When I first heard about Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on WHYY radio, he had on his African-American studies hat. It was 2002, and he had just authenticated and published the early 1850s novel “The Bondwoman’s Narrative” by Hannah Crafts, considered to be one of the first novels written by an African-American woman.
Gates is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He has also penetrated the online world as editor-in-chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center, a comprehensive scholarly resource, and of “The Root,” an online magazine covering African-American news, culture, and genealogy. His scholarly work ranges from literary criticism to encyclopedic works on the African-American experience.
His newest book, “Lincoln on Race and Slavery,” published by Princeton University Press, touches upon his expertise in African-American studies, but from an entirely different perspective. In it he is trying to penetrate the mind and soul of a white man, albeit a President of the United States, whose actions profoundly changed the lives of its African-American citizens. The book gathers all of Abraham Lincoln’s significant writings and opinions on race and slavery about this man whom Gates describes as “a recovering racist who grew in the job.”
Gates will speak about “Lincoln on Race and Slavery” at Princeton Public Library on Friday, February 13, in an event cosponsored by Princeton University Press.
Despite this apparent stepping out of his own academic field, Gates came well-equipped to the task. Although not a professional historian, he did graduate summa cum laude from Yale University in American political history in 1973. He earned a doctorate in English literature from Clare College at the University of Cambridge, and he had to use historical research skills for his dissertation on how Europeans wrote about the first black writers in the 18th century. Needless to say the doctorate also required the kind of textual analysis and close reading that came in handy as he set out to delve into Lincoln’s complex and evolving views of race.
The motivation for the Lincoln book, which opens with an excellent essay by Gates, was the research he did for “Looking for Lincoln,” a PBS documentary that Gates hosted, wrote, and produced in honor of Lincoln’s bicentennial. It will premiere on the eve of Lincoln’s 200th birthday, on Wednesday, February 11, at 9 p.m. Before the invitation to work on the film, says Gates, “I hadn’t thought about Lincoln; he wasn’t on my radar screen.”
To prepare for the film, Gates started to read works about Lincoln by some of the giants in the field, including Princeton’s James McPherson and Harvard’s David Herbert Donald. In the end, he read a couple of dozen books from the plenteous supply. “There are over 14,000 books about Lincoln,” says Gates in a phone interview, “more than about anybody else but Jesus.”
In his explorations of Lincoln’s oeuvre on race, Gates teased out three separate strands — his views on slavery, race, and colonization of American blacks in another country. “The metaphor that has been in my head is a braid of hair,” he says, recalling how he would watch his mother braid his cousin’s hair.
When Gates got started on his research, he saw Lincoln as many African Americans do, as a man who had freed the slaves and was pro-black and an advocate of equal rights. But he discovered a different reality in the course of his explorations. “What appeared to be a unified entity,” says Gates, “was really three strands, and I had to unplait Lincoln’s braid.”
The first plait was indeed Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, but even that attitude was more nuanced than Gates had originally thought. “Lincoln was firmly opposed to the institution of slavery as a violation of natural rights — that any man is entitled to the fruits of his own labor,” says Gates. “But the real reason he was against slavery is that it discriminated against poor white men like his father, who was forced to leave Kentucky because all these slaveholders were there and a regular poor white man could not compete in the marketplace with slaveholders.” Highlighting the economic advantage of a slaveholder over a poor white farmer, Gates adds, “It’s like taking the SAT and getting 400 points for just putting your name down.”
But being against slavery did not mean Lincoln believed in the equality of the races — a huge shock for Gates. “For most of his life, Lincoln thought black people were innately, genetically, and naturally inferior to white people. He was against intermarriage, giving blacks the vote, having them serve in the army or be jurors, and he used the n-word.”
This was Lincoln’s reality up to 1862, Gates says, when his views began to change, largely as a consequence of the effectiveness of the black troops who fought successfully for the Union. Lincoln supported giving the vote to his “black warriors” (along with a small group of “very intelligent negroes”) in his last speech, just before his assassination in April, 1865.
The third strand in Lincoln’s thoughts about African Americans — the blacks should be colonized in another country — was bound up with the other two. Says Gates: “While he believed that slavery was bad and that slaves should be freed, he also thought they should be shipped out of the United States — colonized back to Africa; Liberia; maybe Haiti, a black nation; or a new all-black nation he wanted to help fund in the isthmus of Panama.”
In his book Gates traces Lincoln’s views using a textual approach. “I decided I just wanted to render the evidence through Lincoln’s own words, rather than report on the phenomenon in an emotional or polemical way,” says Gates. “I tried to do it in a clinically precise way, tracing Lincoln on slavery, black rights, and colonization, from his earliest utterances chronologically to the time he was assassinated.” Gates sees this teasing out of these three separate lines of discourse as the contribution his new book makes to the already voluminous literature on Lincoln.
Lincoln grew up in the frontier, where racism was simply part of life. There were only 116 black people in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, says Gates, and Lincoln only met more intelligent blacks when he left for school. Yet the reality of Lincoln’s racist beginnings and his continuing racist views was whitewashed and the myth of the great liberator built in its place — both by historians and by leaders in the black community like Booker T. Washington, Marian Anderson, and Martin Luther King.
