From: Abdul Alkalimat, AAlkali@UTNet.UToledo.Edu
List Editor: Abdul Alkalimat, AAlkali@UTNet.UToledo.Edu
Editor's Subject: Debate Emerges Among Harvard Black Profs: Kilson on Gates
Author's Subject: Debate Emerges Among Harvard Black Profs: Kilson on Gates
Date Written: Mon, 27 Dec 1999 14:04:36 -0500
Date Posted: Mon, 27 Dec 1999 14:04:36 -0500

(The essay below first appeared on H-Afro-Am, 27 December 1999)


Frank G. Thomson Research Professor, Harvard University

(These comments are in response to Henry Gates' rebuttal of
Professor Ali Mazuri's critique of Gates' film series, "Wonders of The African World."
Gates' reply was put on the Internet on 12 November 1999

As far as I am able to determine, none of the African-American Intellectuals here at Harvard University has contributed thus far to the very important discussion indeed firestorm around my colleague Henry Louis Gates' film series, "Wonders of the African World." I am now on the elderly side of the African-American faculty around Harvard these days (I formally retired as of Spring Term 1999 at 68 years of age) and I was expecting someone among the younger age- cohort of progressive Black intellectuals here at Harvard to join the ranks of Black intellectuals who have rightly challenged the intellectually atrocious film series that Henry Gates has served up for American viewers for White viewers mainly I think. Among the younger age cohort of progressive Black intellectuals at Harvard whom I thought would join this discussion were the following: Christopher Edley and Lant Guinier in the Law School; Cornel West in Theology/Afro-American Studies; Loran Matory in Anthropology/Afro-American Studies; Larry Bobo in Sociology; and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in History/Afro-American Studies. So the absence so far of any participant from my Black colleagues here at Harvard in critiquing Gates' intellectually shameful film series, has partly sparked my decision to join this criticism.

But it was especially Henry Gates' response to his critics especially to Professor Ali Mazuri- that really pushed me over the edge, so to speak; that fired me up enough to join the discussion. I've known Henry Gates as an academic colleague quite well during the past decade of his tenure here at Harvard. I was part of the Afro-American Studies Appointments Committee that selected him in fact. I had a good collegial academic relationship with Henry Gates up to about 1995/1996 academic year, at which point I decided to probe Gates' particular style and modus operandi as a Black academic entrepreneur intellectual , in context of forerunner Black academic entrepreneur intellectuals like the Sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson and the Historian Carter G. Woodson both of whom I worship. My probe of Gates was for a chapter in an ongoing three volume study of the 20th century African-American Intelligentsia.

My study is titled THE MAKING OF BLACK INTELLECTUALS: STUDIES ON THE AFRICAN AMERICAN INTELLIGENTSIA, Volume I of which might get published by late 2000. The chapters in the three volume manuscript (now nearly all written after 25 years or so in the making) comprise mainly case study probes of the intellectual careers of specific individuals (Horace Mann Bond, John Aubrey Davis, Ralph J. Bunche. Martin Kilson-myself that is); case study Probes of Black political class professionals (Adam Clayton Powell, Gen. Colin Powell); and case study probes of intellectual discourse produced by a Given Black intellectual which make up the majority of the chapters in the Three volumes (e.g., Harold Cruse, E. Franklin Frazier, Carter G. Woodson , Ira Reid, Ida Wells Barnett, St. Clair Drake, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Orlando Patterson et. al. - the latter two are part of an extended dissection and probe of contemporary Black establishmentarian and conservative intellectuals in Volume II and Volume III).

My chapter on Henry Gates deals with his intellectual discourse over the past decade or so. As I searched the numerous articles he has published (including his memoir COLORED PEOPLE) dealing with the character of African-American social, cultural and political patterns, I discovered two things that I disliked about Gates' intellectual discourse. One was an almost neurotic need to couch discourse on African-American socio-cultural and political patterns in what I call "Black put-down terms," a mode of intellectual discourse on Black realities that Gates' intellectual confrere Kwame Anthony Appiah is also addicted to, I should add.

Second, much of Henry Gates' discourse on African-American socio-cultural and Political patterns exhibits a thoroughly chameleon trait an almost manic need to produce a discourse on Black realities that migrates between a "Black put down" or "Black averse" mode, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a seemingly redeeming "Black friendly" mode, though in ultimate essence the redeeming posture is phony.

