Editor’s note: This article was originally published in South Africa’s Rand Daily Mail.
When Henry Louis Gates Jr. applied for admission as a student at Yale University, he felt the need to include the following personal statement in his application: "My grandfather was colored, my father was Negro and I am black. As always, whitey sits in judgment, preparing to cast my fate. It is your decision to either let me blow with the wind as a nonentity or to encourage the development of self. Allow me to prove myself."
He was accepted, marking the beginning of a highly successful academic career for the man today popularly known as "Skip," even by his students at Harvard University.
His outspokenness on issues of social justice and dedication to documenting African-American and African history have ensured his reputation as one of the foremost public intellectuals in the U.S.
The highly accomplished professor and award-winning filmmaker has, over the decades, been a recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees and numerous prizes. This week it was the turn of the University of Cape Town to award him with an honorary doctorate in literature for his contribution to academia. In an interview a few hours before the graduation ceremony, Gates—who is […] the founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard—sounded elated by the honor.
"UCT is potentially the best university on the continent of Africa, one of the greatest in the world, and to be chosen is one of the greatest honors of my life," he said.
Gates' fascination with the continent dates back several decades to the time when, as a 19-year-old, he lived briefly in Tanzania as a student. As an undergraduate student at Yale, he kept a Free Nelson Mandela poster in his room and was involved in mobilizing support for the struggle, he said. "I refused to come here before Mandela was free, not that anybody was sending me a bunch of invitations," he joked. But three years after Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison, Gates made a quick stop in the country on his way to shoot the Great Railway Journeys documentary series for the BBC in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.
"We flew to Windhoek and then to Joburg and then drove from Joburg all the way to Victoria Falls. So we were able to see—and we interviewed people—we were able to see what life was like on the ground for average black people anticipating the election which was to take place a year later," he explained.
Since that trip, he has visited South Africa on several occasions and met Mandela.
"I have been fortunate enough to have met Nelson Mandela several times and have two private audiences with him, which I count among the greatest days of my life," he said.
The first time he met Mandela privately, "I was struck dumb, I didn't know what to say, I felt like an idiot," the charismatic Gates said. "You know, you are in the presence of someone who is superhuman—what other human being could be in prison for 27 years and emerge whole like Nelson Mandela? The black historian Lerone Bennett wrote a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. called What Manner of Man. And every time I think of Mandela, that phrase comes to mind."
His admiration for Mandela led Gates to help create the Harvard Mandela Fellowship at the [W.E.B.] Du Bois [Research] Institute [at Harvard].
"I created the Mandela fellows, which bring scholars from UCT to Harvard, to the Du Bois Institute for a sabbatical, and many have been going back to UCT and getting promoted. It was our way of wanting to help postapartheid South Africa," he said.
It is partly for this contribution that UCT recognized him this week.
The conferring of the honorary doctorate on Gates coincided with a difficult period for racial politics both in the U.S. and South Africa, especially Cape Town. A week before he received the honorary degree, millions of Americans—mainly black—took to the streets across the country to demand an end to police brutality targeted at African-American males after a series of highly publicized killings across the country.
In South Africa, there has been a spate of apparently racially motivated attacks that have called into question the progress made in the past 20 years.
Through his work as an academic, filmmaker and activist, Gates has been one of the most visible spokespeople against racism.
However, he was at the center of a racial controversy in July 2009 when a police officer arrested him for allegedly breaking into his own house. Gates, who had just returned from a trip to China, had found the front door of his home jammed and, with the assistance of his driver, tried to force his way in. A neighbor called 911 to report a burglary in progress. The policeman who reacted to the call arrested Gates, refusing to believe the house was his. The incident caused international outrage, with many, including U.S. President Barack Obama, suggesting Gates had been a victim of racial profiling.
Obama later withdrew his comments and organized a White House meeting, over beer, between Gates and the policeman.
But how could all of that happen in the supposedly "post-racial America" of the Obama era?
"All these crazy theories of a post-racial America, it was a fiction.
"One individual being black and president does not change the composition, the essence, of a society. Barack Obama is a charming, charismatic and brilliant man, but that does not wipe out three centuries of slavery followed by a century of Jim Crow segregation.
"You can only address structural problems structurally," Gates said.
This, he said, was one of the lessons 20-year-old South Africans can learn from the U.S. Although wary of sounding like someone "presuming to be an expert on South Africa" when he only knows the country as a visitor, Gates said he saw similarities between South Africa and black America.
"If I go to a restaurant here in Cape Town or Johannesburg, how many black people are clients as opposed to servants? That number has dramatically gone up and what that means is that the size of the black middle class has increased.
"But then when I drive by the townships and see the shantytowns and when I check the statistics and apparently 50 percent of South Africans still live in poverty, if that figure is correct. So I think the situation is analogous to what has happened to black America."
Over the past 20 years, he added, South Africa has experienced similar development patterns to those that have been experienced by black Americans since King's death in 1968.
"Since that day, the black middle class has quadrupled, but the percentage of black children living at and beneath the poverty line is the same as on the day that King was killed. No one predicted that.
"Everyone predicted that as the number of people in the black upper middle class increased, the rising tide will lift all our boats, that all the figures will be better. That didn't happen," Gates said.
The problem was that "there was not sophisticated enough analysis to understand that the problem all along was economic," he said.
"We thought the problem all along was xenophobia, anti-black racism. But [that] was really a metaphor for economic scarcity, economic deprivation—limits to access to what Marxists call 'the means of production.' And by the way, no one has ever accused me of being Marxist."
To bring about fundamental change in the U.S. and in South Africa, Gates said, there was a need for economic programs that were aimed at uplifting the poor.
"We need programs that are targeted at the poor, that give the structurally poor equal access to health care and free public education; adequate housing and the right to a job," Gates said.
The emerging black upper middle class in South Africa, he said, would have to realize that it was not "exceptional."
"I would ask them to remember that their fate is inextricably intertwined with the fate of the 50 percent . still in poverty and they should support programs designed to move people from poverty into the working class and from working class to the middle class.
"There won't be truly a long walk to freedom until what I call the curve of class looks similar for the black community in South Africa as it does for the white community. What percentage of the white community is in the upper middle class? Until those curves of class are similar, reform will still be needed. Only then will the barbed wire come down around the homes in the upper-class neighborhoods in this country," he said. Through education, he believed, the seemingly rising tide of racial intolerance and prejudice in both countries could be reversed.
"It is only through education and exposure from the earliest ages, from preschool, that people can begin to realize that they are more human beings than they are strangers.
The more isolated people remain, the more myths and stereotypes get perpetuated. They are never interrupted. So we need intimacy of contact in the school system and in the workplace."
Gates, who was a historical consultant in the film 12 Years a Slave, and whose documentary series Many Rivers to Cross recently won an Emmy, said he is about to shoot a new series on African civilization.
"I am about to do a six-hour series called Great Civilizations of Africa and we will be filming at Mapungubwe, among other sites in South Africa," he said.