The sign-up sheet for office hours was full, a laundry list of crossed-out names of students the famous Harvard University professor had already met with and names of the students still waiting to meet with him. They sat on couches outside his office, which, glimpsed from the lobby, suggested a large room overcrowded with decades of honorary degrees and glass awards and impressive photographs of the professor alongside dignitaries. One student stepped out, another stepped in. A sing-song filled in the transitions: “Alright,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. boomed, “now who’s next?”
You hear him before you see him.
And when you see him, his gentle smile broadens to greet a reporter from out of town. He wears a loose-fitting blue suit over a dark T-shirt with no necktie. He walks with a cane, a reminder of the hip injury that he suffered as a teenager, when he was still a serious-minded high school student growing up in the paper mill town of Piedmont, W. Va. Seemingly ever since, his world has been a swirl. A gray-haired man appeared at his door. “Reverend!” Gates said, surprised, introducing “the Eugene Rivers, a very famous intellectual!” Rivers — indeed, a well-known activist pastor — smiled, recognized the whirl of activity, waved and disappeared. Next a young man stood and extended his hand. “Oh, hello,” Gates said, “and happy birthday! Did you get the champagne I sent?”
He got it.
Gates turned back to the reporter.
“See, I’m like a country doctor. People walk in off the street, some need advice, some need a loan, everyone is addressed. Hey, did you watch ‘Watchmen’? The HBO show? I play Treasury Secretary under President Robert Redford! I hand out DNA kits so that —”
“You’re going to ruin it!” a student groaned.
“No! I only know what part I’m in. I give DNA kits to descendants of the 1921 Tulsa riots (which, in real life, left hundreds of black residents dead at the hands of a white mob), to people who want reparations. To be specific, I play a hologram of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.”
Actually, a hologram might be a good idea for someone as busy as Gates.
A few moments later, once his office emptied, he looked at the building around him, the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, which would not be here without him. He took a breather then said, “Twenty-five years ago, none of this existed.”
Twenty-five years ago, when the Chicago Tribune awarded him with its annual Heartland Prize, for his memoir “Colored People,” Gates was merely a game-changing literary archeologist and scholar, a prolific author and professor, a MacArthur genius and African American Studies department chair and, in his words, “an institution builder.”
On Nov. 3, a quarter century later, when he receives the Chicago Tribune Literary Award for lifetime achievement, he’ll be all of the above, but also, now, the director of the Hutchins Center, a long-established documentary filmmaker, a weekly fixture on PBS (for his ongoing series “Finding Your Roots”), and yup, a hologram on premium cable. Few scholars have done more to cement the studies of African American literature on university campuses than Gates, whose name and reputation today is not so unlike a Merriam-Webster or, well, Harvard, synonymous with a certain institutional gravitas and authority, even if we don’t seem to trust gravitas much these days, or the institutional authority that it springs from. (In fact, talk about institutional authority: Gates currently sits on, or has sat on, the boards of directors of, among others, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Library of America, the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution, the New York Public Library, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Critical Inquiry, a literary academic journal long-based at the University of Chicago.)
When Gates joined Harvard in 1991 — after more than a decade at Yale, Cornell and Duke — its African American Studies department had one professor and 19 students; today it boasts 41 professors and is just one of the departments inside Hutchins, which is spread across several floors of a slender brick building tucked into Harvard Square, each floor a kind of showcase of black artists, whose work hangs throughout hallways and offices; dominating one floor alone is the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute.
Chances are, though, you know Gates from “Finding Your Roots,” the PBS series now in its sixth season in which he researches ancestral backgrounds of well-known artists and figures, from Chris Rock and Lupita Nyong’o to Dr. Phil and Ben Affleck, who infamously lobbied Gates to edit out news that Affleck’s ancestors owned slaves. (Gates, after refusing, agreed.) Or perhaps you know Gates from the White House “beer summit” between Gates and a Cambridge police officer, hosted in 2009 by President Obama after Gates was arrested while forcing open a stubborn door in his own home.
His legacy will be different.
His rose to fame during the ’80s and ‘90s as the leading proponent of expanding African American studies departments across the country. He believed such an act would no less than redefine the country. “I felt like if we integrate the (often white, male) literary canon and establish African American studies as vital academic pursuit within great universities — University of Chicago, Stanford — incrementally it would trickle outward, because then you were teaching achievements of black people, you’re critiquing anti-black racism, you’re celebrating black thinkers at the same time that you’re refuting aspersions cast on the nature of black people, biologically and genetically. I mean, now you take a course on Toni Morrison and no one blinks, but 25 years ago, the attitude was, ‘How many novels do you people want us to teach? You want a whole department? OK, why not just a course?’ Seriously, I heard it.”
His office, which he calls a museum to himself, is one way of telling how successful he’s been. Outside the doors is a bookcase: the top shelf is full of books written by Hutchins fellows, the next three shelves are histories and essays that Gates wrote, encyclopedias and anthologies he edited or simply classics to which he contributed a new introduction.
