University of Vermont

Markers of Hope

In UVM speech, renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates announces genome project to inspire inner-city children

Humor and our common humanity mark Henry Louis Gates' MLK address. (Photo: Raj Chawla)

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates -- public intellectual, MacArthur “genius” Fellow, recipient of 51 honorary degrees -- is a true storyteller, irreverent and irrepressible, speaking before a crowd as he might at a friend’s dinner table, deep and rich as the topic might be. So it was as he delivered this week’s Martin Luther King celebration keynote address, riffing a musical performer’s “bad” hat, the shaved-headed Gates describing his college Afro as making “my man” Cornell West’s unmistakable silhouette look like a crew cut.

He was at UVM for the second occasion that paid homage to the civil rights movement and the work of great African Americans. In 2007, when he received one of those honorary degrees, he met commencement speaker Georgia Congressman John Lewis, one of King’s “lieutenants” who had been a hero of Gates’ since he was a teenager. “It was a bit like being in a time machine and watching our greatest generation in the race come alive on that stage here at the University of Vermont,” he said. “It was a magical, truly inspirational and transformative day.”

In his own speech, following a historic day in which the first black president was inaugurated on the country’s only holiday honoring an African American historical figure, Gates called it a “combination of identity politics unimaginable not only in 1968 but even a few years ago. If Dr. King miraculously came back for a visit he’d die all over again.”

But Gates was quick to question how revolutionary the change has been, citing a host of grim statistics including the fact that nearly half of black children who begin kindergarten do not graduate from high school and that the percentage of black children living beneath the poverty line was 34.9 percent in 2010 compared to 36 percent in 1969, the year after King died. And he notes a rift that he says was entirely unforeseen -- a division between middle class blacks and those living in poverty, two nations, he says, within the African American community itself.

Tangled roots

The stats quickly segued into more storytelling as Gates launched into his passion for genealogy, an interest born at an early age when his family buried his very white-looking grandfather, father to Gates’ white-looking, soft-haired father who, following the service, took then 9-year-old Gates and his brother into his grandfather’s home and dug up a picture of their great-grandmother, a slave, whose dignified picture he projected on screen. She had five children, all of whom, Gates said, “looked white… You don’t need a degree in genetics to figure out who fathered (them), right?” His father also showed them her obituary from 1888, which read, “…died this day in Cumberland, Jane Gates, an estimable colored woman.”

“The last thing I did before I went to sleep was I looked up the word 'estimable,' because I didn’t know what it meant, and I thought, ‘Wow, she was a very special lady, and maybe that means that I’m special too.’” Gates doesn’t make the connection directly, but it’s a feeling, before Yale and Cambridge and Harvard and all the awards, that may have prompted his middle-of-the-night inspiration for a new curriculum project that he first announced in the talk at UVM.

After taking the audience through the tales that led to his widely popular PBS documentaries, using modern genomic science to trace the early ancestors of celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Quincy Jones to Tina Turner, he discussed a just-completed curriculum funded by the National Science Foundation to make a stab at addressing the crisis of class he had discussed within the African American community. After seeing deeply emotional reactions from superstars, Gates said, “how transformative could it be to an inner-city child who has no healthy sense of identity?”

He explains, “No matter how dark the African American, no genealogy company has ever tested an African American who is 100 percent African. (Comedian) Chris Rock, who was in my last series, is 20 percent white…. if we did the DNA of all the black men in the NBA… 35 percent descend not from a black man at all, but from a white man. Just like I do.”

So the hope is to try the project out with middle school kids, help them trace their family trees as far back as slavery, where the paper trail ends and then, with parental permission, test their DNA, revealing more about their ancestry. In the course of the project, the students will learn how to interview their families, how to perform archival research by tracing their ancestors on the computer and to understand some of the science behind the genetic testing while they wait for results.

Maybe the answers could spark the same reaction as “meeting” an estimable great-grandmother suggesting to a young Gates that he might be special.

“Dr. King’s tragic assassination in April of 1968,” Gates told the audience, “manifested itself in the quest, indeed in the demand, that black people had the right to have a past, because having a past was the key to identity and identity was the key to agency, to action, taking hold of and control of one’s fate… to use this resurrected past to foster dignity and self-respect.”

Gates discovered for himself that his ancestors are essentially half Sub-Saharan African and half European. “That,” he said, “helps to illuminate the unity of the human species.”

And maybe it will help the little girl President Obama imagined in his second inauguration speech on Monday, Martin Luther King Day, who “born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else” – not just in our eyes but also in hers.