Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. He is also the host of Finding Your Roots, and Africa’s Great Civilizations (among many other documentaries).
Below are 10 questions.
- If you were eighteen and had to choose a different profession from the one you have now, what would that be? (a professor in a sufficiently different scholarly discipline would count.)
Hollywood Film Producer or Psychiatrist/Novelist.
- About ten years ago you began bringing genealogical research to the public. Personal histories, if you will. Obviously you’ve continued down this path and expanded your purview in terms of topic, as well as the methods you use. The ‘use case’ for why genetics and genomics matter for personal health straightforward. But for genealogy, one’s ancestry, it is often more vague, and perceived to be a matter of entertainment. And yet I know many people for whom it is an emotionally rewarding endeavor. Why do you think this is so?
When I conceived of the series that has become Finding Your Roots, my goal was to use the new science of ancestry-tracing through mt- and y-DNA to enable African Americans to learn more about their distant ancestry in Africa. I had no idea how the science worked, but I had been tested by Dr. Rick Kittles and given a startling result, a result, as it turned out, that turned out to be much more complicated than it initially appeared. (But that is another story.). I approached my friend, Quincy Jones, and asked him if he would be in the series, should we raise the funding. He readily agreed. Quincy himself was fascinated with genealogy, as it turned out; he had scored the music for “Roots,” and had introduced me to Alex Haley, the king of black genealogy. When I pitched the story to potential corporate sponsors, I sold the idea around the recovery of lost African ethnic ancestry. “How would you like your corporation’s brand associated with the world learning the ‘tribe’ from which Oprah Winfrey descended?” That was the pitch. And that was it! So we launched “African American Lives,” and it was a hit. We followed it, at PBS’s urging, with “African American Lives II,” another hit. When I received a letter from a woman of Russian Jewish descent, asking if I was a racist because we only tested black people in the series, we “expanded the brand,” as they say, and decided to trace everybody’s roots. I shall forever be grateful to that person for making that bold suggestion to me. It had never occurred to me before that I could test white people, and that they might find the process as riveting as black people did.
Here’s the surprise: initially, I thought the climax of the reveal would be the discovery of an African American’s African ethnic ancestry, on their mother’s mother’s line, or their father’s father’s line. But to my surprise, this is not the part of the process that moved my guests the most. What moved them was learning the names of their recent ancestors on their family trees, their great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, etc., the names of the people who had survived slavery and then the Jim Crow era. I almost fell off my chair when the first person we interviewed began to cry, just seeing the name of an enslaved ancestor on a musky old document. It was a revelation to me! Distant ancestry–always, by definition, anonymous– is intellectually fascinating; recent ancestry–learning the names of the people on your own family tree going back a few hundred years–can be powerfully gripping emotionally. And that has turned out to be true for all of the guests in all of our genealogy series.
Why? Because genetic genealogy is, in the end, ultimately about yourself. It is a way of learning more about the human being you have become. You literally inherit DNA from all of the ancestors on your family tree going back 5 or 6 generations; but you also, it seems some-times, inherit preferences, habits, choices, inclinations, from recent ancestors, ancestors whom you have never met and will never meet. It’s uncanny. But it is true. Habits are passed down, invisibly, generation to generation, just as surely as DNA is. My work has been blessed with wonderfully generous mentors in the field of genetics, who have shared developments in this fascinating field as they have unfolded. So each year, our DNA reveals have become more and more sophisticated. I’m thinking of people such as George Church, Eric Lander, Mark Daly, David Altshuler, Steve Hyman, Joanna Mountain, Kasia Bryc, Razib Khan, CeCe Moore and most recently David Reich.
- No matter how intimate you are with someone it is not possible to understand an individual in every single detail of their thought process and viewpoints. But oftentimes it is useful to collect some informative data so as to make one’s own inferences. Here is an example. I’m going to name two philosophers who shape my thinking and align with my own viewpoints who both lived before 0 A.D., one Western and one non-Western. That would be Aristotle and Xunzi. I’d be curious as to your picks.
Kant and Hegel fascinate me, in part because of what they wrote about race. What they wrote was not, shall we say, very flattering to people of African descent. But my all time favorite philosopher is Plato. I am also partial to the great Greek tragedians as well, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. But that’s my day job, teaching literature!
- Genetics and history are progressing rather fast. Because of the cost and lack of information a lot of the work on ancient DNA has involved prehistory. But soon that will change. I know that some African Americans hold Egypt to be a ‘black’ civilization. When ancient DNA begins to come back my prediction is that ancient Egyptians will be shown to be a predominant mixture of Levantine farmers, Natufians, with a minority component of Sub-Saharan ancestry with strong affinities to the populations which in-habit the current Sudan. This mixture is probably old, and may date to the ‘Green Saha-ra’ period, so well-mixed throughout the population. For those of Afrocentrist perspective would this be sufficient? Would it be controversial? To be frank, I know that in many circles population genetics is ignored when it is inconvenient to the narrative, so perhaps it would only be of scholarly interest?
