Spinning Race at Harvard


Cornel West, a professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, says he’s sore that all the noise about his unhappy job review from the Harvard president has given critics an opening to question his scholarship and that of his colleagues. If that’s the case, he shouldn’t have called the press in the first place.

Lawrence Summers, Harvard’s new president, criticized West about grade inflation, outside pursuits that absented him from class (including his rap CD), and suggested he do a work of serious scholarship. A controversy blew up as West announced that he felt “insulted” by Summers, with the pundits chiming in here and abroad.

West threatened to quit and move to Princeton, a threat joined by both Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department and W.E.B. DuBois Institute, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy.

Apparently the press attention was welcomed by the West-Gates Dream Team. The biggest stink was made by national talk show host Tom Joyner, who exhorted his 30 million listeners to contact the Harvard president. Maybe Joyner was so concerned because, in 2000, he became partners with Gates and McDonald’s in a deal to sell black history booklets with the purchase of a meal. A tie-in with Scholastic produced a teacher’s curriculum guide, sent to nearly 18,000 high schools, distributed by Coca-Cola. McDonald’s announced at the time that both Joyner and Gates were serving as national spokesmen for the promotion.

When Shelby Steele, the conservative race scholar, complained about the Harvard flap in The Wall Street Journal, he was answered in the same paper by another West-Gates colleague, William Julius Wilson, like West one of only 14 “university” professors at Harvard—the school’s most prestigious title. When his article was circulated electronically by Harvard Law School’s Charles J. Ogletree Jr., who serves as the Dream Team’s lawyer, a note was left attached: “Tree: Here is the WSJ letter that Skip asked me to write.”

And the Dream Team had other spinmeisters talking up a theory that right-wingers were behind Summers, that he’s friends with conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, etc. Summers, former Treasury secretary under Clinton, had by all reports spoken to a number of faculty, black and white, about their jobs too, and while some admire him as an intellectual, no one has said he’s a tactful darling. But neither Summers nor any of the other faculty he has privately upset went public with the content of their conversations. Voice phone calls to Gates and West for this story were not returned.

The most damning aspect of West’s power play is the possible backlash for academics, black and white, in African American studies all over the country. These thousands of scholars, some doing brilliant and unheralded work, have struggled for respectability for years, and they don’t need the kind of fallout that comes when privileged men call the race troops to arms for no greater reason than to enhance their already cushy careers.

Rutgers University professor David Levering Lewis, author of the award-winning two-volume biography W.E.B. DuBois, was in residence at Harvard’s history department and taught some of West’s classes during West’s recent medical leave. Lewis, who’s pretty sanguine about the dustup, says he’s “glad to know Harvard is interested in academic standards” and that he suspected “it’s been much overblown.” In situations like this, he said, “people reach for the maximum uppercase noun, LIBERTY, FREEDOM, etc., but I doubt if a commitment to this field of study is in jeopardy.”

But others were more disturbed. Robin D.G. Kelley, NYU professor of history and author of the impressive Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, says he finds Summers’s remarks “more than disrespectful.” He objects to the notion that a professor’s politics would be called into question, saying, “We’re all involved in politics to a certain degree.” The fear for the field, he says, is “if the president of Harvard could bring the country’s top Afro-American department down a notch, I can’t imagine what deans might do at other institutions where there is no respect for what we do.”

Kelley also says it’s his impression that the DuBois Institute and the Afro-American Studies department had struggled hard to accomplish so much. And in the end, Kelley said, Summers might opt to back his own guys while disparaging the larger field, reinforcing their immunity from the woes others suffer.

Elizabeth Alexander, associate professor adjunct in African American studies at Yale, was a student of Gates’s. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” she asks, “if this event were yoked to a broader analysis of how these institutions have not done anything for non-elite scholars? West’s job is to make an analysis that goes beyond his own circumstance.” She says the Dream Team ought to spell out their complaints with Harvard’s affirmative action process, and should also embrace the employee wage issues still in contention there.

