Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: “Colored People”

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is well known in the United States as a leading professor of African American Studies, director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and host of several PBS series, including Finding Your Roots. Many Americans also know him as the man who was arrested for breaking into his own home and then being invited to have a beer with President Obama.

What is less well known about Gates is that he hails from Piedmont, West Virginia, a small town on the Potomac River, two hours west of Washington, DC. The home of working people, many of them immigrants, Piedmont has a sizable African American population.

How did Gates come out of a small West Virginia town and ultimately land in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a leading professor at Harvard University? Cambridge is a long way from Piedmont, but Gates traces the journey in his 1994 memoir, Colored People.

The book tells of Gates’s childhood growing up in the 1950s in a close-knit extended family and an equally close-knit small-town community. The book tells stories about Gates’s parents, his lifelong nickname, Skippy, and his brother, Rocky. It depicts the elders in his community, folks who always kept an eye on Skip and Rocky as well as all their cousins and friends. It describes Gates’s family upbringing, his grounding in the Episcopal church (and his time spent at the beloved Peterkin church camp), and his family’s emphasis on education. You’ll see what propelled young, inquisitive Skip to excel academically.

Gates opens the book with a letter to his daughters, Maggie and Liza. In the letter, he explains why he’s writing this memoir – wanting to show them a way of African American life that has largely vanished. “I have written to you,” he says in the letter’s opening sentence, “because a world into which I was born, a world that nurtured and sustained me, has mysteriously disappeared.”

In addition, as he explains in his 1994 C-SPAN Booknotes appearance, he wanted to show what black people thought and said when white people weren’t around. In the book’s first chapter, he refers to his neighborhood as the “Colored Zone” and says: “[I]t felt good in there, like walking around your house in bare feet and underwear, or snoring right out loud on the couch in front of the TV – swaddled by the comforts of home, the warmth of those you love.”

Why the title Colored People? Gates tells his daughters he chose this title because African Americans were referred to as “colored people” in the 1950s. This term is now considered outdated and, by some, offensive. But despite the history of this phrase, Gates confesses that he loves the term:

[W]hen I hear the word [“colored”], I hear it in my mother’s voice and in the sepia tones of my childhood. As artlessly and honestly as I can, I have tried to evoke a colored world of the fifties, a Negro world of the early sixties, and the advent of a black world of the later sixties, from the point of view of the boy I was.

Gates continues to be fascinated with family roots and ancestry and hosts the PBS series Finding Your Roots. The show features genealogical research about well-known Americans, including prominent African Americans such as John Lewis, Cory Booker, and Sean Combs and celebrities of other races such as Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros, and Maya Lin. A full list of episodes is available on Wikipedia. All three seasons (Season 1, Season 2, and Season 3) are available on DVD. A companion book has also been published.

In addition to his work on family ancestry, Gates is an extremely prolific scholar, editor, and public intellectual. His first crucial book was The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, a book that traces African American oral and written cultural traditions back to their origins in west African culture. If you have a scholarly bent at all, you will be entranced by The Signifying Monkey. It completely transformed the field of African American studies.

Gates is the co-editor of the The Norton Anthology of African American Literature and editor of the fifty-volume series, The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, which brought back into print many lost works by African American women.

Gates has also offered analysis of white American literature, most notably an annotated version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which offers renewed appreciation of a novel that many believe helped bring about the end of slavery.

If you want just a taste of Gates’s work, you can read short excerpts from a variety of his writing at the National Endowment for the Humanities website. If you want to dig a bit deeper, consider adding The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader to your collection. For a comprehensive overview of Gates’s career and many publications, take a look at the Wikipedia page about him.

And of course, to learn about Gates’s journey from West Virginia to Harvard, you must read the engaging, compelling, lively Colored People. Prepare to go back to that sepia time of the 1950s.

Watch:Watch C-SPAN’s Booknotes interview with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The hour-long interview focuses on Colored People. Then watch as Gates reads from Colored People (the reading starts at 5:09 and ends at 7:50).