reaction to an offense directly to a white person. He'd voice it at home. So you have a catharsis when someone like Farrakhan speaks.

Sometime between 1975 and 1980, I'm talking to Jim and he said, "You know, I think that TJ" -- his son -- "would have done much better at Howard High School," which was the black school in our county. Then he said, "We lost a lot because of integration." We were drinking beer, eating grilled squirrel -- yeah that's rural, we all were raised hunting -- and I pressed him. He said, "the first thing is they fired all the black teachers except the principal of the elementary school and the principal of the high school."