Skip Gates’s Next Big Idea

With the circus of the ‘beer summit’ behind him, the high-wattage professor turns his eyes to the black experience in Latin America.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., known to all as “Skip,” remembers the day he became obsessed with the subject of race. It was 1960, and he was 9 years old, staring at his grandfather’s corpse lying in state at a funeral home in Cumberland, Md. Gates himself has medium-brown skin, the color of walnuts, but his grandfather looked like a white man. In life, Pop Gates was so pale his grandchildren called him “Casper” behind his back. In death, he appeared even whiter. “I thought, how ridiculous he looks,” Gates recalled during a speech last month at the World Bank, in Washington, D.C. “‘He looks like he’s been coated in alabaster and sprinkled with baby powder!’ ” So Gates, who even as a child had a healthy sense of the absurd, violated the first rule of funeral etiquette. He burst out laughing.

After the burial, Skip’s grief-stricken father marched him and his brother into a back bedroom, where he showed them the newspaper obituary of Jane Gates, their great-great-grandmother and a slave. A formidable-looking, brown-skinned woman, Jane Gates had five light-skinned children, probably by the white man who owned her. Freed around the time of the Civil War, she worked as a midwife and lived in a house she paid for herself in cash. “An estimable colored woman,” is what the obituary said.

Skip has called Jane the “Rosetta Stone” of his life. She showed him his hidden history and so gave him an expanded sense of identity. Gates believes that only by recovering such lost stories can the black experience be properly understood. And he is, above all, a meta-storyteller. Through narrative, which he spins in scholarly articles and New Yorker stories, on TV and online, he lives out his most deeply held conviction: the more you learn about the real lives of real people, the less able you are to subscribe to self-serving and nationalistic myths that feed a racist culture.

Gates’s early academic career focused on slave memoirs but soon broadened to every aspect of the African diaspora. Genetics tells a different story than culture does, and with his PBS programs on DNA and ancestry, Gates showed viewers that blood does not always comply with people’s self-conceptions. (Gates himself is genetically 49 percent white.)

Now with Black in Latin America, his 11th title for PBS, Gates gently eviscerates the fixed idea—held especially by North Americans who think of race in terms of black and white—that long centuries of racial mixing can somehow eradicate racism. It will air in four parts, starting on April 19. In each episode, Gates travels to another part of the Latin-Caribbean world where he discovers racial conflicts and justifications that appear, to an American, entirely strange.

As it begins, Gates is still grieving for his own father, who died over Christmas. After his grandfather’s funeral in 1960, Gates interviewed both his parents about their family histories—an attempt, in retrospect, to bond with his dad. Back then, he was his mother’s favorite. “I didn’t feel particularly close to my father,” he says. “But, you know, you’re always trying to please your parents. [My career] is playing out that whole long thing since that day when I was 9 years old. It’s fascinating how life works. I’m 60. It pleased him.”

I spoke with Gates after his World Bank talk, and several weeks earlier, in his glass-walled office at Harvard, where he holds the title of University Professor—an honorific bestowed only on the most eminent scholars. Though he is best known as a TV host and (for better and worse) the “Beer Summit Guy,” in academia Gates is the man who made African-American studies legit. “Afro-Am” was a nascent field when Gates joined the Harvard faculty in 1991. He built a ragtag, dysfunctional department into a national brand, supported today by 32 full-time faculty and as many graduate students. Once African-American studies became standard fare on university campuses, Gates turned his attention to the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, which funds research on the African and African-American experience and over which Gates presides like a king.

Gates is not your average Harvard prof, toiling away in his tweeds. He has a star-studded Rolodex, which he wields with relish. He’s the kind of guy who shows up at your house for dinner with the comedian Chris Tucker in tow, who boasts of possessing Oprah’s secret email address. Although Gates has a 28-page CV, it doesn’t mention that he walks around in more or less constant pain, the result of a faulty hip he’s had since childhood. Nor does it capture the way he talks—a high-low patois of literary theory, profanity, his West Virginia roots, silliness, and self-revelation. He’ll happen to mention that he was eating goat stew in Zanzibar when he thought of Nat King Cole’s hair, or that he thinks Buckwheat, from the old Little Rascals comedies, universally derided as a racist stereotype, is actually kind of funny. (“Otay,” he writes me in an email.) Who else but Gates could unleash the phrase “rooty boot Negroes” while at a podium at the World Bank?

Gates himself was raised in the segregated South, the son of a paper-mill worker and an ambitious woman—“She was a goddess,” Gates says—who had the highest expectations for both her sons. “What’s fascinated me from the time I was a little kid was the way we construct our lives through stories,” he told me after the World Bank talk. “My brother and I had a really privileged relationship with my parents…They treated us like adults. They told stories all the time about people, and I realized how complicated everybody was. When I went to Yale [as an undergrad], and I learned about ‘The Negro’ or ‘The African-American,’ I was thinking, what’s this -bullshit? I know all these black people, and there’s not one way to be black. There’s a multiplicity of ways.”

Gates likes to say that with 40 million African-Americans in this country, there are 40 million ways of being black. It is for this reason, friends say, that the “beer summit” of the summer of 2009 so infuriated him. Gates was arrested on the front porch of his Cambridge, Mass., home after a verbal tussle with a white police officer. The president weighed in, calling Gates “a friend” (the two had met in Martha’s Vineyard when Obama was running for the Senate), and opining, “The Cambridge police acted stupidly.” Within weeks, Gates found himself in the White House Rose Garden with the arresting officer and the president, sipping beer and demonstrating his sincere interest in racial reconciliation. For a man whose career has been devoted to exploring the complexities of racial identity, that 15 minutes of public caricature—first as the angry black man and later as the conciliatory suck-up—could have only been a humiliation.

