A Conversation with Skip Gates: "My mother hated white people..."
Sat Jul 25 2009 20:45:08 GMT-0400 (Eastern Daylight Time) · by Dinah Lord · 83 replies · 846+ views
CSPAN/Booknotes ^ | October 1994 | Skip Gates and Bryan Lamb
"LAMB: At one point you had a line in there, something to the effect, "My mother despised white people." GATES: My mother hated white people. LAMB: All her life? GATES: Probably. I didn't know until -- in 1959 we were watching Mike Wallace's documentary called "The Hate that Hate Produced." It was about the Nation of Islam and I couldn't believe -- I mean, Malcolm X was talking about the white man was the devil and standing up in white people's faces and telling them off. It was great...And she loved Malcolm X and she loved what the Muslims were.
BRIAN LAMB: Henry Louis Gates Jr., author of "Colored People." Why the title? [/B]
HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Well, we were colored in the 1950s, and this is a book that attempts to recount what it was like of African descent in the United States between 1950 and roughly 1970. And partly it's a book about names and naming, and not only the names that the race has given itself -- colored people to Negro to black, ultimately to African-American -- but also one's own names. As you know, I talk about the names that were given to me at different points in my life and then finally, when I was 25, I took my father's name.
LAMB: Where did you get the name Skippy?
GATES: From the time I was born -- the day I was born, my Uncle Raymond called me Skipper, and then it became Skippy. We were Piedmonts on the river -- Piedmont, West Virginia, is on the Potomac River, two hours west of Washington, so there's a whole Marine mentality there, and so I became "The Skipper."
LAMB: Before we go back and talk about the past, what are you doing now?
GATES: I'm the chairman of Afro-American Studies at Harvard and a professor of English.
LAMB: And how long have you been doing that?
GATES: This is the beginning of my fourth year.
LAMB: You write to your daughters in the beginning and you suggest that, eventually, after going through all the different names, they may get back someday to calling people of African-American descent or whatever colored. Do you really think so?
GATES: Yeah, it could well be. I mean, stranger things have happened. You see, most people don't realize that we called ourselves African in this country in the 18th and throughout the 19th century. I mean, not African-American, but African. For example, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was formed in the late 18th century, has that name to describe black people. So the names have always been mutable. We've always been at war with racism in this country. And one of the arenas of the crucial arenas of that war was the issue of names because we had the most hideous name put upon us by the most hideous aspect of the American public and that, of course, was ******. So ****** was always at the base, the foundation, the bottom line, and we were always running away from that kind of aspersion.
LAMB: I didn't do it, but if I had more time, I think I would have gone through and counted the number of times you used the word ****** in the book.
GATES: Quite a lot.
LAMB: What's the point?
GATES: Well, I'm quoting people. I'm quoting my father, I'm quoting my uncles, I'm quoting sometimes my mother, the people I grew up with. This is a book about black vernacular culture. This is a book about what black people thought and felt when no white people were around. I tried to imagine myself as a video camera on the sofa of our living room circa 1955, 1960, 1965 and finally 1970, and we use the word `******' all the time. Sometimes it's used very lovingly, sometimes it's used in a mean-spirited way, but it's a natural part of our culture, of our language.
LAMB: Where did the word come from?
GATES: Well, it's a debasement of negro, which is Spanish for black.
LAMB: Did you ever go and find the exact spot where that word started?
GATES: No, linguists have. They can trace it to the 17th century. And it's, again, a debasement of negro or a debasement of Niger, N-I-G-E-R, like the Niger River, or nigars, N-I-G-A-R-S, the word which was used to describe the first 20 or so slaves who came to Jamestown in 1619.
LAMB: How many daughters do you have?
GATES: Two daughters, Maggie and Liza, ages 14 and 12, going on 40.
LAMB: Now have they read this book?
GATES: Yeah, they have, actually. And they've attended two readings that I've given of parts of the book. And I always read the preface when they're in the room because as you know, it's in the form of a letter written to them. The whole book, in its first draft, was written in the form of letters to Maggie and Liza. I was in Italy at the Rockefeller Foundation Conference Center at Bellagio, which is on Lake Como near Milan, and I woke up the first day there and it reminded me so much of Piedmont. It's on this beautiful lake; Piedmont's on the banks of the mighty Potomac. Bellagio has the pre-Alps coming down to the left, hitting the lake; and we had the mighty Allegheny Mountains. And so by extension, I reimagined myself at home, and it was wonderful. And the girls were back in Boston and so I wrote them a letter every day. So each chapter was called a date -- the first was July 10th, the second was July 11th -- and I wrote them 20 to 30 pages a day for two weeks. I lost 10 pounds doing it. I went down to Milan and came back, and then I finished the first draft of the book over the next four weeks. It was quite exciting for me.
LAMB: By the way, how does somebody get to go to Italy under the Rockefeller aegis to do this kind of thing?
GATES: Oh, you just contact the Rockefeller Foundation. They'll send you an application. It's quite competitive. But lots of scholars and creative writers and creative artists and potters and sculptors, dancers, musicians apply. I think there are 14 or 15 scholars and artists in residence at any given time and you stay for five or six weeks. You're very well treated and it's a glorious experience.
LAMB: I'm going to jump to something that you and I had in common, after I read this book, and that was growing up listening to John R.
GATES: You listened to John R.?
LAMB: Well, I remember him as John R., John Richberg and I also listened to somebody by the name of Gene Nobles.
GATES: That's right.
LAMB: Now why did we both listen to that same radio station in Nashville, Tennessee?
GATES: I guess you're an octoroon and you've been passing all this time.
LAMB: Who was John R.?
GATES: John R. -- I saw an article about him in The Times in the '70s and he was this white guy who sounded black and loved black music and black culture. And I think many of us would have been shocked in the '50s and '60s to know that John R. was this white, Southern, mountain guy who was in love with black culture. But he played both gospel music and soul, rhythm and blues, and blues, and that was my first encounter with black music on a national scale, as it were. But I have been surprised by how many people throughout the South -- but you're from the Midwest -- who depended upon John R. and "Randy's Record Shop" for their nightly infusions of black culture. You certainly weren't getting it through WKYR or whatever it was called in Keyser, West Virginia. I mean, basically, I was raised with country music, hillbilly music.
LAMB: When I grew up in Indiana, we used to listen to "Ernie's, Buckley's, Randy's Record Shop," and they had these disc jockeys that talked the -- you know, it was the talk of the day and all that. And I just wondered how we both came to that radio station, what influence it might have had on that whole area. I mean, how could you -- was it difficult to hear it in Piedmont, West Virginia?
GATES: Yeah. You couldn't get in the day. You could only get it at night. It was on AM. It was very scratchy, but you would solder your radio dial to its point on the dial and listen to it every night. And I had an older brother who was five years older, and so he was tuned in to the world and I was just the beneficiary of his wit and wisdom. And he would wait till my parents were asleep, then he would turn it on low, and we had bunk beds and I'd sit there and listen. And it was great. It was an aspect of black culture that I didn't encounter in my daily life. I remember ads for things like Black Strap Laxatives, and they would sing the song just like you would sing blues or rhythm and blues. So it was very important to me. Then you could -- as you know, then you could order the records. So we would order these 45s through "Randy's Record Shop" which, again, we could not get in our local record stores.