Henry Louis Gates Jr.: An Autobiography Through Books


Skip Gates at his West Tisbury house, summer 2016. – Sam Moore

“Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are.” Henry Louis Gates Jr. brought this adage to life last summer when we met at his rented West Tisbury farmhouse to talk about books he loved. An author of some 20 books himself, and the editor of several others, he is well known as a Harvard professor, literary scholar, cultural critic, genealogist, filmmaker, and host of the popular PBS series Finding Your Roots.

During his 35th summer on the Vineyard, where he’s familiarly known as Skip, he was busy writing, hosting forums, entertaining friends, swimming daily, getting ready for an African filming trip, and screening his new four-part series, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise. He was also riding his English tricycle on a new route after a decade of pedaling 16 miles round-trip every day between his previously rented Harthaven house and South Beach.

As he talked about books and their relation to events in his life, Skip expanded on the way that reading and personal experience can evolve into autobiography. Our conversation below has been condensed and edited, but no names or details have been added after the interview. Skip’s memory is remarkable, although he defers to his father and brother: “I have a genetically good memory,” he told me, “which eventually stood me in really good stead for a career as an academic. My brother has a photographic memory. My father did, too. They played cards. I have a memory for texts.”

Frank: What was the first book you loved as a kid?

Skip: The Poky Little Puppy. He was my hero. My mother read that book to me. I have two daughters, Maggie and Liza, and when Maggie, my first child, was born 36 years ago this July, I got a copy of The Poky Little Puppy. When we took the baby to meet my mother and father, I showed that book to my mother, and she cried. Man, I loved that book.

Frank: What do you think you loved most about it?

Skip: The fact of my mother’s voice, the comfort I got from my mother, and the intimacy with my mother.

Frank: Were there other books you liked as a child?

Skip: I also had an anthology of Mother Goose. My father would read to me from that. I read it all the time.

Frank: As you got a bit older, what book do you think influenced you most?

Skip: There were two. In the eighth grade, because I was madly in love with Brenda Kimmel, who was the pharmacist’s daughter, and she loved books, the only way I could think about getting next to her was to be into books, too, right? She and I were one and two in the class. I was one.

Frank: Good to clarify that.

Skip: That’s sort of an in-joke. Remind me to come back to the two books. Every year about five girls from that class come to the screening of my new film in New York, and then they come in July to stay with me on Martha’s Vineyard. This year there were seven. I met them on the last day of August in 1956, the first day of first grade. And one of them was Brenda Kimmel.

Frank: I saw you with them at the movies. I asked you, “Why are you with five women and I’m only with one?”

Skip: This year?

Frank: No, two years ago when you went to see Jersey Boys in Edgartown.

Skip: Yes, yes, yes. Now there are seven. And we only had 32 kids in our whole class. We were together in class for 12 years.

Frank: That’s amazing.

Skip: It is amazing. We were from a paper-mill town of 2,000 people — Piedmont, on the Potomac River in the Allegheny Mountains — beautiful! Brown v. Board was in 1954, and our school in West Virginia — not a well-known site of African American culture — was integrated in 1955.

Frank: What about the two books?

Skip: Every year we had to do book reports, and I’m doing all my reports on sports books because my father was a sports junkie. Sports were big in my town. My brother would soon be captain of the basketball team, and I was going to be an athlete. In the eighth grade, the teacher told me, “Louis, you can no longer report on sports books. You have to read something else.” And I said, “Like what?”

She gave me Les Misérables. I was so riveted from the first line I read it cover to cover. I read A Tale of Two Cities, but then I read Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy. That was the second book. That’s when I knew Eros could be on the printed page — the section when Michelangelo goes to visit his mistress. I read it about 10,000 times.

Frank: That was such a present book in many homes at the time.
Skip: Yes, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. We joined the Book-of-the-Month Club, and before that, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Remember them? Oh my God. I completely forgot this. One Sunday I read The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which was a very popular novel at the time, and one other. I think all three were in one Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. I read all the time.

Frank: What were some other books you read?

Skip: My father loved mysteries, detective stories, and he used to get the Alfred Hitchcock magazine, so I read that. And we would watch Alfred Hitchcock every Sunday. We also watched The Twilight Zone. It scared the daylights out of me!

I was raised to be a doctor, and I also started reading books written by doctors who became men of letters: William Carlos Williams, Somerset Maugham, Conan Doyle. One time I read maybe 50 short stories and four Sherlock Holmes novels, straight through.

Frank: Is there any particular book that you’d say actually changed your life?

Skip: I would say Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, which I read in the summer of ’65 after the Watts riots. I was at an Episcopal church camp in Romney, West Virginia, called Peterkin. There were three black kids there, and 102 campers. The deliveryman on Sunday brought a newspaper with a big headline. A bunch of kids were gathered in a group and looking at me nervously, and I knew it was about race. I walked up and looked down at the newspaper, and it said: “Negroes Riot in Watts.”

Frank: Then what?

