In New York City last week, Library of America Board member Henry Louis Gates, Jr. gave a rousing account of his work as Director of The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University during which he told a capacity crowd at the Century Association, “I think that the last barrier for African-Americans to cross in terms of victory over racism will be the barrier of intellectual prejudice—the belief that somehow we are naturally inferior.”
Video: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on May 26, 2015 (5:05)
Gates’s remarks came in a conversation with businessman and investor Glenn Hutchins, who supports the Center through his Hutchins Family Foundation. The May 26 program was a co-presentation of The Library of America and The Hutchins Center.
Prompted by Hutchins, Gates looked back to the late 1960s, when elite universities in the U.S. first began to acknowledge the need for African American studies as a discipline. He explained, however, that at the time he and many of his peers “didn’t know what it meant create a real academic department,” and that a number of the initial African American studies programs “were embarrassments, really, academically. They were created so the students would not blow up the library or burn it down.”
For that reason, Gates continued, he had specific ambitions when Harvard University recruited him to rebuild what was then called the Department of Afro-American Studies in 1991.
“To me, creating an academic entity at one of the world’s greatest institutions, full of brilliant people—white and black, gay and straight, American, European, African, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, wherever they came from—built on the most sound and rigorous academic principles, would be an implicit political victory for our people.
“And that’s what I set out to do.”
Watch the complete program on The Library of America’s YouTube channel.