But another Ivy League professor, who does not wish to be named, was more aggrieved: “It is tawdry to be called upon to go to bat in what is really a negotiation for further job advantage, when people are out of work, millions are going without health care, and there are real problems.” He may be right. A January 10 New York Times report states that Summers’s office says that talks with the principals continue, “including discussions that would match Princeton offers.” Gates and Appiah visited Princeton last fall—have they been considering this shift for a while?

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 “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.

Gates, sole author of eight books, is associated with the publication of about 119 different titles, in 164 editions on 48 different presses or imprints. While 32 items listing his name are books for which he provided forewords or introductions, Gates is named as editor or co-editor on 71 titles. This is somewhat astounding, particularly when you look at some of the numbers by year: In 1996 alone, his banner year, he was associated with the publication of 30 books. Followed in 1997 by another 13, and preceded in 1995 by 11. His publishing history, which began in 1982, features many years when he was associated with more than a dozen books.

While some of this comes from arrangements with Oxford University Press and McMillan to serve as series editor for a number of releases, one has to conclude that the editor title is also a perk of his power, added to reprints of classic editions of works by dead authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Frederick Douglass, and Jessie Redmon Fauset, as well as various slave narratives, in exchange for a foreword. One publishing source who insisted on anonymity says that Gates’s agent has made the unusual demand for royalties when asked to contribute to several books.

Gates’s second contribution to American literature has its rewards too. His first discovery, Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, the earliest African American novel to come to light, brought him to fame. Gates bought and publicized the book found by an East Village book dealer.

In his 1999 PBS series Wonders of the African World, he discovered a cache of dusty ancient Arabic texts in Timbuktu, which may have a great influence on the writing of the history of Islam in West Africa. According to press material at, Gates “publicized” the existence of these thousands of texts, which came from 15 private collections, and is now helping to see that the “lost library of Timbuktu” is digitized. The word “publicized” may have been used because John Hunwick, a Northwestern University scholar also found a collection of 3000 Arabic manuscripts, “on a 1999 research trip to Timbuktu,” according to Northwestern.

More recently he has recovered an original handwritten manuscript by ex-slave Hannah Crafts, to be released this year by Warner Books as The Bondwoman’s Narrative. The book will unseat Gates’s first find as the oldest black American novel. This manuscript was purchased by Harvard for $10,000 from Swann Galleries in New York, but it was found originally by the legendary African American librarian and bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley, who, according to Africana, “bought the book in 1948.” Gates plans to dedicate the book to her, and Barnes & Noble is touting it as a sure bestseller. Gates’s role in the old book biz is clearly to popularize the importance of these kinds of manuscripts more than to dig them up, yet the image of discoverer has stuck.

Gates, West, and Appiah are not just colleagues—they really should be viewed as business partners. Since the early 1990s, they have been collaborating on books that are owned solely by them, and the appearance of their names on collections is something like the granting of a franchise.

Gates and Appiah have 11 joint titles, most of which are essay collections on famous black writers, ideal for the large college and library markets. They also produced the major-book event, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, and two volumes of the Dictionary of Global Culture. These are ventures of considerable value.

According to a 1999 article on, their Encarta Africana CD-ROM project received $1 million of its $2 million budget from Microsoft. Gates, Appiah, Quincy Jones, Wole Soyinka, and Time-Warner’s Martin Payson started a private company to run the enterprise, Afropedia L.L.C., with Gates and Appiah reportedly receiving $100,000 each as co-editors. The budget was tight for such a huge undertaking—expected to run to 2.25 million words—and they advertised around Cambridge for temporary writers (at 15 cents a word). One of those 15-cents-a-word writers said that the pressure there was enormous and that Microsoft ran the show much more concerned about word count than quality content.

Gates and West have produced two books: The Future of the Race (1996) and The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century (2000), works clearly aimed at large audiences. Each has as much speaking work as they could ever want, but they sometimes team up for university visits. One professor who arranged for them to appear at a Massachusetts school recalled that it cost between $15,000 and $20,000 for the pair. If each man did only 20 speeches a year in the $10,000 range, they could each add $200,000 to their university salaries, which one assumes are at the top of Harvard’s highly competitive salary scale. With talks continuing with President Summers, who knows where those numbers may go.