Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Charleston Gazette-Mail
January 1, 1995

West Virginian Of The Year

Henry Louis "Skip" Gates: Superscholar, writer and more

By Jack McCarthy
Sunday Gazette-Mail

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - "Come in, come in," Henry Louis Gates Jr. says with an easy charm. He takes a visitor's arm, and begins pointing out the artifacts on his office walls.

There is a Nigerian tapestry, a photo display from the mid-1800s of the first black graduates of Harvard University, paintings and sculptures.

"Some of these are mine," Gates says. "I had my students retrieve these photographs. They are wonderful, aren't they?"

With tweed jacket and vest, glasses and beard, Gates at first glance looks like the determined pioneers in his photo display. He is happy to invite guests into his world.

Gates shows off Harvard University's African-American Studies Department, located smack-dab in the middle of world-renowned Harvard Square. As chairman of the department, Gates has staked out a position as superstar-scholar, writer and explainer of the black experience in America. His prominence is remarkable.

Today, Gates is awaiting a phone call from Vice President Al Gore. Tomorrow, he has an article on Christmas appearing in The New York Times.

The current issue of Transition, the department's magazine, includes a discussion between Gates and his good friend, filmmaker Spike Lee. He is the winner of the American Book Award and of the MacArthur Foundation's $100,000 "genius award."

His Harvard colleague, the black intellectual Cornel West, jokes that, "In United States history, there is George Washington and then there is Henry Louis Gates."

In September, he celebrated his 44th birthday with the Clintons at the Martha's Vineyard home of Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan.

He is all these things.

But he is also Skip Gates of Piedmont, W. Va.

"Colored People," his memoir of growing up in Mineral County, was published in 1994 to national acclaim. The memoir struck many chords. It was a remembrance of a coming of age. It lovingly portrayed the life of a black family and black community in Piedmont. And it captured a moment - the late 1950s and the early 1960s - in the life of a West Virginia town.

For the rare achievements of this native son, and for his eloquent homage to his roots, The Sunday Gazette-Mail selects Henry Louis Gates Jr. as its 1994 West Virginian of the Year.

Piedmont sits, "slathered long the ridge of 'old baldie' mountain, like butter on the jagged side of a Parker House Roll," Gates writes at the beginning of "Colored People."

"And it's social topography was something we knew like the back of our hands. Piedmont was an immigrant town. White Piedmont was Italian and Irish, with a handful of wealthy WASPs on East Hampshire Street, 'ethnic' neighborhoods of working class people everywhere else, colored and white."

Gates, 44, dedicates his book to his parents - Henry Louis Gates Sr. and his mother, Pauline Augusta Coleman Gates. His parents and their families provided Gates with a rich and wondrous world of language, food and attitudes. Beyond that was the town, dominated by the Westvaco Paper Mill, the principal employer, and the school.

He recounts the coming of desegregation, his advancement as star pupil through school and his growing knowledge of his family and Piedmont. Gates spends years figuring out the mysteries of sexuality. He and his high school friends, "the Fearsome Foursome," forceably integrate the Blue Jay, an area nightclub. The book ends after his mother, his closest confidant, dies and he heads off to Potomac State College in Keyser and then to Yale.

He chronicles the differences between white and black cultures in the town through stories of the paper mill, where blacks initially could only work as loaders.

All the jobs at the mill were eventually integrated, but that also marked the ending of the segregated black picnic - a passing he laments.

"I was surprised that no one made any speeches, that no one made any speeches, that no one commemorated the passing of an era in a formal way," Gates wrote. "But it did seem that people were walking back and forth through Carskadon's field a lot more times than they normally did, storing up memories to last until the day when somebody, somehow, would figure out a way to trick the paper mill into sponsoring the thing again."

Gates has traveled a long geographic, as well as emotional, distance from Piedmont, but he can retrieve the memories in a second.

He says he wrote the book in a series of letters to his teen-age daughters, Maud and Elizabeth. "I realized I was writing a record of a world I was afraid had been lost to my daughters," he said. "I wrote to explain myself - how I got here. When my daughters go back, they don't see the beauty."

Gates returns to West Virginia three or four times a year and still owns the family house in Piedmont. He laments what he says is the decline of the town - brought on by the closing of the high school and the dwindling population.

Part of the allure of the book is its microscopic look at the human foibles of the town residents, especially his relatives, some of whom were reportedly offended.

