Henry Louis Gates Jr.–whom I once admiringly described as a blend of W.E.B. Du Bois and P.T. Barnum–has a genius for stirring up controversy, even when he doesn’t mean to. It was Gates, the editor-in-chief of The Root, who last year provoked the most embarrassing racial moment of Barack Obama’s young presidency by managing to get arrested for breaking into his own house. So it’s no surprise that his latest op-ed piece for the New York Times has the black blogosphere in a tizzy.
The over-heated reaction is par for the course when the nation’s arguably most prominent black intellectual suggests that if we want to extract reparations for slavery from the U.S. government, we must first persuade the descendents of the African tribes that sold our ancestors into slavery to cough up their share as well. Gates’ idea seems to be that if the Africans admit their ancestors’ complicity–as the heads of Benin and Ghana already have–it will set a moral example that puts pressure on white folks to follow suit.
As he explained to me in an e-mail exchange, he wanted the piece to suggest that, ”we should get some sort of symbolic reparations from the African governments from whence most of our ancestors were captured, and then use that to get concessions (affirmative action, etc.) from the U.S. government. If African governments can do it, then there would be no excuse for the American government not to. And I am thinking of things like symbolic citizenship, opportunities to buy land, long-term tourist visas, etc., whatever!”