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2004-01-08

America Behind the Color Line–A Conversation with Renowned Scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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Renowned scholar and chair of Harvard’s African American Studies Department, Henry Louis Gates joins us in our firehouse studios to discuss Colin Powell, Cornel West and how the African American experience has transformed from a civil rights movement into a class struggle. [includes rush transcript]

  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr., renowned scholar and chair of Harvard’s African American Studies Department. He traveled across the country conducting interviews with such notables as Colin Powell, Maya Angelou, Vernon Jordan, Russell Simmons and Morgan Freeman, as well talking with everyday folk. Gates’s latest book is America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans. PBS will air the four-part documentary companion to the book in February.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

HENRY LOUIS GATES:

Thank you, Amy. Thanks for having me on the program.

AMY GOODMAN:

It’s very good to have you with us. Can you talk about this latest project?

HENRY LOUIS GATES:

Since that terrible day in 1968 when Dr. King was so brutally assassinated, the middle class segment of the African American community has almost quadrupled as a result of affirmative action, which is a wonderful thing. You think, boy, that’s what the civil rights movement was all about. That’s what Dr. King died for, that’s what he gave his life for. So many other people struggled for it. But at the same time, and this is the kicker, the percentage of black children living at or beneath the poverty line is almost 40 percent, which is exactly what it was the day that Dr. King was killed. In other words, we have two nations within the African American community, the haves and the have-nots. Many of us thought that if the black middle class increased so dramatically, that that would spell the end of structural poverty for our community, at least in the disproportionate way that it manifests itself today. But that’s not what happened. Poverty remained constant while the middle class quadrupled. That’s a crisis. As Daniel Rose, the great philanthropist said in one of the segments of the TV series, that is the greatest single crisis affecting American society today.

So, I did this series almost as an alarm bell, a wake-up call to say, we have come this far by faith, as the hymn goes, but we haven’t come far enough. And unless we do something drastic, unless we do something dramatic, never the twain shall meet between these classes within the African American community. The poor will be destined to perpetuate their own poverty and the middle class will be destined to continue its middle class status.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

What did you find in these conversations, in terms of first, the relationship between the two distinct sections within the African American community, and then, how they see themselves vis-à-vis the rest of white society?

HENRY LOUIS GATES:

It’s funny, we have a symbolic connection. We are all black, right? We like the same culture, right? We eat the same food, right? We celebrate Kwanzaa, don’t we? We all love Martin Luther King. So on the one hand, we are a community. A community, quote unquote, of 35 million people. But on the other hand precisely because of the success of affirmative action, our community has been fragmented. What do I mean by that? One of the most eloquent people I interviewed was a prisoner in the Cook County jail. He called himself Eric, but he has another name. He said that when he was growing up, he did not see, when he was on his way to school, which he never made it to, he didn’t see, he says, a fireman going to work. He didn’t see a policeman going to work. He saw drug dealers. He saw people fighting and gangs. Under segregation, curiously enough, we were all forced to live together. You might have a janitor living in this house, and a factory worker in this house, and next door would be an undertaker and next door would be a doctor and across the street would be a lawyer, and of course, everyone was surrounded by the teachers in the local school. The middle class had moved to the suburbs, or to other middle class communities, leaving behind what William Julius Wilson calls the underclass. So we are fragmented in a way that we have never been before, and that’s the tragic outcome of the civil rights movement, and affirmative action.

AMY GOODMAN:

You have said that if Martin Luther King were alive today, he wouldn’t be leading a revolution based on race, but on class.

HENRY LOUIS GATES:

And he was heading that way at end of his life. Remember, he didn’t die in a civil rights march, he died in a march for garbage workers, for striking garbage workers. He had realized, I think, before any other civil rights leader, that — well, that the struggle had phases, and the first phase culminated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now what? We got rid of de jure segregation. The walls of segregation did not come tumbling down because we abolished those racist laws. It turned out that race was a metaphor for deeper economic, structural discrimination. And everyone was confused. I think the African American leadership is still confused about the nature of the problem. It’s easy to rally around obviously, blatantly racist incidents. It’s much harder to figure out how to divvy up the pie, how to make structural adjustments in the American economy, at a time of scarcity, at a time when the pie is perceived to be shrinking.

