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Henry Louis Gates Jr. Remembers the Rev. Peter Gomes

Illustration for article titled Henry Louis Gates Jr. Remembers the Rev. Peter Gomes

The Root's co-founder and editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., a longtime friend of the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes, has paid tribute to the Harvard minister in a New Yorker essay, calling Gomes a "spiritual guide" and contemplating his complicated identity.


Read some excerpts here:

The first time I saw Peter Gomes, he was presiding over the memorial service for Nathan Huggins, the venerable chair of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, who had passed away, in 1989, from pancreatic cancer. Though Gomes claimed to be Baptist, he wore a red robe with a large white bow tied at his neck, vestments that seemed more High Church Anglican. As startling as that was, I was even more startled when he opened his mouth. "My dear friends, it is good to see you, even on this dark and sad occasion," he began. What took me aback was not the language but the sound. It was as if Cotton Mather had returned from the dead, and in black face at that. No wonder these Negroes at Harvard are so screwed up, I thought as I headed home to Durham following the service; this Negro thinks he's a Puritan.


Two years later, I found myself, as much to my surprise as to his, sitting in the Reverend Gomes's office, for my final interview to become Nathan Huggins's successor …The interview started quite awkwardly; we both were a bit wary. Gomes mentioned some concerns about me that he'd heard voiced. I replied by quoting the TV show that was my childhood favorite: "Well, as one wise man once said, 'Yo' honor, I not only resents the allegation, I resents the alligator!' " "George 'Kingfish' Stevens," the Reverend responded, identifying the trickster character in the "Amos 'n' Andy" show. He heartily approved.

Gomes was a large, warm, and mischievous soul, who contained a multitude of identities, each worn with a certain roguish sense of irony … In an era of sometimes confining identity politics, Gomes continued to insist on his own freedom. Cape Verdean and Jewish; Virginia and Massachusetts; gay and Baptist; slave and free; a counselor to the powerful and to the powerless: Peter Gomes smoothly navigated his own Mayflower through this sea of identities, because he anchored himself to none.

In the past twenty years, Peter, the least self-serious of men, became a spiritual guide for me, someone I turned to for advice and for company — always grateful for the suppleness of his mind, the shrewdness of his judgment, and, yes, the timbre of his voice. We could discuss anything, from Jesus the fisherman to George Stevens the Kingfish. I gave Peter the complete DVD set of "Amos 'n' Andy" for Christmas two years ago. He assured me that I had chosen well.

Read the entire essay at the New Yorker.

In other news: Who Owns the United States?

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