Gates' Cold Shower on the Reparations Debate
The Harvard professor's hard facts on slavery are a blow to the "victim studies" hustle.
The slave trade is no less horrible if we are asked to step out of the intellectual skin of our adolescence and grow up to understand what the British meant when they famously observed, "A man is a man, for all that." Once the languages and styles that obscure the humanity of any group are well enough translated or understood, it is impossible not to recognize human types among all ethnic groups, religions and cultures.
Ideologues have resisted this because ideology is always at war with humanity. In what Langston Hughes called "the quarter of the Negroes," the ideologue has a preference for overwhelmed African victims and overwhelming European and white American victimizers. Africans do not show any fewer human traits than any others and show no worse ones when evil is found to exhibit itself with the same level of ruthlessness or paranoid hysteria that we see everywhere else in the world.
To reduce Africans to no more than victims, whether they drove the slave trade or not, is to exclude them from the timeless themes that have no nation and no particular address. Getting beyond simple-minded notions of good and evil is one of the big tasks of our time and is, as usual, being addressed by major writers and thinkers the world over. We have seen them rise to prominence as they have spoken with the bullets of hard facts attempting to mortally wound the dragons of totalitarianism--religious, political, or neither--wherever they have appeared.
Writers and thinkers from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin and South America have problems, but they are not contradicted by an industry of college teachers competing for highly paid franchises, academic Kentucky Fried Chickens made in the image of gold by the blame game.
Robert Penn Warren once said to Albert Murray in South to a Very Old Place that American slavery was no more than a terrible human business, and every element of it was defined by the intricate human shortcomings or virtues of those involved on either side of the issue. But those selling academic smack on our campuses never even approach what Gates makes clear in his New York Times editorial. It could have been both an allusion to a very successful academic entertainer and a statement of fact had it been titled "Truth Matters."
But inconvenient truths are contrary to the rules of the game and academic smack dealers, like all hustlers, are never less than "true to the game." That game is based in a sadomasochistic ritual where white people pay to be whipped then gleefully pass out appointments and tenure to the most vociferous and those most popular with students. Students are important trumps in this game because they are marks who love to play the alienated parts passed on to them from rock-and-roll entertainment.
As more intestinal fortitude starts rising up, the smack dealers in the universe of higher education might now begin to feel that fissures are shooting up the walls of white guilt and black gullibility which protected them for all too many years.
When this new endangered species looks for the Samson who began pushing down the building erected for philistines, they will discover that it all started with a little guy at Harvard who knew that a certain kind of blindness results from refusing to face those truths harmful only to hustlers. As Dragnet made famous during the early days of television, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has taken a simple but revolutionary position: "Just the facts." Facts can always move us closer to any new birth of freedom.
Stanley Crouch is an essayist and columnist based in New York. He has been awarded a MacArthur, a Fletcher, and was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences. The first volume of his Charlie Parker biography will appear within a year.