This chameleon trait so fundamental I think to Henry Gates as an Intellectual stood out as I read his reply to Professor Ali Mazuri's fully valid critique of Gates' film series "Wonders of the African World." The overall character of Gates' reply is one of "an intellectual dodge." By which I mean, a clever bid to translate the overwhelming negatives of his film series into intellectual positives. By "overwhelming negatives", I refer to 1) the numerous intellectually convoluted or twisted put downs of African realities in the film series, and 2) the Eurocentric derived irreverent posturings toward African realities by Henry Gates, even while simultaneously characterizing a given African reality as positive, as "an African Wonder." As Ali Mazuri rightly put it: "Gates seemed incapable of glorifying Africa without demonizing it in the second breath."

Henry Gates' reply to Professor Ali Mazuri's valid critique of "Wonders Of the African World" is, then, a premier example of discourse as an intellectual dodge, something Gates is quite adept at, I suggest. Henry Gates paints several self-serving images of himself seemingly objectively rendered and weaves betwixt and-between them, straining, for what might be called a self-portraiture crescendo to hook his readers on. But don't be caught by any of it, snared in Gates' self-portraiture trap so to speak.

For starters, Henry Gates would have his readers believe that an acadernic year spent in the village society of one of the few genuinely progressive African states in the early 1970s Tanzania translated automatically into a socialist friendly demeanor on his part. Gates would have us believe, furthermore, that courses taken at the University of Cambridge by him in the 1970s under a genuinely progressive African intellectual like Wole Soyinka also automatically translated into a progressive friendly demeanor on Gates' part. But don't you believe it. Henry Gates' intellectual arrogance is such that he thinks he can get people to believe just about anything. With this verbal trickery, then, Gates is pretending a kind of "progressivism by association syndrome," so to speak. But what has been unique about Wole Soyinka whom Gates parades around in his speaking and writing as his African intellectual mentor is precisely Soyinka's lack of verbal trickery.

For Gates, however, verbal trickery is his stock in trade. During the past 30 years of predatory and kleptocratic governing classes in most African states including especially Soyinka's own country of Nigeria, Wole Soyinka has exhibited a courageous and rare commitment to a Progressive African intellectual identity. The kind I wish I could live up to if required. The kind that the great Frantz Fanon and the great Camara Laye (in Sekou Toure's Guinea) represented in their intellectual careers. The kind, that is, that dares to critique and challenge what's vicious, venal, and predatory among one's own natal cultural and political milieu one's own ethnic/tribal and nation state milieu that is and thereby run the clear risk of autocratic and cruel retaliation that has been a built in component most independent African states over the past 30 years. It takes a special kind of intellectual gall and chutzpah-as well as an incredible capacity for intellectual fantasy for a Henry Gates to portray himself at intellectual parity with Wole Soyinka . Such self-portrayal by Gates is not just an historical travesty, but just plain laughable, I submit. I hope Wole Soyinka is aware of how his name is being manipulated by Henry Gates.

What is more, note that Gates does this with the use of what he thinks is a hip term -"tough love." I seriously doubt that in articulating the proposition that "Criticism, like charity, starts at home," Soyinka was trying to teach what Gates characterizes as a "tough love" lesson to his Nigerian intellectual colleagues who were more reluctant to challenge authoritarian regimes in their country. Put another way, Soyinka was not beating his chest in public around attributes of his own genuinely propressive intellectual makeup, he was not showing off with his political discourse that is- something Henry Gates is manicly addicted to, I think. Though Henry Gates is not aware of it, "tough love" is a lightweight pop journalistic term that tells us nothing about a genuinely courageous and independent progressive African intellectual like Wole Soyinka.

On the other hand, however, "tough love" has much utility for Henry Gates' perpetual bid to cloak his penchant for what I call Black put down discourse in seemingly high minded language like "tough love." In doing so, Gates aims to deflect attention from the true goal that his Black put down discourse serves-namely, the establishmentarian and conservative patterns in contemporary American society, and globally too. In putting "tough love" into Soyinka's mouth, Henry Gates is, above all, trving to play back his way to a special public self-portraiture-one he consider politically serviceable.