“It took a long time to get over what happened,” says Lawrence Bobo, current chairman of Harvard’s African-American studies department, and the friend who picked up Gates from the police station after his arrest (the charges were dropped). “It was such a profound violation of one’s rights and standing in the world. When it’s elevated into such a public event, you feel so constrained in what you can say in public because no one is really listening.”

Paul Gates, Skip’s older brother and chairman of dentistry at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, went along for the summit. “ ‘I’d like for you and Dad to go,’ ” Paul remembers Skip saying. And then, joking, “ ‘I’d like for you to go as my bodyguard.’ ” Skip has no beef with Obama, Paul says, but “was upset about the incident itself and expressed the possibility of legal avenues” against Sgt. James Crowley and the Cambridge police. “Yeah, I was very upset,” Gates agrees. “I was approached by different legal teams about suing. I hadn’t made any decision, but as soon as the president made his statement, any thought of legal action went out of my mind.” At the White House, Gates says, he gave Crowley a signed copy of his memoir, Colored People, with an inscription that read, “To Officer James Crowley, two characters in a drama that we did not write.”

Gates’s own analysis mirrors Bobo’s, though it is more cautious. “The most interesting thing about it was the way in which Officer Crowley and I were used as allegories in the larger discourse about race that didn’t have anything to do with the actual events.” Mostly, though, he wants to move on. “Next question, dear,” he says.

Black in Latin America was inspired by one mind-boggling fact. Of the 11 million Africans who survived the middle passage between 1502 and 1866, only 450,000 arrived in North America. The rest landed south of the border in places like Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, and Brazil, which have their own, largely unexplored histories and legacies of race and racism. In the series, Gates visits Haiti, where he observes vodou rituals, and Cuba, where he tastes ajiaco, a local stew. He learns that in the Dominican Republic, African-descended people prefer to call themselves “Indio”—even though very few of them carry any indigenous blood—but in Brazil, there are 136 ways to describe brown skin.

Racism—which in America is a good-guys, bad-guys story (white masters, black slaves; white oppressors, black victims)—expresses itself differently in countries where the majority of people are shades of brown. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Black in Latin America portrays insidious racism in Mexico, where humor is expressed through a black-faced, fleshy-lipped Sambo-type cartoon character named Memin Pinguin, and people of African descent rarely acknowledge or even know about their slave ancestors. “Black people in Peru and Mexico are fighting to get race put on the census,” Gates told me in his office at Harvard. “People say, ‘We can’t have racism because we don’t have race.’ It starts out as a very liberal idea, but it can be used perniciously. It disempowers minorities because you can’t fight for your piece of the pie if you can’t count.”

The enemy of individuality is groupthink, Gates says, and here he holds everyone accountable. Recently, he has enraged many of his colleagues in the African-American studies field—especially those campaigning for government reparations for slavery—by insistently reminding them, as he did in a New York Times op-ed last year, that the folks who captured and sold blacks into slavery in the first place were also Africans, working for profit. “People wanted to kill me, man,” Gates says of the reaction to that op-ed. “Black people were so angry at me. But we need to get some distance from the binary opposition we were raised in: evil white people and good black people. The world just isn’t like that.”

Gates’s critics say he’s a provocateur and publicity hound, stretched too thin and puffed up by his celebrity friends. Lolita Buckner Inniss, a professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, wrote a letter to The New York Times in response to the Gates piece in which she pointed out the obvious. No matter who did the capturing, it was white people who created the market for African slaves and perpetuated the practice even after the import trade was banned. “My first thought was, he’s kidding, right?” she told me. “Up until that recent piece, people would have thought of him as someone who took a cautious and nuanced approach to questions like reparations.” Gates has such an eminent reputation, she said, and “so much gravitas. Many of us were troubled.”

He is, unquestionably, stretched too thin. “I suffer from a certain impatience,” he agrees. Despite the distraction of the “beer summit,” Gates felt the burden of his 60th year bearing down on him—all that mortality, the “guillotine birthday”—and determined to make 2010 especially productive. That year, he received a dozen awards and an honorary degree. He released a film, published two books, edited two more, and wrote more than a dozen articles. He taught two courses. He’s in constant motion, nearly impossible to pin down. “You know the story about the hedgehog and the fox?” asks his friend Mark Whitaker, managing editor of CNN Worldwide and a former NEWSWEEK editor in chief. “Well, Skip’s the fox, and I see no reason to hold that against him.”

Yet, on the eve of his next triumph, there’s a sadness about him. Last year his younger daughter, Liza, had a stroke at age 28. And though her recovery has been “remarkable,” as Gates puts it in an email, the episode “can only be described as every person’s—and every parent’s—nightmare.” “The depth of Liza’s inner strength and courage astonished me,” he writes. When I visited him at the World Bank, his close friend Peter Gomes, the chaplain of Harvard’s Memorial Church, and, not incidentally, another African-American scholar with name recognition in the outside world, had recently and suddenly died. “I’m reeling from my dad’s death,” he told me, “and Peter’s death hit me really hard. I was talking to my shrink about this. The fact that he was around—he was a virtual anchor for me. And so was my father. I didn’t have to talk to them every day. They were both crucial to my sense of order and stability, and now they’re both gone.” Gates has a habit of stretching his bad leg in front of him when it pains him. “It’s made me think about praying more. Spiritual stuff. I don’t know. I’m looking for it. I can’t stand to go back to Memorial Church. It makes me cry.” But a car was waiting; his hosts were restless. Gates had to teach his graduate seminar the next day. He would be talking about Invisible Man.