Inside his office, there are so many framed awards, certificates and posters for his documentaries that objects not already given a place are stacked three and four deep:
“Look over there, that’s the National Humanities Medal I got in 1998, and that’s a picture of Bill and Hill Clinton and me. There are pictures from my two audiences with Nelson Mandela. This is the coolest picture — this is my fifth grade class in Piedmont. I was the class president. The school system there integrated in 1955, I started in 1956. There’s a picture from a reunion of us years later. That’s from when I was chairman of the Pulitzer committee. And this is from when I took my father to the Super Bowl. This is me and my student Jodie Foster, who I had at Yale. I directed her senior thesis on Toni Morrison, and just by coincidence we both happened to get honorary degrees at the University of Pennsylvania on the same day. All this stuff, it’s so personal. This is a picture of me and Wole Soyinka, my mentor. He was the first African to get a Nobel for literature. Oh, over there, that’s my Oprah wall — this is a picture from when she opened a school in South Africa and she took me along. And that is from this birthday present that she sent me ...”
Sitting on his desk, a thin metal plate that read “Colored.”
“And that’s one of those colored-only signs left over from the Jim Crow days. I keep it there on my desk all the time, to remind students of that world — that it really did exist.”
He said the pattern at PBS has become, he makes a season of “Finding Your Roots,” then every other year, a new documentary series. (Indeed, in the works now is a documentary about the history of the black church.) His most recent was a four-parter, “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War,” which tied to his most recent book, “Stony the Road,” about the rise of white supremacy and Jim Crow during the Reconstruction.
He tapped the “Colored” sign again and sat at his desk:
“I did ‘Stony the Road’ and ‘Reconstruction’ because we are living at a time when the resurgence of white supremacist culture is zombies in a B-movie. It was the end of the film then all of a sudden this guys come out of the ground and we thought your asses were dead. What, we got to wear garlic now? Think of Charlottesville, think of the guy who prayed with black people for an hour in church then kills them. This resurgence is clearly related to two things: the eight years of occupancy of the White House by a black president and his wonderful family, and the manipulation of white supremacists by the current resident of the White House. We have been here before — voter suppression, terrorism. The 13th Amendment is ratified on Dec. 6, 1865, the Ku Klux Klan is founded that same month. We have been here before. I want people aware, that rights you thought were eternal, guaranteed by the Constitution, that can be all snatched away.”
He asks his visitor’s ancestry.
“Ah! I just did Nancy Pelosi’s family roots! They’re from all over Italy. She’s the most Italian person we ever tested on the show — you’re 95 percent Italian, Nancy Pelosi!”
As dire as he can sound, he has a reputation as a hopeful, even jovial figure. His nickname — what everyone from students to staff to past presidents call him, even now at 69 — is Skip. Despite having a portrait of himself hanging just outside his own office, he is fast to assign credit to others, to explain in detail how he is often more band director than one-man band. “Some people have called me the P.T. Barnum of African American studies and I find it flattering actually. I believe in all this, and I live in all this.”
He is so familial and warm it’s easy to forget Gates was once oddly controversial. Even if you dismiss the relatively hermetic, academic debates about his influential essays on “signifying” — which argued much of African American literature and music serves as a dialogue with the past, leading back to indirect, black vernacular traditions — “people have seemed to forget I was an active participant in the culture wars of the ‘90s. Of course, in retrospect, the ideas I represented are middle of the road, but at the time, some people seemed very threatened.” He argued, gasp, that African American Studies should be autonomous departments (as opposed to, say, part of English departments); he argued for hiring more black professors, and teaching more African American novels.
Conversely, to some scholars and students, he was overly conservative. “Some wanted to throw out standards and notions of aesthetic value and I was one saying there is a difference between Toni Morrison and pulp fiction and you need to know the difference. Beauty and sublimity didn’t just come in the form of white face, or the form of literature written by black males. I wanted to keep the canon. I still do. I simply want it integrated. To paraphrase the great Jesse Jackson, I’m not a canon breaker, I’m a canon maker.”
He leaned back and laughed.
Asked what he thinks of the contemporary emphasis on identity in the arts, asked whether he expects his own ideas about the literary canon to seem dated to younger scholars, he asked: “Will young people come along and say this old stuff is retro? Sure, that’s good. I just want them well trained. I stood for this in 1994 and I’ll stand for until my dying day, but everything is teachable, everything is knowable. You can’t essentialize knowledge. You can’t say because I am black I have privileged access to Toni Morrison’s work. If someone told me because I’m not primarily of Anglo-Saxon descent I don’t have the capacity to understand Milton -- that’s racist. And the converse is true. You don’t have to be black to understand Zora Neale Hurston, and you don’t have to be a woman. You have to be a good reader.”
We stepped into the hallway. He had somewhere to be.
“Wait," he said, "one thing I want to say, I think there is a tendency to stress the negative, to forget that our ancestors created a world out of nothing, came up with poetry out of hearing just snippets of the King James Bible. These were often anonymous, uneducated slaves, creating masterpieces. And they didn’t get to attend the University of Chicago or Harvard.”
And with that, he sang out:
“Ride on, King Jesus! No one can hinder me!”
His assistant appeared. She smiled and whispered: “He’s a character.”
Gates will accept the Literary Award and talk with Tribune publisher and editor-in-chief Bruce Dold at 11 a.m., Sunday, Nov. 3, at Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph. Tickets for the program, which is presented in partnership with the Chicago Humanities Festival, are available at chicagohumanities.org.