"When we were growing up, being a Coleman was a very big deal in Piedmont," Gates wrote. "My uncles and aunts were very well though of. Most went as far at the paper mill as a colored could go in their respective trades, once the mill decided to allow blacks out of the loaders.

"The Colemans were the first colored to own guns and hunt on white land, the first to become Eagle Scouts, the first to go to college, the first to own property."

But at the same time, "The Colemans weren't very good story tellers, like my daddy was. They didn't drink, they didn't smoke, and if they weren't especially religious, they were especially self-righteous."

Gates now says, "I didn't expect everybody to like it. It's my book and I wrote it the way I wanted to."

Piedmont schools desegregated immediately following federal court rulings and were probably the most enlightened institution in the town. Gates excelled, in part because no limits were placed on him.

"The school system rewarded me for being outspoken," he says.

"I never had a better student," says Irene Twigg, his English teacher at Piemont High School. Twigg says the book has been a "topic of conversation," which left some residents upset. She endorses it.

"The crux of the whole book is the fact that many of the people regretted losing some of their cherished institutions, customs and habits like the mill picnic," she says.

Twigg says she encouraged Gates' interest in literature. His writing ability was brought along by a teacher at Potomac State College. "He writes exceptionally well," Twigg says. "I can't take credit for that. Tony Whitmore can."

Whitmore taught Gates literature and composition at Potomac State. "Skip was as original then as he is now," Whitmore says. "He especially liked to write. He said, 'Don't mark my papers. I'll come down to your office and we'll talk about it.' I was just a person in a particular time in his life when he needed somebody. He's always had a distinct voice and it translates so well in his writing."

Gates agrees and attributes his voice to his parents. "The book is very much about my mother's and father's voices in the black vernacular tradition."

His father, who worked jobs as both a paper mill loader and as a janitor, told stories at the black Veterans of Foreign Wars club.

Pauline Coleman Gates was in demand in Piedmont as a eulogist at funerals.

"She made the ignorant and ugly sound like scholars and movie stars, turned the mean and evil into saints and angels," Gates wrote. "She knew what people had meant in their hearts, not what the world had forced them to become."

Gates left Potomac State for Yale, then went to Cambridge University in England. He returned to West Virginia in 1972 to work in and write about Jay Rockefeller's unsuccessful gubernatorial race against Arch Moore.

There he met campaign worker Sharon Adams of Pineville. They later married.

Jack Canfield, now a corporate development officer at Charleston Area Medical Center, also worked in the campaign. Canfield grew up in Keyser, next door to Piedmont, so he and Gates had common roots.

Canfield said Gates' account of the integration of the Blue Jay restaurant was shocking to him because Canfield went there years before and never realized the situation.

"It never occurred to us growing up in the 1950s," Canfield said. "But then going into the 1960s there were vast changes and suddenly people's consciousness changed. I think Skip worked off of that."

Gates next worked for Time magazine in London, and then taught English and African-American studies at Yale from 1976 to 1985. He taught at Cornell University from 1985 to 1990. By then, Gates ranked among the leading proponents of studies of the culture, heritage and literature of blacks in America.

A national bidding war for his services developed among America's best universities, and Harvard eventually secured him in 1991.

Gates brought to the college the writer Jamaica Kincaid, Spike Lee and Cornel West, whose book, "Race Matters," was praised for its eloquent explanation of present-day race relations.

Gates' 1989 book, "The Signifying Monkey: Toward a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism," won the American Book Award for its serious treatment of the expressions of black culture.

Gates seems to be everywhere, prompting a writer to observe in a 1990 New York Times Magazine cover story, "Although many of Gates' projects excite controversy, nothing provokes so much pointed criticism as his evident glee at being a high flier."

"I take a lot of flak," Gates readily admits. "This is a very controversial position. It comes with the territory. I have chosen to confront a lot of controversial issues."

Gates argues that black culture needs to be studied, understood and given its due as one of the many strains of contemporary American culture. He told Art in America magazine there must be "systems that account for the full complexity of American art, music and literature - in all their multicultural strains."

Gates smiles now when he says his job forces him to constantly debate issues. But that's nothing he didn't do with the Colemans and the Gates and with the students at Piedmont High School.

"We argue all the time. That's a West Virginia traditions, too," Gates says. "There is something about rugged individualism you're bound to gain growing up in the mountains."

African Americans

West Virginia Archives and History