AMY GOODMAN:

Let’s go to an excerpt of the documentary. The book and documentary of slightly different titles. The book, America Behind the Color Lines: Dialogues with African Americans. The four-part documentary series that will air in February, America: Beyond the Color Line. This is an excerpt of your interview with the Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

    COLIN POWELL: I grew up in a family that never felt constrained by their poverty or by their race. That had nothing to do with anything, we were as good as anyone. I was raised in a community that had blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans, minorities, you name it, we were in the melting pot New York City environment. So I kind of I never knew I was supposed to feel in some way constrained by the fact that I was an inner city, public school black kid, son of immigrants. I just went into the army and I found an organization that said no, no, no, we’ve changed. We’re ahead of the rest of society. We don’t care if you are black or blue, we only care if you are a good, green soldier. If you do your best, you will watched, you will be recognized. If you don’t do your best, you will be punished.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    When you walk into a room when you go to the Mid-East or China, do they see a black man?

    COLIN POWELL: Yeah, they do. Sure, they do. But they also see the American Secretary of State, and they know that I’m not coming to them as a black man. I’m coming to them as a representative of the American people, and as a representative of the President of the United States. I represent all of the values of this country and the power of this country. Military power, economic power and political power and once we sit down and they get past whatever color I am, they want to do business with me.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    What do you think the significance to our people is of the fact that you are the first African American Secretary of State?

    COLIN POWELL: Oh, I hope it has significance to them, and I hope that the significance is that it happened in America. It happened in a place where we were once slaves, nothing more than property. It happened in a place where, when the constitution was written, we were considered three-fifths of the white person for voting purposes. It happened in a couple of hundred years.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    What is the responsibility, do you think, of those of us within the African American community, who have made it?

    COLIN POWELL: To continue to be an example for them, and to be a role model but not just a black role model in that stereotypical sense, but a role model of what you can achieve if you are willing to work for it. And secondly, if we have been successful, financially successful, we ought to give some of it back to the community. You can do it through scholarships and donations, you can do it through mentoring, you can do it through adopting a school. There are lots of ways to do it. Everything that I mentioned to you, I have done. I have tried to do.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    General, why do we have more of a responsibility, it seems, sometimes, those of us in the black community, who have made it, than our white counterparts, our white colleagues who are not sitting around worrying about white people in the hills of west Virginia, let’s say, where I’m from, or in the hinterlands? Do you know what I mean?

    COLIN POWELL: Yeah, because our youngsters need us more, perhaps. One point I would make. Our youngsters are still living in a society that is really only one generation removed from racism, discrimination, segregation, economic deprivation and we are still suffering from that. We have to get to our young people and tell them they can be successful. We have to get to our young people and tell them Rosa Parks did not ride in the back of the bus and Martin Luther King did not die so you could call young girls bad names, so that you could act like a fool, so that you could put stuff up your nose or so that you can stick up somebody. Now, that is not acceptable. We have come too far to self-limit ourselves, so let me not hear any excuses about why you don’t want to go to school or you go to a bad school. We all went to bad schools. At one time or another, but guess what was in the bad school- some education. I’m sometimes disturbed at some of the television depictions that you see on some of the channels and some of the shows, and I don’t want to get into any particular show, but you know what I’m talking about — where we pander to this kind of deplorable behavior that if you and I had ever said these words or you and I had ever talked to an adult or you and I have ever said anything like this to peers or anyone, you know what would have happened to you, skip. You know what would have happened to me.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    You’d get smacked upside your head. Say what?

    COLIN POWELL: We don’t talk like that in this family.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    No, have you lost your mind, boy?

    COLIN POWELL: Are you crazy? As Bill Cosby used to say, “I brought you to this world, and I’ll take you out!” We just have to get back to those standards and stop making excuses for them.

AMY GOODMAN:

A rough cut of America: Beyond the Color Line, a documentary that will be airing on PBS in February. That was Secretary of State Colin Powell. He said Martin Luther King did not die for and went on. But I was just thinking, January we will be celebrating his birthday. It would be his 75th birthday. One of his last major addresses, exactly a year before he was killed was against the Vietnam war. And here Colin Powell is one of those leading this invasion and occupation of Iraq. Did you get a chance to go beyond the issue of race and talk about those issues?

HENRY LOUIS GATES:

Yeah. When we did the interview, we weren’t at war in Iraq. So, we didn’t — that wasn’t part of our conversation. But I’m not surprised that Colin Powell. He’s Secretary of State. If he’s going to be Secretary of State, he is going to be a party man. Colin Powell is a loyal military person. Very loyal to President Bush. I mean it’s not a shock that he would support the war.

