Who killed the dead white poets?: In the US, the multicultural debate is turning ugly. But one man could clean the case up: Henry Lewis Gates Jr, influential, reasoned - and funny. Kevin Jackson reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Countless acres of virgin forest have been shredded to provide the paper on which the debates about multiculturalism have been waged in the United States: even Time and Newsweek have devoted their front covers to stories about the issue of whether black, Hispanic and other non-white authors should be taught in the nation's schools. On the whole, this defoliation has yielded more heat than brilliance, with the cultural Right squealing about the frightful ethnic types who suddenly want to play on their verdant lawns, and the Left spluttering about the fascistic wickedness of Dead White European Males called Shakespeare or Aristotle.

But a few writers have stood slightly aside from these unseemly tussles and offered something a little more cogent. One of the more perceptive essays on the subject begins like this: 'Her name was Estelle. I should have known the broad spelled trouble when she came into my office and started talking about the canon. The literary canon . . . '

'Canon Confidential: A Sam Slade Caper' by Henry Lewis Gates Jr, first appeared in the New York Times Book Review a few years ago and has since been reprinted in his punningly-titled collection Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (Oxford). Almost certainly the funniest introduction thus far to America's angry debates about redefining the canon, this mischievous spoof recasts abstruse questions of cultural hegemony and the like in terms of a hard-bitten Chandler / Hammett detective yarn:

' 'So what are you saying? You want me to shut down this operation? Round up the bad guys?'

'Nothing like that,' she said huskily. 'I got no beef with the canon as such. It serves a legit purpose.' She looked around nervously and lowered her voice. 'What I'm telling you is, it's fixed. It's not on the level.' She paused. 'What I'm telling you is, this is the biggest scam since the 1919 World Series . . . ' '

It is not only his sense of humour, however, that distinguishes Professor Gates from his colleagues. In his early forties, Gates - or 'Skip' to his friends - has a good claim to be the most prominent and influential Afro-American critic of his generation. After a high-velocity career including periods at Yale, Cornell, Duke and, on this side of the Atlantic, Cambridge (he's a Clare man), Gates is now Professor of English at Harvard and Chairman of that university's Afro-American Studies Department. He is also the author of several influential books, including a pioneering theoretical work, The Signifying Monkey (1988), and editor, or co-editor of, among other projects, the Oxford Companion to African- American Literature, the Encyclopaedia Africana, and the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers.

More important than Gates' prominent standing within the academic world or his industriousness, though, is the fact that he is willing to think calmly and write lucidly - to a mass audience, that is, and without moth-eaten jargon - on some of the most important cultural questions facing America. His polite refusal to use the soiled old terms of engagement in so doing has won him plenty of enemies on both sides.

'First of all I was attacked by those on the right, who saw the thundering hordes of multiculturalism coming over the horizon on their chargers, getting rid of standards, getting rid of aesthetic values, getting rid of . . . oh, Shakespeare. Now, that's ridiculous. I mean, I believe in excellence, I believe in aesthetic standards, I believe that as soon as you throw out notions of values, then you're in trouble. Of course, Shakespeare's plays should always be taught.

'But it's true that there are some people around on the Left who don't believe these things. They feel that the only way you can teach literature by women, or literature by people of colour, is to say, 'Well, yes, this is bad, but we'll hold our noses and pretend that these standards are some sort of white Western hegemonic strategy to oppress us.' Which means that nowadays I fight a lot of battles with the Afro-centrists - people who think that because I try to insist on things like standards and rigour, that I'm some kind of Uncle Tom.'

Gates is particularly alarmed by the lunatic fringe of Afro-centrism and its fantasies about lines of black descent from an odd version of ancient Egypt which, to connoisseurs of crankery, looks curiously like the theosophical view of Atlantis. Much of the so-called 'scholarship' of this movement is, he thinks, 'completely bogus - people who can't read the relevant languages and haven't done real work just making grand, ridiculous claims about the past'.

He is still more alarmed by the ways in which the Afro-centric movement has fostered black racism, and particularly black anti-Semitism. The latter was the subject of his recent talk 'A Killing Rage', which he came to London to deliver as the first of the new British Library Chadwyck-Healey Lecture series. This is not his first contact with Chadwyck-Healey: since 1982, the company has been publishing the fruits of Gate's epic Black Periodical Fiction Project, which, so far, has unearthed no fewer than 150,000 poems, articles and other writings by black authors: 'The mixed blessing of being in an emerging field is that one has to resurrect the tradition which has been suppressed, lost, stolen, before one can explicate it.' And that blessing is all the more mixed when many of the Afro-American studies programmes which were set up at the end of the 1960s were done so 'cynically, so that they would implode within a decade'.

It's largely thanks to Gates and colleagues like Cornel West that these cynical enterprises have misfired, and some genuine scholarship has started to emerge. Indeed, as Gates says, 'There's never been a more exciting time to be an African-American scholar . . . and there's never been a worse time to be an inner city black. The paradox is that we're doing better in the academy than on the streets.' Gates feels that the only hope for America's future is a kind of Marshall Plan for the inner cities, without which the nation will simply tear itself apart. He has no illusions about the relatively trifling part the academy can play in this process: some of his shrewdest essays have been on the self-deceit of radical academics who write as though they were urban guerillas.

Yet Gates also respects the deep-rooted American tradition of trying to better the world through education, and is not about to cede any moral high ground to the academic reactionaries. 'What we're trying to do is to forge a new public American culture, one which is a result of the blending of the various subterranean cultures, so that they can enter into a dialogue with each other, in schools, in museums . . . It's my belief that excellence comes in many colours and genders and religions, and my concern is to refine our notion of excellence.'

(Photograph omitted)