At bottom, Henry Gates' myopia regarding his own self-importance can be viewed as the main source of both the filmic failure of "'Wonders of the African World" and the intellectually tacky Black put down aura that pervades it-an aura that bespeaks the film series' politics, actually. What else can explain the absence of a serious didactic format for the narration of the series a formalized instructional design or format for conveying to American viewers a serious quantum of substantive information about African History and Culture? What else can explain the unbelievably arrogant irreverence that Henry Gates exhibited at so many levels in the series? The irreverence associated with wearing the lounge attire found in bourgeois quarters of our American suburbs when visiting traditional sanctuaries of the Ethiopian Coptic Church, for example. The irreverence associated with snide comments about the historical authenticity of the Coptic Church's claim of possessing the Ark, and the related irreverence associated with Gates' posturing about climbing the gate to the hallowed site where the Ark is located. Henry Gates wouldn't dare behave with such flippant and infantile irreverence in a comparable visit to a traditional sanctuary of Judaism in Israel, of the Church of England, of the Holy See In Rome, or anywhere else in the West. He wouldn't dare, I assure you....This kind of behavior by Henry Gates is reserved only for Black world realities! And that Gates can quote to his readers a fawning comment on "Wonders of the African World" by the current governing class in Ethiopia as a serious rebuttal of the charge by Mazuri and others that his demeanor as interviewer was irreverent toward traditional sanctuaries of African civilization is another dimension of Gates' myopic self importance. His chutzpah too.

Above all, the irreverence associated with Henry Gates' characterization of the historical dynamics of the Atlantic Slave Trade-the man's lack of simple decency of spirit toward that devastating historical trauma visited upon Black people in the tens of millions by capitalist Christendom at its crudest-struck me as the foulest of all. If American viewers-White Americans especially-were relying upon Henry Gates' "Wonders of the African World" for a chance to finally come-to grips with the raw cultural barbarity of the Atlantic Slave Trade that our own component of the capitalist Christian state system helped to perpetrate against African peoples, their disappointment must have been gigantic.

Or perhaps not., for what Henry Gates dished up in his film series was a characterization that enabled many of our White American compatriots to persist in their longstanding, arrogant, and stubborn condition of moral denial-denial of systemic collaboration in and much responsibility for what can only be called the "Black Holocaust." Like Ali Mazuri and other critics of "Wonders of the African World," I was aghast at Henry Gates' indecent verbal maneuvers in his interviews relating to the Atlantic Slave Trade. Verbal maneuvers that emphasized almost solely the role of African errand boys for European dominance (African slave raiders, predatory African traditional chiefs and kings and religious authorities, etc.) in fostering the Atlantic Slave Trade. As Blackworld scholars for a century now-from the great W.E.B.Dubois (the research institute Gates directs at Harvard bears his name) to the late Trinidad scholar Eric Williams and the late Nigerian scholar and dear friend of mine Kenneth 0. Dike - have uncovered along with the White scholars, the Atlantic Slave Trade sternmed overwhelmingly from the military, naval technological prowess, and political economic prowess of Europe via avis African peoples and other world peoples too, Regardless of what African errand boys (or. as the case may be, Chinese errand bovs in the East Asia context, Arab errand boys in the Middle East context, so forth And so on) did or did not do.

As Ali Mazuri rightly characterized this part of Henry Gates' series: "Gates manages to make an African to say that without the participation of Africans there would have been no slave trade! How naive about power can we get?" Indeed. Just the slightest glance at instances in ancient and medieval history of imperial and feudalistic predatory state societies (or just a visit to the movie "Brave Hearts") would inform Henry Gates about the comparative history of slaving dynamics. Those dynamics were overwhelmingly power class dynamics, with vicious and predatory power classes among vanquished societies typically preferring power benefits from participation in imperially imposed slaving dynamics over loyalty to their natal cultural/political unit (the tribe, province, region, etc.). But this historical ignorance on Henry Gates' part in regard to the comparative history of slaving systems is only part of Gates' problem-his "Black problem", if you will. At the core of Henry Gates' insensitivity toward the massive historical trauma for the everyday oppressed and violated African persons (children, women, and men) in the long night of the Atlantic Slave Trade is Gates' deep personality need to participate in contemporary establishmentarian and conservative put down discourse toward Black world realities.

And, as already noted, for Henry Gates this is always a chameleon choreographed Black put down modality, which can find him at one time both putting down Blackness and pretending to affirm Blackness too. But Henry Gates knows well that the American establishment, in its several formations, gets the message of his intellectual maneuvers. And I'm sure it does. One last theme relating to Henry Gates' intellectual persona requires mentioning. Gates makes a major effort to rebut Ali Mazuri's charge that "Wonders of the African World" series does not make rigorous use of authoritative scholars that one expects from a serious documentary film. Gates gets around this criticism from Mazuri partly by claiming that his film was not quite a documentary but rather "was framed as a travelogue which allowed me to show both the diversity of the vast African continent and the African peoples themselves." This is bunkum, I submit. The best travelogues are anchored by a keen and careful documentary type infrastructure, which means they seek to have a serious didactic thrust, and such a thrust implies leaning on serious authoritative advice.

