Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Head Negro In Charge

Cheryl Bentsen in Boston Magazine:

Henry-louis-gates-jr-jan-2011-giAt Clare College, Gates began collecting the best minds of his time, albeit for a purpose he had yet to conceive. He was homesick at first, and desperate for any sign of familiarity. Everyone he spoke with kept asking if he’d met a young man named Anthony Appiah. “You figure when white people do that they’re talking about a black person but are too polite to say it,” Gates says. “I’m thinking, motherfucker must be black, right?” After hooking up with Kwame Anthony Appiah (his full name), Gates was introduced to Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian who was then teaching at Cambridge. The three men formed an unusual trio. Very much the elegant aristocrat, Appiah, then just 18, was the son of Joe Appiah, a prominent Ghanaian lawyer and politician, and the nephew of the King of the Asante, Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II; on his mother’s side, he was the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps, former chancellor of the British Labour Party. Soyinka, 16 years Gates’s senior, was a playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist from the Yoruba region of Nigeria who would later become known in the West as the Shakespeare of Africa. Rounding out the trio was Skip Gates, a poor young student from Appalachia. Meeting Appiah, Gates says, “It was love at first sight. He is the smartest human being I have ever met.” He was also someone Gates constantly tried to emulate, by wearing little silk neck scarves, as Appiah did, by growing his hair like his. “He was everything I wanted to be. He was pure reason, but very sensual. He loved life. He loved to eat. He loved wine. He loved drama and art. And he seemed to respond to me and to Sharon.” Adds Sharon: “Skip was taken with Anthony’s aristocratic lineage. He seemed like a prince to us.”

Appiah was a frequent dinner guest at Adams and Gates’s off-campus digs, where after a night of good food, wine, and talk, Appiah invariably ended up sleeping on the sofa by the coal stove. “Skip was sort of an evangelist for African American causes about which I knew nothing,” says Appiah. “He seemed worldly to me. He had a big Afro, and a big white felt hat, the kind you saw in blaxploitation movies. And as a stringer for Time, he was going to Paris to see James Baldwin and Josephine Baker, and Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. After I met Skip, I began to learn to think about race in western culture.”

But there was just one issue in their friendship that created a bit of awkwardness. “I’m sure I was as homophobic as anybody, I’m embarrassed to say,” Gates says. “Being American—blunt and unsubtle—I had to figure out how to deal with it.”

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)