AMY GOODMAN:

But also the issue you’re raising, that if Martin Luther King were alive today, it would not be about race, but about class that he would be protesting in the streets. And that under this administration, the largest gaps between rich and poor are increasingly growing.

HENRY LOUIS GATES:

Absolutely. No, he would —- I would imagine that Dr. King would be marching against racism, of course. Of course, racism persists in our society. Don’t get me wrong. My series doesn’t claim that, but it turns out that race is a symbol for something else. It always has been about economics. Slavery was not about race. It was about economics. Race was incidental to that. It was secondary to that. I think that the dramatic class divide within the black community— first you have the divide between the white community and black community as a whole, then you have the divide within the race. I think that that would be item number one on Dr. King’s political agenda. And I think that that’s one reason that Dr. King was assassinated. I think you can talk all day long about black cultural nationalism or any of the ethnic cultural nationalisms or the religious nationalisms you want in this country, but as soon as you talk about economics, as soon as you talk about the redistribution of wealth, that is a fundamental challenge to the system. And I think that made Dr. King public enemy number one.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

You also interviewed folks like Russell Simmons. And I would think that some of the criticisms that Powell was raising about the music and the emphasis on negative aspects of African American life — Russell Simmons has become a rich man off the music that Powell would criticize. Any discussions with Simmons and any discussions in terms of not only his role as a businessman, but the music that he is developing?

HENRY LOUIS GATES:

I think that I cannot speak for General Powell, but I think that he would applaud Russell Simmons’s emphasis entrepreneurship as a way out of the ghetto. That was one of the surprises for me doing the series. How much Russell Simmons has thought about entrepreneurial activity as a mechanism of social change. He said, these are kids who are functionally illiterate, but who are geniuses at marketing. Geniuses at understanding the system. These are people that are never going to go to the Harvard business school, but who know how to turn basically no money into an enormous amount of cash on the streets through the drug trade. Why not channel that entrepreneurial bent along healthy lines like selling, as he said, fruit juices and power drinks and develop clothing lines, et cetera, et cetera. That’s a good thing. God knows the entrepreneurial system in America is not about to change anytime soon, unless you have gotten a news bulletin there that I have not received yet. So, we cannot opt out of the system, we have to opt in. Unfortunately, we have opted in corrupt ways, by and large. One twenty-year-old man in the South Side of Chicago who was working at Popeye’s told me that he makes $600 a month on the grill at Popeye’s. Every day, he said, ten times a day, he thinks about the fact that he has abandoned his previous job. How much did he make in his previous job? $6,000 a day. Selling drugs. We need to give people an alternative. Hip-hop in terms of the music—I think it’s lively music and I think it’s interesting. I cannot say that it’s my favorite music. Perhaps I’m too old. I’m more old school. I like R&B and soul. I think that the lyrics were real poetry in the 1960s and 1970s. I have a hard time with the lyrics. I’m a big First Amendment man, and I would never try to censor the lyrics. But I think what Colin Powell is referring to is the fact that these bad forms of behavior within the African American community are reinforced symbolically through popular culture. Sp people think, to be black, one has to be misogynist, one has to be homophobic, one has to be anti-Semitic, and one has to treat women as sexual objects, one has to claim one’s studly position in the community by fathering children out of wedlock. That culture reinforces social behavior, and that social behavior has a deleterious effect on our people as a whole. There’s no question about that.

AMY GOODMAN:

We are talking to Harvard University Professor, Henry Louis Gates. When we come back we’ll go to the Cook County jail, another excerpt of the documentary America: Beyond the Color Line.

[break]


AMY GOODMAN:

Our guest is Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates. His latest book is America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans. A PBS series is coming out in February, America: Beyond the Color Line. We just played the interview excerpt with Secretary of State Colin Powell. Let’s go to the Cook County jail.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    I can’t ask you anything about your case.

    INMATE: Right. I know that.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    That’s against the rules. But I’d like to know about your background. Are you from Chicago?

    INMATE: Yes, born in Chicago.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    Have you been here before?

    INMATE: Yes, on two occasions.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    Really?

    INMATE: Yeah.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    How come you keep coming back. What happens to get you back here?

    INMATE: Well, it’s a mixture of things. Previously, the things that brought me here was because it’s easier for me to, say, sell drugs than to get a job. I make money faster that way. That’s basically why I kept coming back to jail. Or using drugs, and doing things to get drugs.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    Why don’t you your homework, learn the ABC’s, learn the math tables? Decide you want to go to college? That may sound like a stupid question.

