Sunnie Ning ‘18
On Monday, March 27, Henry Louis Gates Jr., literary critic, professor, historian, filmmaker and public intellectual discussed his thoughts on “Black America Since MLK” in a Presidential Colloquium at Smith College.
Gates is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. An Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, he has created 15 documentary films, including “Wonders of the African World,” “African American Lives,” “Faces of America,” “Black in Latin America” and the PBS television series “Finding Your Roots.”
Gates was greeted by a large crowd. Audience members included students, faculty, staff and local community members. Curious participants completely packed the Weinstein Auditorium, and an overflow room was set up in the Carroll Room.
In the opening introduction, President Kathleen McCartney thanked Alexys Butler ’16 and N’dea Drayton ’16, the two former Black Students’ Alliance co-chairs who first brought up the idea of inviting Gates to Smith. “Last spring, they asked me to invite Professor Gates to speak at Smith,” McCartney said, crediting the two recent alums.
The colloquium began with a 20-minute viewing of Gates’ most recent documentary, “Black America after MLK: And Still I Rise,” in which he embarks on a personal journey through the last fifty years of African American history. Joined by scholars, celebrities, activists and their personal stories, Gates narrates the history of African Americans from the victories of the Civil Rights Movement up to now, ending with an optimistic tone for the victory of justice and equality.
After the viewing McCartney posed a few questions to Gates before moving on to a question and answer session with the crowd. His humor and frequent reference to anecdotes often made his audience laugh, yet left them pensive.
When McCartney asked what he thought of race and gender, Gates said that strong female role models in his life connected him to feminism. “I’m always aware of the parallels between the fight for equal pay, for equal work, and the fact that people will look at you and think you should lower your expectations because you are a woman,” said Gates. He also acknowledged the compounding effects of racism and sexism and the need to combat that. “I don’t know what the algorithm for racism plus sexism is like, but it’s hell,” said Gates, “I don’t know what that is like, but I know it’s still around, and we have to fight that.”
McCartney also asked if the optimism at the end of the documentary still holds after Trump’s election into the White House, and if progressivism is withering away. Gates emphasized the importance of staying optimistic. He also addressed the importance of respecting people at the opposite end of the political spectrum. He noted how fifty years ago, people agreed to disagree, whereas now, having friends with opposite political ideologies has become increasingly rare. “The problems confronting us, in terms of racism, classism, sexism, are so complicated that we have to be humble enough to say none of us has the solutions, that our traditional ideology has failed. We need to try to find fresh solutions to the problems, and not demonizing each other just because of [their] state of political correctness,” commented Gates.
An audience member asked a question about scientific research on PTSD’s ability to affect later generations, and how this could have altered our understanding of the impact of structural and systematic oppression over generations. Gates answered that emphasis has to be placed on both structural and behavioral changes. He stressed the need for black community leaders to push for behavior changes, but also emphasized that public education needs to be equally funded. “We have to do both things,” concluded Gates.