Spinning Race at Harvard

The Business Behind the Gates-West Power Play

Calls to dozens of academics garnered only 12 callbacks and a mere handful of people willing to be quoted. One white scholar asked me to be nice, and another, who is black, said she wasn't even sure why she was so afraid to be quoted. They are not reluctant because of their friendship with any of these men, though most have known them for some time, but because they are afraid of one of them—Henry Louis Gates.

Gates has long been quietly referred to as the Booker T. Washington of our time. Not because it's an easy tag, but because he functions in the academic world exactly as Washington did on an even larger stage 100 years ago. Washington, the most famous Negro of his day, got a phone call any time one of his brothers was on the way up. He could make or break opportunities and was so powerful that even DuBois sought his good graces early on in his career.

Today, it is widely known that a black academic seeking a plum job is apt to have his reputation checked by deans or department heads making a phone call to Cambridge. Gates's reach includes not only anyone who studied with him as an undergraduate, graduate, or as one of the hundreds of DuBois Institute fellows of the past decade, but anyone in the field at all.

Gates seems happy to wield this power. I have known him on a cordial basis for years, and his first publication as an editor was a posthumous collection of essays by his mentor at Yale, my cousin Charles T. Davis. I have no ax to grind with him, and I have witnessed his rise to power. The stories of how he calls to let you know he made a job possible for you are legendary. The only thing he produces in greater volume than books is gossip. Some people fear him. Some are jealous of his career. Some resent the fact that he is not more political.

That's why it's hard to imagine that Gates was totally happy with West grandstanding to the point that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton politicized the contretemps. Gates's many endeavors are largely devoid of any political thrust, and he has been at pains to master the academic system, particularly at Harvard.

There is a story that Gates has told publicly many times, that when he was winding up his negotiations to come to Harvard from Duke, he told Henry Rosovsky, former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and former acting president, that he had one last request. Rosovsky, in this account, was impressed because Gates's demands had been extensive. Gates said he wanted to be flown up to Boston once a week before his start date, to learn from Rosovsky personally the Way of Harvard. Rosovsky supposedly complimented Gates on the intelligence of the demand. Gates also enjoyed a close relationship with Harvard's last president, Neil L. Rudenstine. Gates's swift statement that he considers the Summers blowup to be over may indicate that he hopes he can make this new relationship work for him too.

West and Gates are very different men, it seems, in a situation such as this. West is still smarting and threatening to leave. "In my 26 years of teaching," he has said, "this is unprecedented for me. I've never been attacked or insulted in that particular way." His most telling remark may have been that he does "not tolerate disrespect, being dishonored and being devalued." But it is also clear that his feet haven't touched the ground in a while—he was very upset that Summers had not listened to "a note" of his rap CD, Sketches of My Culture, released last September, and described as follows on www.cornelwest.com: "In all modesty, this project constitutes a watershed moment in musical history." West has had some glaring lapses of judgment before, most recently, perhaps, when he showed up on TV supporting Sean "Puffy" Combs during his trial. Before that, one could argue that he misjudged the mileage he would get out of spending hours on the podium at the Million Man March.

Still, the heavy in the picture and the CEO of all the business done by these guys is Gates. First, Gates was instrumental in getting investment whiz kid Alphonse "Buddy" Fletcher to put up at least $3 million to endow the professorship West now holds. Fletcher also gave stock holdings from his company to the university, and cosponsored a number of pricey events, including Gates's "April in Paris: African Music and Europe" conference in 1996. Gates also engineered a gift of $3 million from Time Warner for Harvard's Quincy Jones professorship of African American music.

Gates clearly has shifted from writing works of scholarship to two other concerns: popularizing scholarship on mainstream African American literature and culture, and making available many important out-of-print texts. And his recent TV documentaries indicate that he's interested in popularizing himself as our guide to the African continent as well.

The first project explains the incredible number of titles now in print under Gates's name. Looking up titles for him on Barnes & Noble's Web site I found 164 items. This includes all editions of books he's associated with as writer, editor, or contributor. In comparison, Henry Steele Commager, the great popularizer of American history, has only 74 items; Shelby Foote, the massively popular Civil War historian, 75; and Gates's idol, W.E.B. DuBois, 50.

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