Quantcast

Dr. Gates gets honest about Abe

Kam Williams | 2/25/2009, 4:22 a.m.
One of America’s most respected public intellectuals, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates recently unveiled two projects in...
One of America’s most respected public intellectuals, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates recently unveiled two projects in conjunction with the bicentennial of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln: a new book, “Lincoln on Race and Slavery,” and a new PBS special, “Looking for Lincoln.” Harvard University

photo

One of America’s most respected public intellectuals, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates recently unveiled two projects in conjunction with the bicentennial of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln: a new book, “Lincoln on Race and Slavery,” and a new PBS special, “Looking for Lincoln.”

Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. was born in Piedmont, W.Va., on Sept. 16, 1950, to Henry Sr. and Pauline Coleman. Today, he is a world-renowned scholar and educator, and the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University.

In his capacity as a public intellectual, Gates has served as host of “African American Lives,” a PBS series that employs a combination of genealogy and science to reconstruct the family trees of the descendants of slaves. And just last year, he co-founded “The Root,” a Web site dedicated to the concerns of the black intelligentsia.

In conjunction with the celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, Gates recently took a few moments to discuss with the Banner two new projects revolving around the 16th president of the United States — his new book, “Lincoln on Race and Slavery,” and his new PBS special, “Looking for Lincoln,” both of which were released earlier this month.

What approach did you take in terms of producing your new PBS series on Lincoln?

Lincoln’s myth is so capacious that each generation of Americans has been able to find its own image reflected in the mirror of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is our “Man for All Seasons.” There’s a Communist Lincoln, a Republican Lincoln, Lincoln the writer, Lincoln the orator, Lincoln the atheist, Lincoln the Christian, Lincoln the war criminal, Lincoln the savior of the Union, the Confederate Lincoln, the African American Lincoln, etc.

So I wanted to look at all these myths about Lincoln, deconstruct them and see what the actual man was like.

And frankly, I also wanted to confront the complexity of his attitudes towards slavery and racial equality, which weren’t exactly the same thing. For, while he was fundamentally opposed to slavery, it took him a while to embrace racial equality.

Did you enjoy doing research for the series?

It was a delight! (chuckles) Doing this film was a learning experience for me because I hadn’t explored much of the Lincoln scholarship other than George Fredrickson’s last book [“Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race”]. I went back to read Lincoln’s own words and what historians had to say about him.

What did you learn?

That he was an enormously complex man. … That he had his flaws, but he changed. He progressed. He changed during the Civil War. Through the efforts of Frederick Douglass and the achievements of the 200,000 black men who fought in the Union Army, he came to have new respect for black people.

And, in fact, in his last speech, he advocated the right to vote for the black veterans and for the “very intelligent Negroes.” That’s what made John Wilkes Booth kill him. Booth was in the audience, and said, “That’s it. That means [n-word] citizenship. And I’m going to run him through.” So Lincoln literally gave his life for espousing black rights.

On the show, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says, “It’s not Lincoln’s fault that he was mythologized. Lincoln had to live in his times.” You responded by saying, “Doris was right” and “I’ve come to admire him.” How did you get to that point?