Supposedly, the President's pal Skip is the most famous black scholar in America, at least if you are on the left. But there is disturbing pattern emerging of the good professor being a little sloppy with his facts. And not just in terms of flinging accusations of racism at Cambridge cops.
"It's like Shakespeare's 'My love is like a red, red rose,'" he declared, authoritatively, to a court in Fort Lauderdale .
As it happens, "My luv's like a red, red rose" was written by Robbie Burns, a couple of centuries after Shakespeare.
Now, Steve Gilbert points out the good professor, even in his own field, seems to disagree with the Oxford English Dictionary as to the origins of the N-word, a term which he uses liberally in his writing, though pretty much off limits for People of Colorlessness like me:
October 9, 1994
BRIAN LAMB: Henry Louis Gates Jr., author of "Colored People." Why the title?
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: 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: 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 nigger 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...
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...
You would perhaps think that the chairman of Afro-American Studies at Harvard who is also a professor of English would have thought to look up the etymology of the word in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary.
Steve reproduces the OED entries on the word's origins, (see for yourself) and comments:
So let's review.
Professor Gates got the century wrong when the word first appeared. (The OED traces it to the 16th century, rather than the 17th.)
And Mr. Gates also got the spelling wrong for the mention of the first slaves sold in Jamestown. (The OED quotes Captains Smith as spelling it "Negars.")
What a scholar!
Indeed, given Mr. Gates' obvious penchant for the N-Word, you would think he would have at least gotten its history right.
I suppose it is possible the OED is wrong, or maybe they are just racist. Gates is, after all, a Postmodern scholar, someone who believes there are only "texts" which have no inherent meaning. It all depends on the narrative one wishes to construct, you see. All the Eurocentric stuff about facts and truth is just racist when applied to the African experience.
But based on his willingness to call himself an expert and get basic facts wrong, not to mention his willingness to call an exemplary police sergeant, recognized as an expert on how to avoid racial profiling a racist, one has to wonder if the man isn't just a complete fraud, a poseur.
Well, that might explain his affinity for the President and vice versa. Something about professional courtesy.... Update from Rosslyn Smith:
Sean Wilentz of The New Republic (very far from a conservative) takes Professor Gates to task for his new work, Lincoln on Race & Slavery. Gates wrote and hosted a PBS documentary on Lincoln. The book is a companion to that documentary. It is a long review of several works that came out to honor the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth this year, with the section on Gates beginning near the midpoint.
Wilentz had this to say about Gates' scholarly effort, or apparent lack thereof.
Along with his co-editor, Donald Yacovone, Gates has chosen seventy writings by Lincoln on the subjects of slavery and race, and reprinted either their key passages or the entire document. Thanks to the Internet, this compilation could not have taken up too much time or energy: if you go to the online edition of Lincoln's collected works and enter the word "slavery" into the site's simple search engine, all but a few of the book's documents instantly appear, in chronological order, along with a few dozen more, all ready for downloading.....
....he devotes a long introductory essay to making sense of Lincoln's ideas about slavery and race. Gates describes being struck by the discovery that Lincoln developed quite distinct lines of thinking about the two subjects -- as well as about a third subject, colonization, or the idea that blacks, once emancipated, ought to be strongly encouraged, and even given funds, to resettle voluntarily in Africa or in some other tropical destination far from the United States. What is truly striking, though, is that Gates is so surprised by what he found in Lincoln's writings. Eric Foner's study of the ideology of the antebellum Republican Party, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men -- which was published nearly forty years ago, and remains required reading in many undergraduate as well as graduate history courses -- laid out the important distinctions. College textbooks have presented them for a long time.
This is particularly pointed because according to Wikipedia, the 58 year old Gates holds a BA in history, summa cum laude. Foner's 1970 book made its initial splash in academic circles while Gates was earning his undergraduate degree at Yale. The review goes on in the same vein for some length and includes a wonderful smackdown of Garry Wills, who is a Lincoln scholar, for supporting Gates' promotion of an Afrocentric -- and counterfeit -- version of how Lincoln came to change his view of blacks in the New York Review of Books.
If you are a student of Lincoln, I recommend the Wilentz'review.