Skip: Everybody looked at me, like what was I going to say? Well, I didn’t know where Watts was, and I didn’t know what a riot was. I thought it was white people killing black people or something. So this priest from Massachusetts, Father Robert Smith, who was very sensitive, came that night to my cabin and knocked on the door. We were in our bunks, two sets of bunk beds, and he said, “I think you might want to read this.” I looked at the book and saw a black man staring at me — I still have the book — it was James Baldwin’s face, and it was Notes of a Native Son. I stayed awake and read it straight through.

Frank: How did Baldwin’s book affect you?

Skip: After that I read everything black I could find, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Cane by Jean Toomer. I still read general interest books, but I became obsessed with reading books about black experience.

Frank: What one book by an African American would you recommend Islanders read?

Skip: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. It’s about learning how to define yourself, moving from being an object to a subject, learning to tell your own story and not letting other people tell it for you.

Frank: How do your students react to the abuse of Janie in that novel?

Skip: Somebody raises it every year. Janie’s slapped four times. Nanny slaps her. Joe slaps her. But when Teacake slaps her, they end up making love. I push their buttons on that. “Oh, you found it,” I say. “Is that like S/M?”

Frank: You don’t have to give students trigger warnings?

Skip: I can say whatever I want. I don’t have to be sensitive in the classroom. Trigger warnings? Please.

Frank: The French author François Mauriac said that the books you read reveal who you are, but the books you reread help us know you better. What books do you reread most often?

Skip: The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois, and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. People think of Douglass as a runaway slave who was a major black abolitionist, the most famous black man in the 19th century between 1841 and his death in 1895, when he was replaced by Booker T. Washington. But he was also a great man of letters. Self-educated. An autodidact. And a genius.

Frank: What recent book has most fascinated you?

Skip: Picturing Frederick Douglass. My colleague John Stauffer edited it. It’s about the astonishing fact that Frederick Douglass turns out to be the most photographed human being in the 19th century. All the photographs are in this book. Douglass also wrote four essays about his theories of photography, which had never been published until John put them in this book.

Frank: You also contributed an essay to the book. David Brooks wrote about it last week in the New York Times.

Skip: It’s one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done. I’ve written three or four essays about Douglass, but when I was writing this one, I knew I’d stepped into a new realm. A lot of the observations I share in that essay I’d had before, but I put them together in a grand way. I’m 65, and if you teach a text long enough, you can find things to say in a whole new way.

Frank: What’s most revealing about the photographs of Douglass?

Skip: If you look at the photographs, if you just leaf through, you’ll see how Douglass composed himself to erase the stereotypical image that Americans and Europeans had of people of African descent.

Frank: So what’s most illuminating about this book is you can see how Douglass destroyed a stereotype.

Skip: Absolutely. He’s engaged in an act of political and aesthetic subversion, erasing a set of negative images and replacing them with a new prototype. No one accused him of being modest.

Frank: Of all the books you’ve written or edited, which one is most meaningful to you?

Skip: Colored People, because I wrote it in memory of my mother for my daughters, so they would know about the Negro world, the colored world, in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m doing a new edition, and now I know a lot more facts about my ancestry since I’ve been DNA-tested. If we were in my house in Cambridge, I could show you my family tree. I descend from three sets of black fourth great-grandparents, all of whom were free. One of them, my mother’s fourth  grandfather — my great-great-great-great grandfather — was John Redman, a free Negro who fought in the American Revolution. I’m now a member of the Sons of the Revolution. That’s pretty funny. I couldn’t have fantasized that when I wrote Colored People.

Frank: What other books are you working on?

Skip: I’m co-editing an annotated Norton anthology of African American folktales with my colleague Maria Tatar. I love folklore myths. I’m reading all about Negro folklore, and found this great thing: John Adams in 1775 wrote about what he called “Negro grapevines”: how Negroes have a marvelous way of communicating hundreds of miles through plantations, and no one knows how — the way people transmitted stories they brought from Africa, and the way they transmuted tales of Native Americans — and made up their own, like Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Bear, those folktales that black people later found embarrassing.

Frank: Didn’t Zora Neal Hurston confront that problem when she went into towns to collect folktales? They didn’t want to talk about them.

Skip: Yeah, and many of the elite black people at that time, who would have been summering on Martha’s Vineyard in the ’20s and ’30s, would’ve said, “Let this stuff go. We need to be learning about Greek and Roman mythology. Forget Tar-Baby. That’s embarrassing.” Because it was seen as a linguistic remnant of slaves.

So you had to do everything you could to be proper. This is my 35th summer on the Vineyard, but when I first starting coming here and black men went to a restaurant, they had a coat and tie on. That was ’81. It was still a transitioning time. No black people lived in Chilmark but Connie and Preston Williams. Adelaide Cromwell Gulliver had a house in Vineyard Haven. She was a professor at BU. There might have been others I didn’t know, but among our group, everybody else had a house in O.B. When we went to the beach, we went to the Inkwell. We almost never went out, because people were cooking at home.

When I’d go to Edgartown, I felt like I was in Iceland or Switzerland. White people, white houses, white beaches.

Frank: Edgartown is where I saw you with your school friends.

Skip: That’s now. I love the Vineyard. It’s the most integrated place I’ve lived in.

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