Of the blacks who created a larger-than-life Lincoln, Gates says, “they wanted an ideal white man, who had pure attitudes and values, who believed in us, loved us, and who we could use to beat on other white Americans who were busy inventing Jim Crow laws and enforcing segregation.”
As Gates was exploring the historical sources and getting more and more upset at Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin gave him some good advice. She pointed out that it wasn’t Lincoln’s fault, but rather the fault of all the people who have interpreted Lincoln. “He was not responsible for creating this myth of Lincoln as the prototype of Martin Luther King,” she told him. “That’s all the historians who later decided they had to protect Lincoln from himself.” In the interest of preserving the myth of Lincoln, they suppressed unpleasant facts — that he used the n word, liked darky jokes, and enjoyed black-faced minstrelsy.
Goodwin’s advice was helpful to Gates. “I went from being disappointed with Lincoln to being disappointed with how historians have written about Lincoln,” he says.
Yet for all the contradictions that Lincoln represents, as he moved beyond his parochial upbringing and took on political responsibilities, his ideas changed. “Because of the pressure of the Civil War and his own innate pragmatism, his ideas about black people evolved dramatically,” says Gates.
Gates explains that his own film and book were not meant to debunk Lincoln, because, as W.E.B. Du Bois said, Lincoln was “big enough to be inconsistent.”
For Gates, it was Lincoln’s ability to evolve as a human being that he ended up admiring. “It made what he did more impressive because he had to work through his attitudes toward black people,” says Gates, adding that an honest presentation of the real man makes it easier to evaluate him fairly.
During one scene in the film, he talks to honors history students who were studying the nuanced truth about Lincoln’s views. “Did it did make them hate him?” asks Gates. “No, it made them admire him more. It shows he was a human being, not a God.”
In the end, Gates says, Lincoln literally gave his life for black rights. “In his final speech, he announced for the first time in the history of the American presidency that he supported the right to vote for some black men,” says Gates. “That speech so angered John Wilkes Booth that he turned to the guy standing next to him and said, ‘That means nigger citizenship and I’m going to kill him.’” And three days later he did.
Gates grew up in Piedmont, West Virginia, an overwhelmingly white Irish and Italian paper mill town on the Potomac River halfway between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. “I’m a country boy,” he says. “My father worked in the paper mill and was a janitor at night; we were the richest black people in town because my father had two jobs.” His family also values education. The first college graduate in his family was a great aunt who graduated from the Howard University’s school of nursing in 1910, and in fact, three generations of his family have graduated from Howard’s dental or medical schools. The first family member at Harvard graduated from Harvard Law School in 1949.
Gates’ great uncle, J. R. Clifford, was the first black man admitted to the bar in the state of West Virginia, and he also owned the Pioneer Press. The same uncle was a friend of Du Bois and, with him, cofounded the Niagara Movement, a black civil rights organization, in 1905. Through genealogical research Gates learned that John Redmond, his fourth-great grandfather on his mother’s side, was a free Negro who fought in the Continental Army, and he and his brother were inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution.
As a result of this illustrious ancestral array, Gates’ mother, herself a homemaker, always used to tell him, “You come from people.” Gates reports that he was raised to be a doctor. “My mom wanted two docs,” he says, noting that his brother is now the chief of oral surgery at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center. Gates himself went to Yale University as a pre-med, but while on a fellowship in England, he says, “I fell in love with being an academic. I was a person of the book and wanted some day for people to pay me to read my books — which has pretty much happened.”
Gates’ love for African-American studies goes back to when he was 15 and one of three black children at an Episcopal Church camp. It was 1965, the summer of the Watts Riots. “The priest gave me a James Baldwin (book), ‘Notes on a Native Son,’” says Gates, “and I was hooked, man. I wanted to know about black people.”
While at Yale, Gates pursued his interest and took a black studies course each semester, but for a long time his pursuit of African-American studies remained only a hobby — until it became his life’s work. “As the years grew,” he says, “I realized my avocation could be a vocation.” And indeed his whole academic career, from his first job at Yale, has been in African-American literature.
Both blacks and whites have contributed to the “contradictory Lincolns out there in books,” says Gates, “as each successive generation of Americans remakes Abraham Lincoln in its own image.” While some proclaim him as a redeemer, others see him as a tyrant; Lincoln the philosopher is weighed against Lincoln the two-faced politician. And at the Sons of the Confederacy convention that Gates and his brother attended in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, were some who thought Lincoln should be chiseled off of Mount Rushmore and tried posthumously under the International War Crimes Tribunal.
But, concludes Gates, “his myth is so capacious that he contains multitudes. That is what the film is about. I don’t try to define a Lincoln; I explain my Lincoln — a man who confronts these unfortunate attitudes he inherits from his environment and gets much better.”
W.E.B. Du Bois shared Gates’s appreciation for the multifaceted human being over the lifeless saint. As Gates quotes in his introduction from Du Bois’s writing in 1922, “As sinners, we like to imagine righteousness in our heroes. As a result, when a great man dies we begin to whitewash him. We seek to forget all that was small and mean and unpleasant, and remember only the fine and brave and good. We slur over and explain away his inconsistencies until there appears before us, not the real man but the myth — immense, perfect, cold, and dead.”
Author Event, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Friday, February 13, 7 p.m. Henry Louis Gates Jr, author of “Lincoln on Race and Slavery.” 609-924-8822 or www.princetonlibrary.org.