Sunday, November 12, 2006

Q&A Henry Louis Gates Jr.

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR., the head of Harvard's African-American studies department, was hobbling around on crutches in the aftermath of leg surgery when he invited me into his Cambridge house last week. I was there to discuss "The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin," the new scholarly edition that he and Johns Hopkins University's Hollis Robbins prepared for W.W. Norton. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe's antislavery classic, first published in serialized form in 1851, outsold every book but the Bible in 19th-century America. But the novel's 20th-century history was more problematic. James Baldwin, in his influential 1949 essay "Everybody's Protest Novel," wouldn't even grant that Stowe had been a novelist, calling her merely an "impassioned pamphleteer." Yes, Baldwin wrote, Stowe had established that slavery was "perfectly horrible," but had done so through an "ostentatious parading of...spurious emotion." For Baldwin, Stowe's "wet eyes" and sentimentality disguised a "secret and violent inhumanity."

Baldwin's critique was mild compared with what came after. In the 1960s, Stokely Carmichael and others in the Black Power Movement turned "Uncle Tom" into an intra-racial curse word.

Born in 1950, Gates came of political age when, he writes, to be branded an Uncle Tom was to "be read out of the race publicly for not being 'black' enough." In bringing out a new, lavishly illustrated edition of the book, Gates hopes, among other things, to foster a re-examination of the central character and the trope that was made of him during an era, the 1960s and '70s, when black people endured "our very own version of the Inquisition."

But Gates's version of the book has generated controversy of its own. Reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin" for the first time, John Updike, as he wrote in a recent review for The New Yorker, surrendered to its "laborious spell" while bristling at the "editorial heckling" emanating from the extensive annotations.

With the book's fraught history in mind, Gates seated us in his living room, offered coffee, put his crutches aside, and said, with relish, "All right. Let's get to it." Which we did, after I confessed I'd never read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" before his edition came out.

GATES: Great! Neither had Updike. That's two people I got to read it.

IDEAS: But it's easy to see why some of the annotations annoyed Updike. Sometimes you and/or Hollis Robbins tell the reader a particular passage bores you silly, or that Stowe would have been better off writing it another way.

GATES: So what? I'm a literary critic.

IDEAS: Can you see why those kinds of annotations can be intrusive?

GATES: Have you ever gone to a movie with black people? They talk to the screen. That's what we tried to do, set up a call and response between the annotations and the text that's like the way black people go to the movies.

Look, from Frederick Douglass, who reviewed and praised it, to James Baldwin in 1949, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has had more impact than any other single book on the shaping of African-American literature. Now it's unread by black people. I'm trying to get a new generation of black people to read it, and it's an uphill battle.

IDEAS: Because?

GATES: Because, for one thing, the book is dripping with -- how do I put it politely? -- contextual racism. I made a list of every time Stowe uses the term "woolly headed niggers." She must have used the phrase 200 times. To get to Stowe's big points about suffering, moral principle, and the possibility of transcendence, you have to wade through that. That kind of racism makes it hard to get new black readers through the first chapter.

IDEAS: You thought the annotations would help?

GATES: It was an experiment. Does it work? There's always a second edition. We will think about it.

IDEAS: What impact did Baldwin's put-down of the book have?

GATES: Let's talk about the impact James Baldwin had on me. I first read Baldwin in the summer of 1965 -- the summer of the Watts riots on the eve of my 15th birthday, in an Episcopal church camp. An Episcopal priest gave me a copy of "Notes of a Native Son." I had never read a black author before.

Baldwin said that Richard Wright, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a pamphleteer, a polemicist, unlike the truly great Negro writer -- meaning, well, himself. What stayed with me was the idea that there's a difference between an aesthetic and a polemical statement. We needed an aesthetic that would speak to the ages, all people, all times. If you were going to make a political speech, don't call it a novel. That has been the consistent theme of my literary criticism.

Then, when I was an assistant professor at Yale, I invited Baldwin to give the first Richard Wright lecture, Yale having bought the Richard Wright papers. I told Baldwin: I teach you for the art of the essay, rather than the content. I said a 100 years from now, long after the specific issues of the civil rights movement are over -- if ever -- people will still be teaching you in English for your art of writing. I asked: How's that make you feel? He thought about it and said that is a great honor.

IDEAS: But you have a political motive for working on "Uncle Tom's Cabin," don't you?

GATES: I do! It's about resurrecting Martin Luther King. I've written before about Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power people using Uncle Tom as metaphor for race betrayal. I've said it's a low point in our people's history. Before that, no matter what, you could always come home to the black community. Then, all of a sudden, there were those who were in and those who were out. There are still books in which blacks call other blacks out as Uncle Toms. It made me sick then, and makes me sick now. Much of my work, quite frankly, has been about trying to put a balm on that wound.

Working on "Uncle Tom's Cabin," I realized Stokely and the others weren't thinking about James Baldwin or Harriet Beecher Stowe or even Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP. They meant Uncle Tom to be a metaphor for Martin Luther King. King, they thought, was the long suffering, too Christian person leading the movement astray.

IDEAS: Is even Uncle Tom really an Uncle Tom? I mean, he'd rather be tortured to death than raise his hand against another slave, as they try to make him do on Simon Legree's plantation.

GATES: That's a deep strength. And he'll help slaves, nonviolently, all the time. He has great principles. He puts his head in the mouth of the lion. That takes an enormous amount of courage. And he loved Chloe and his kids more than anything -- and Little Eva. I think if Simon Legree had tried to hurt Little Eva, he would have kicked Simon Legree's ass.

IDEAS: What about the sentimentality in the book? Does that get in your way?

GATES: Let me answer this way: Do you remember "The Little Rascals"? I used to watch it when I was a kid. I can still remember "The Little Rascals" version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I was 6 or 7, hardly knew what it was about. But that scene where Little Eva dies was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. She dies, the little white girl. She's got strings attached to her wings, and they take her away to heaven. That's still a very powerful image to me, even now, at 56 years old.

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