Of course, Henry Gates lined up a show list of official authoritative advisers for his series as he eagerly points out in last section of his reply to Professor Mazuri. Gates is too shrewd an academic entrepreneur intellectual not to protect himself on this flank, need I add. But lining up authoritative advisers is one thing; honestly and effectivelv employing their advice and knowledge is quite another matter altogether. A matter I think that was of very little interest to Henry Gates when making "Wonders of the African World."

As I started off these comments, I've known Henry Gates for a decade and I can say that I watched and probed his "MO" as much as any of his Harvard colleagues have. At the center of Gates' "MO" is a convoluted autocratic component, and at the level of his acadernic/administrative functioning that autocratic component of Gates' persona is never far from the surface. I speak from institutional experience in this matter of Henry Gates' autocratic trait, for throughout his decade presence at Harvard I (along with Professor Preston Williams-Divinity School-Professor Charles Willie-School of Education-Professor Peter Gomes- Divinity School-Professor Werner Sollors Comparative Literature -and Several others) have been on the Advisory Board of the W.E.B.Institute. Like the advisory boards of other research institutes or centers at Harvard, the presumption is that the chair or director of such centers will confer with such boards through maybe two meetings a sernester-depending upon relevant situations and sometimes more frequently.

If I recall correctly, the DuBois Institute Advisory board was convened twice a year during Gates' first year, once a year during the following two years (at which meetings Gates presented a self-serving balance sheet of his achievements), and since then the Advisory Board of the DuBois Institute has not been convened-a period of about six years!! All decisions from the character of the Institute's funding, choice of lecturers for lecture series like the DuBois Lecture and the Nathan Huggins Lecture, etc. demanate from the very wise head of Henry Louis Gates. A couple of Advisory Board members have discussed Gates' tacky autocratic "MO" within the affairs of the DuBois Institute among ourselves, but none of us has ever moved in any substantive way to redress this Gatesian autocracy, and I don't even think any of us knows what the formal Harvard rules are (if there are any) for redressing this Gatesian autocracy. I have personally queried Henry Gates regarding the state of the Dubois Institute's Advisory Board (I queried Gates quite candidly on many other issues too) a state of affairs that is an insult to the members of the Advisory Board. I can report that Henry Gates could care less.

There is also another dimension to my skepticism that Henry Gates made any serious use of his show list of authoritative advisors for his film series. My DuBois Institute experience with Gatesian autocracy led me, a couple of years ago, to decline several persistent requests from Henry Gates to join the Advisory Board of the proprietary structure that he formed to produce the Microsoft ENCARTA CDROM on Black History and the hard copy ENCYCLOPEDI AFRICANA version, recently out from Basic Books. Henry Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah transformed the original plans that the late Professor Nathan Huggins created to produce the ENCYCLOPEDIA AFRICANA from the academic realm of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute to a privatistic structure-a private firm, 20 if you will, headed by Gates and Appiah as sole proprietors . I queried around about whether this was officially kosher, this transforming a Professor Huggins' designed research project within the academic realm of the Harvard DuBois Institute into a proprietary structure. I did so in an informal way I might add, dropping notes on the matter to my longstanding friend Archie Epps (who was Dean of Students-the first African-American Administrator in Harvard College) and to one of my progressive Harvard academic colleagues who happened to be a part of the Afro-American Studies faculty, Professor Cornel West. Epps said that he didn't know what the formal Harvard rules were, so I told Epps that I wasn't that concerned about the matter, so he need not inquire any further.

My progressive academic colleague Cornel West never got back to me about the matter at all, as I recall. As I told both Epps and West in my notes to them, it was my simple minded understanding that a project conceived as Professor Huggins conceived the ENCYCLOPEDIA AFRICANA project to be a research production of the DuBois Institute, Ought to remain an Institute affair in substance whatever privatistic choreographing might be done to it. So whatever financial benefits that resulted from the end product of Professor Huggins' ENCYCLOPEDIA AFRICANA project (such as the Microsoft ENCARTA CD-ROM on Black History and the hard copy version) ought to become part of the research funds or endowment of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute which God knows deserves serious financial endowment after nearly 30 years existence. For me anyway, this is the only academically honorable thing to do in this kind of situation. One should not cynically pursue one's own self serving and money enhancing agenda as a scholar, which is what the privatistic arrangement set up in regard to Professor Huggins' original plans for the ENCYCLOPEDIA AFRICANA project By Henry Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah looks like to me. But maybe I'm just a naive old fashioned academic in these matters, I suspect. Thus, I want to conclude these critical reflections on Henry Gates' filmseries - "Wonders of the African World"- and on the intellectually convoluted character of Henry Gates himself with some thoughts on the future interaction between progressive African-American intellectuals, on the one hand, and the establishmentarian and politically cagey Henry Gates on the other hand.