Though we’ve inherited many representations of Egyptians created by themselves, we don’t yet know what the Egyptians actually looked like, because their mode of portraiture was not realism. However, if you consult “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” volume one (edited by David Bindman and myself), you will see that we know what colors they used to represent themselves, and the skin tones they used to represent Nubians, who lived south of the 3rd cataract. And from what I can tell, they were the color of North Africans today, not white, not black, but somehow in-between. The Nubians–Egypt’s sometime trading-partner, sometime friend, sometime enemy, sometime conquered sometimes conqueror–however, are always represented as darker and with what anthropologists used to call “Negroid” features. Just look at the statues recently recovered by the great anthropologist, Charles Bonnet, of the Black Pharaohs of the Nile, the Nubians who conquered Egypt and established The 25th Dynasty. Let’s just say that had they shown up in Mississippi in the 50’s, they’d be sitting in the back of the bus. The Egyptians and the Kushites or the Nubians exchanged many things, including, without a doubt, genetic material. But on the whole, I believe that DNA will reveal exactly what you predict, and will show that the Nubians, by contrast, have a much larger component of sub-Saharan autosomal DNA, just like their descendants do today in the country of Sudan. I’ll take Nubia any day! It was an extraordinary civilization, it lasted through three iterations from 3000 BC to about 400 AD (as Kerma, Napata, and Meroe), it had a written language (Meroitic), and it was undeniably and indisputably “black.”
- As a scholar there is always a tension between production of knowledge geared toward colleagues, and that geared toward the broader public. The tension is not something that many in the public are aware of, but within the scholarly world there is a spectrum of acceptability, with some academics asserting that anything geared toward the broader public is a ‘waste’ of time. Those who hold this view in public are the minority, but my experience has been that this position is held privately to a much greater degree. Most people would say you are a ‘public intellectual,’ so you clearly have opted for engagement. Have there been ramifications or consequences in the world of scholarship? And why do you choose to engage the public? Is it because you think it is important for the public? Because it is important for you to share what you know? Both?
I have had a long, fruitful and blessed career. At its beginning, understandably, I wrote scholarly pieces in the jargon of critical theory which only a few people could read–only people within the guild, as it were; the initiated. I enjoyed–and enjoy–that kind of writing. One of the happiest days of my professional life was the day I received an acceptance letter about my first essay on “The Signifying Monkey” from Professor W.J.T. Mitchell, the Editor of “Critical Inquiry,” still the finest journal in the field of critical theory. I became the first African American to publish an essay on critical theory in that august journal, and that was hugely gratifying for me. But I also want to be able to share my views of the world, how I see things, with people fluent in languages other than that of critical theory. So I like to thing that I’m multi-lingual. And I love good storytelling, like my father used to do.
- The ‘futurist’ Ray Kurzweil talks about exponential change and the Singularity. Setting aside your specific opinions on the Singularity, what is the greatest technological change you hope to see by 2030? (I’ll give my answer to give you a flavor of what I’m looking for: gene editing technologies becoming advanced enough to cure adults with Mendelian diseases)
I want to know what color Homo sapiens were 50,000 years ago, and what the Egyptians looked like.
- I was a bookish child, and I’m a bookish adult. But I know others who had a life changing moment when they realized that they wanted to explore the world of ideas. When did you realize that your aim in life was to become a professional scholar?
When I went to the University of Cambridge and met Professor Wole Soyinka and my fellow student, Kwame Anthony Appiah. They brought me to the party. Until that time, I thought I’d become a medical doctor. They told me, in their own different ways, that I had been called to be a scholar. The call is irresistible.
- We live in a world of paradoxes. On the one hand economic development in China has resulted in a massive gain in human well being. On the other hand inequality in developed societies, and the possibility of a ‘post-work’ world looms for many lower on the skill hierarchy. I’m pessimistic about any real solution to this problem in the medium term. It doesn’t strike me that the political Left or Right have any ideas beyond rhetoric and appeals to 20th-century social-political tools in response to 20th century conditions. What is your stance on this? Are you optimistic? Pessimistic?
We just aired “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” on PBS in November. It’s about the class divide within the black community. It’s a wake up call. While the black middle class has doubled since Dr. King died and the black upper middle class has quadrupled over the same period, the percentage of black children living at or beneath the poverty line has dropped from about 42% to about 38%. In other words, there is a huge class gap within the black community and those of us most privileged, those of us who have benefited from affirmative action, need to insist that the government and private industry undertake the wide variety of programs necessary to restart class mobility in this country.
- I know that you’ve dug really deep into human prehistory of late, with a focus on human evolution. If the public take away one thing, what would that be?
We are all Africans. And mutations matter.
- In no particular order, could you list five books that have influenced you? Don’t spend more than a minute or so, no worries if you’d give a somewhat different list if asked again tomorrow! (Here’s mine: Principles of Population Genetics, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, From Dawn to Decadence, In Gods We Trust, and The Blank Slate).
A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables, Death and the King’s Horseman, Macbeth, Cosmopolitanism (by Kwame Anthony Appiah), Notes of a Native Son, Cane, Invisible Man, Frederick Douglass 1845 Narrative of the Life, Their Eyes Were Watching God.