    INMATE: No, that’s not a stupid question, that’s a very realistic question but you have to understand something. Where I’m from, school was cool, but you was considered a nerd, Professor. Career. You were considered a nerd. You know, as a child, most African American men, they stand in the mirror and emulate something that they’d seen growing up. If I had seen, let’s say, a fireman everyday, which there were. I’m not saying there wasn’t firemen, but they wasn’t around in my neighborhood. I wouldn’t actually come down in the morning, and come outside to play and see a fireman on his way to work. I wouldn’t see a policeman on his way to work. I’d see a drug dealer or someone stealing something. I’d see someone fighting, I’d see someone arguing. And when I looked to see where my father was, he wasn’t there. It was just my mother. Because most of us black males growing up the neighborhood, we don’t have fathers. Our fathers either ran off or they’re on drugs or they’re here.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    Were you a member of a gang?

    INMATE: Of course, I was.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    OK, so how does the gang structure work inside prison and outside?

    INMATE: The same way.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    Can the gangs influence — you can get drugs in here?

    INMATE: Come on, man. Of course they can. This is jail. Just because you’re here...


    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    Doesn’t mean you can’t do it?

    INMATE: I mean, just cause you’re in jail doesn’t mean that everything stops. The only thing you can’t do that’s actually normal is drive a car and have sex with a woman. That’s it. The rest of that stuff, you can get. It’s here.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    You are going to get out of here, right?

    INMATE: Yes, of course. I’ll probably not get out of here. Probably I’ll do some time, I don’t know, but in any event, yes, I’m not going to be gone for no long time.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    OK, so if you get some time, then you’ll go to a maximum security prison someplace else.

    INMATE: Yeah.

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    Then you get out. God willing. Let’s hope that you get out. Then what’re you gonna do? Are you going to be back here six months after you get out?

    INMATE: No, see, that’s the strange thing. Funny you should ask me that question. That’s what I think about now, more so than I did the previous times I was here. Because I was a kid, I wasn’t thinking about it, I was having fun. But now, I’m in the mindset where I say to myself, I really don’t want and can’t come back to this place. You know what I mean?

    HENRY LOUIS GATES:

    You mean coming back in here was having fun?

    INMATE: Actually, when I was a kid. It was cool. You get back on the street and it was like, man, you were in the county jail. Yeah, you was like a celebrity. You know what I mean? I’m serious. Did you have a fight? You know, they ask you stuff like that. But now, you know, it went downhill. I’m getting old. I got children. I have responsibilities now. Now I’m beginning to think what I thought was making me a man is making me feel less than a man.

AMY GOODMAN:

An excerpt of America: Beyond the Color Line. Henry Louis Gates. Before we wrap up, we’re going to be going to Congress member Jose Serrano about the latest Bush administration initiative on immigrant workers. I wanted to ask you about your dedication of this book to Cornel West. He is no longer your colleague at Harvard University.

HENRY LOUIS GATES:

Unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN:

Can you tell us what happened and how you feel about that, and where the African American studies department at Harvard stands now? I was recently with Cornel West in Santa Fe, new Mexico and also asked him about his run-in with the former Treasury Secretary and now Harvard University president, Lawrence Summers. Didn’t like his — what did he call them — extracurricular activities, like getting involved with — not clear, if he didn’t like his Nader endorsements or his hip-hop endeavors?

HENRY LOUIS GATES:

Cornel is a brilliant scholar and a person of tremendous pride and dignity, and he felt deeply insulted after a conversation with the new president, Summers. I think the president regrets that conversation. I think that Cornel feels that he had no choice but to leave to preserve his dignity, as a strong, proud black man. It broke my heart, unfortunately. But he had to go. I support his decision. I miss him terribly. We’re still very, very, very dear friends. I admire Cornel. There’s no one in the Academy that I admire more than Cornel West. You talk about a Martin Luther King figure and W.E.B. Du Bois figure all rolled into one. That’s Cornel West. That’s why I dedicated the book to him.

AMY GOODMAN:

And Monday night in New York, you’ll be together with Wole Soyinka?

HENRY LOUIS GATES:

Yeah that’s right, at Lincoln Center theater, talking about John Connie’s play, Nothing But the Truth about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Soyinka was my professor at Cambridge so it’s nice to be coming home with him.

AMY GOODMAN:

Wole Soyinka, the great Nigerian writer. I want to thank you very much for being with us. Henry Louis Gates’ latest book is America Behind the Color Lines: Dialogues with African Americans. Thank you.

HENRY LOUIS GATES:

Thank you.

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