First of all, there should be no doubt among progressive African-American intellectuals that Henry Gates as the leading African-American academic entrepreneur intellectual in the country these days has an intellectual persona and modus operandi vis a vis Black world realities that is riddled through with establishmentarian and sometimes anti-Black purposes. Henry Gates, therefore, warrants much more scrutiny by progressive African-American intellectuals than he has received to date. Happily for us in this regard, Henry Gates has unwittingly helped us with the intellectually tacky and arrogant Black put down aura that pervades his BBC/PBS film series.

However, to be effective in the important task of scrutinizing an Incredibly cagey academic entrepreneur intellectual like Henry Gates requires, I think, any progressive Black intellectual to keep a kind of respectful distance from the chap. Why? Because Henry Gates is not only a master of the intellectual dodge as I have tried to delineate in these comments. Henry Gates is also a masterful manipulator of strategic goodies at his disposal as a Black academic entrepreneur. I suppose that's how Gates maneuvered my old friend Professor Ali Mazuri to pen a friendly blurb for the coffee table book version of "Wonders of the African World." I say this because when the secretary at the DuBois Institute mailed notices to Advisory Board members regarding the lecturers for the Nathan Huggins Lecture Series always selected solely from the wise head of Henry Gates by the wav, since the Advisory Board is operationally superfluous-I discovered that on the List of future lecturers was Professor Ali Mazuri (November 2000 1 think).

To perform the much needed task of intellectually scrutinizing a cagey and politically opportunistic academic entrepreneur American intellectual like Henry Gates (or, say, like Professor Samuel Huntington who's in International Studies here at Harvard and others like this at Harvard and other universities around the country) , it is best for anyone who is a progressive intellectual and scholar to keep a respectful distance visa versa resources (goodies) at Gates' disposal. Even rather simple ones like invitations to strategic dinners at his house. For Henry Gates anyway they're his fish hooks, so to speak. And he has snared a lot of strategically useful fish I might add, some who could otherwise contribute to the important task of intellectually scrutinizing the latter day Booker T. Washington accommodationism dimension of Henry Gates' intellectual persona. Remember that it is not easy to "drink the King's wine and challenge the King too...."

For me anyway, this is not an easy issue even though I Know that there are times when "the King" must be challenged, whether one sups his table or not. So for myself here at Harvard University during the past decade of Henry Gates' tenure here, I've kept a respectful distance from Henry Gates' goodies in order to reserve my independence of action. Luckily for me of course, my academic appointment needs and resources, here at Harvard have not overlapped with "King Gates", unlike the situation for other African-American faculty here whose appointment Henry Gates had a hand in-such as Professor William Wilson--and thus who are inclined to be rather discreet in their interactions with "King Gates."

I have no such dependence ties to "King Gates." So when there was one instance in the past decade when my resource needs relating to a Fiftieth Anniversary Conference on Gunnar Myrdal's "An American Dilemma" that I conceived and mainly organized (with marvelous assistance from Dr. Randall Burkett then associate administrator at the DuBois Institute but who was later unceremoniously dismissed by Henry Gates) became something of an issue between me and Henry Gates, I let Gates know that I was willing to do battle if necessary. One should never act weak in the midst of Gatesian autocracy, or any autocracy for that matter. Wole Soyinka has taught us that nobly. Not, of course, in the pop journalistic way that Henry Gates characterizes Soyinka's intellectual courage so as the advance Gates' own phony public self portraiture.

So I try to advise my progressive Black intellectual peers especially to be wary of "King Gates" strategic offerings his fish hooks, if at all possible. And I'd like to address this especially to the up coming younger generation of African-American intellectuals and scholars, particularly those who seek to fashion a progressive outlook for themselves. Finally, we progressive Black intellectuals especially do indeed have to perform the scrutinizing task in regard to establishmentarian and/or conservative Black intellectuals like Henry Gates, because no one else will. Above all, we progressive Black intellectuals still have a serious Black people agenda to attend to. Namely: Protecting, advancing, and redeeming Black folks' honor, both here in the United States and elsewhere in the globe.

MARTIN KILSON, Frank G. Thomson Ph. D. Research Professor, Harvard University, 22 November 1999

First Online: 16 March 2000
Last Revised: 16 March 2000

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