The “The African Americans” Interview with Henry Louis Gates
by Kam Williams
Born in Keyser, West Virginia on Sept. 16, 1950, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ph. D, is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is the author of 16 books, has made
12 documentaries, and is the editor-in-chief of The Root, a daily online magazine.
In 1981, he was a member of the first class awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation, and in 1998, he became the first African-American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal. He was named to Time’s 25 Most Influential Americans list in 1997, to Ebony’s Power 150 list in 2009, and to Ebony’s Power 100 list in 2010 and 2012.
Here he talks about his new PBS series, The African Americans, and its companion book of the same name.
Kam Williams: Hi Dr. Gates, thanks for another interview. I really appreciate the opportunity.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates: Hey, Kam, I appreciate it. You’re doing me the favor, brother.
KW: The last time we spoke to you was before the Boston Marathon. Were you in town that day?
HLG: Yes I was. In fact, my girlfriend, who’s a history professor in Cuba, was over there because she had left her wallet in a restaurant right nearby. I couldn’t reach her after I heard the news about the bombing, because all of the cell phones in that area were immediately jammed. So, I freaked out, of course, until she called. But what a horrible tragedy.
KW: I’m glad she was okay. What was the biggest challenge in covering 500 years of African-American history in a six-hour PBS-TV series?
HLG: Precisely that, covering 500 years of African-American history in six hours. [Chuckles] Well, I’ve been working on this for seven years. The biggest challenge was deciding which stories to tell. In a one-hour documentary, you can tell maybe ten stories. That’s how the documentary is structured. I wrote to forty of the greatest historians of both African and African-American history, and hired them as consultants. I had them submit what they thought were the indispensable stories, the ones they felt this series absolutely had to include. And we got about a thousand different suggestions which we had to boil down to seventy. So, my producers and I worked with these consultants and came up with seventy which we think are exemplary of the larger arc of African-American history between 1513 and 2013. We covered half a millennium, and it’s amazing.
KW: What was your biggest surprise?
HLG: The biggest surprise for me, without a doubt, was that the first black people who came to the United States weren’t the 20 who arrived in Jamestown in 1619. All of us had been taught that. Well, guess what? The first African came to Florida in 1513. And the huge shock is we know his name, Juan Garrido, and that he wasn’t a slave. He was free! This brother was a conquistador who came with Ponce de Leon. He was looking for the Fountain of Youth just like the white people were. Then, the first slave came to Florida in 1526. The first one we know by name, Esteban, which means Stephen, came a couple of years later. So, we start with the stories of Juan Garrido and Esteban to show that African-American people have been here a century longer than anyone thought, and that the diversity we see in the African-American community today has existed since the beginning. You had one guy who was a slave, and another who wasn’t. And I actually know what happened to them. Garrido ended up getting good jobs and a pension in Mexico which was the center of New Spain, as it was called. Esteban ended up being killed by the Zuni Indians.
KW: In your memoir, “Colored People,” you evoke an extraordinary sense of community at the annual picnics. How can we look back and recapture that sense while at the same time moving forward to a more multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society?
HLG: Well, I think that is what we do by preserving and telling our stories. If you don’t tell your stories, other people will tell their story about you. It’s important that we nurture and protect these memories. Things change. Existence means change. So, the kind of precious memories about being black for my generation won’t exist for my kids’ and grandkids’ generations unless we preserve them through fiction, through film, through comic books, and every other form of media we can possibly utilize to perpetuate the story of the great African-American people.
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
HLG: That’s a good question, Kam. I want to be remembered as someone who tried to bring the story of our ancestors to the broadest possible audience. I want to be remembered as a man who loved his race.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Dr. Gates, and best of luck with both the book and the TV series.
HLG: Okay Kam, I love talking about every project with you.
To see a preview of The African Americans, visit: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/video/
To order a copy of the TV series’ companion book, visit: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1401935141/ref%3dnosim/thslfofire-20