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Black Perspectives on America

Henry Louis Gates and Lynette Clemetson
Henry Louis Gates and Lynette Clemetson

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Lynette Clemetson
Co-Founder and Editor in Chief and Managing Editor, The Root
Monday, March 31, 2008; 2:00 PM

Forty years ago this week Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 39, was assassinated. On April 4, 1968 he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., which is now the National Civil Rights Museum.

TheRoot.com, a daily online magazine that focuses on black perspectives, today launches its special coverage, "MLK 40 Years Later: Still Searching for the Promised Land," commemorating the life of the civil rights leader with historical video, interviews, photo galleries, book excerpts and essays by prominent black Americans who examine the teachings of the civil rights leader and explain how generations have been affected by his legacy.

"The Root acknowledges the significance of embracing one's history to understand our collective future, and we are sharing voices that express this link, to bring even greater scope and meaning to this historic date," said Lynette Clemetson, managing editor of the Web site in an interview.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., co-founder and editor in chief of The Root, and Clemetson will be online Monday, March 31, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss and analyze the social and political consequences of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. In addition, they will weigh in on current politics including the campaigns of Obama, Clinton and McCain and the issues of race, the war in Iraq and black and white images in the world of pop culture.

A transcript follows.

Gates is host and co-producer of the PBS series, African American Lives, which traces the lineage of notable African Americans through genealogical and DNA samplings. He is editor-in-chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field of African American and Africana Studies, and has written for Time magazine, The New Yorker and The New York Times.

Before joining The Root, Clemetson served as a domestic correspondent for The New York Times covering political, social and cultural issues, often through the prism of race, identity and America's shifting demographic landscape. Before joining the New York Times, Clemetson worked as a national and international correspondent for Newsweek magazine.

TheRoot.com is owned by Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, the online publishing subsidiary of The Washington Post Company.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr.: It is a delight to be part of this discussion today, as we launch our new features on The Root.com concerning the assassination of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. forty years ago.

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Lynette Clemetson: Hello,

Delighted to be here, as well. What better week to have this discussion than this week, in which we mark the 40th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. I look forward to a robust discussion.

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Lusby, Md.: Dr. Gates, I have watched both of your PBS special and I listen to you on Tom Joyner. It's an honor to get a chance to speak to you today. What do I need to do to trace my father's side of my family? I have the names and birth dates back to my great, great grandparents (I'm 36). I'm fascinated to learn more about that side of my family because my great grandfather owned a large piece of land in Calvert County, Md., about 40 acres purchased in the early 1900's. My family still owes 20 of those acres, today. Thank, and keep up the great and fascinating work.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Thank you for watching my PBS series, and for listening to me on my friend, Tom Joyner's, marvelous show. I love being on Tom's morning program. To trace your father's line, look at my video on The Root.com (it is in The Roots Channel). Then, if you want professional advice, go to AfricanDNA.com, a company that I co-own. We will trace your ancestors back to 1870 for a fairly modest fee.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I love The Root and really enjoy the chance to read perspectives I don't really see anywhere else in mainstream media, or mainstream media-related, outlets. It's great that there is a space for black-centered discourse, but wouldn't it be better if Slate and The Washington Post didn't just link to The Root, but regularly published Root-like articles for a much wider audience who may not choose to read The Root, but are already reading The Post? Could you speak a little about that? Possibly the balance between writing for a primarily black audience versus writing for a wider audience? It just feels like these great articles shouldn't be relegated to their "own site," but hopefully I'm missing something and that feeling is misguided. Thanks for any clarification and for The Root!

Lynette Clemetson: I think your question reflects a broader hunger for a wider range of views and perspectives in popular/mainstream media. I agree. But I don't think that negates the need for spaces that are devoted to targeted audiences. I, for instance, always want to see more stories in newspapers on women's issues, but that doesn't mean I don't also want to read women's magazines.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Both of you being "not dark," have you ever had your blackness questioned? Did you ever feel the need to present yourself as militant to authenticate your blackness?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: As a matter of fact, a genetic test that I took for my PBS series, "African American Lives," revealed that I am 50% African and 50% European! I was shocked! But I am visibly of African descent, and have never, ever been identified as anything other than black, in America or elsewhere! Black people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and this is one of our strengths as a people. There are 35 million black people, and this means that there are 35 million ways to be black!

Lynette Clemetson: What an odd question. I think skin color has very little to do with people's questions about blackness. Think Clarence Thomas, for example. I am fairly certain no one has ever tagged me as militant. And I think very little, to none, about the need to authenticate my blackness.

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Montreal, Quebec: I spent several years traveling the U.S. I am a Canadian who has always had a fascination and adoration for America. In my years on the road there I found an eclectic, dynamic society full of friendly and open people. But what I also saw was a society deeply defined by a racial divide. It seems to me America has always lived this contradiction -- founded on Enlightenment principles of individual liberty but also a social structure that was a racial hierarchy -- with white at the top, African Americans at the bottom, Native Americans cast to the side and immigrants (Irish, Italian, and now Latinos) somewhere in the middle.

My question is: Do most white Americans really understand their own country? It always seemed to me they were blind to these social ills by an excessive (and delusional) focus on individual prerogative/responsibility.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I don't think that most Americans--of any ethnicity--have a deep and abiding command of the history of our country, neither the role of race nor the role of property ownership and labor in the building of our country. The promise of America was land, and many people of color were denied the opportunity to acquire property.

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Atlanta, Ga.: I believe it is a very small but quite vocal number of people who keep racial challenges going; who don't, as Dr. King hoped, judge others by the content of their character rather than skin color. Do you agree or am I being utopian?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Yes, I agree. Most Americans, in my experience, truly do judge other people as individuals, rather than as social categories. Of course, as my friend, Professor Cornel West once put it, we are all "recovering" sexists, anti-Semites, and racists, and we have to keep that fact in mind as we engage in the crucial work of becoming good citizens.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I'm a Native American/Caucasian attorney and former Congressional staffer. MLK highly influenced me, through his interaction with Congressman Conyers. Hearing stories of walking with "Martin" down Woodward to Cobo Hall, his influence on Conyers's beliefs on nonviolence, and the continued efforts to reach "the dream" all influenced my decision to become an attorney and continue to work for diversity in the legal profession.

I've been trying to spread the message in the last year or two, that a dialogue on race is necessary, and that "the dream" takes more than waking up. It takes constant effort on behalf of every individual to challenge engrained stereotypes and work for a better tomorrow.

I for one will be wearing a black armband on Friday to keep the dream alive.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Thank you for keeping the faith in this most important symbolic manner.

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Toronto, Canada: Hello -- I know a whole bunch of black Canadians who came here from the West Indies. There doesn't seem to be the dysfunction in their communities that you see in the U.S. Is the difference because of the legacy of Jim Crow [laws] in your opinion?

Lynette Clemetson: The black experience differs greatly in Canada, the US, England and elsewhere. Certainly Jim Crow and the particular brand of institutionalized racism in the US created certain struggles for black Americans that have not been experienced by other black populations. But I also think people in other countries experience their own unique sorts of "dysfunction" that have not been a part of the American experience.

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Washington, D.C. : Prof. Gates and Ms. Clemetson: What makes this anniversary so important? And what parallels do you see between 1968 and 2008?

Lynette Clemetson: Forty years, just taken alone, is an important milestone. But given the particulars of politics and society right now, this anniversary is all the more significant. Could Dr. King have imagined that a black presidential candidate would be in the midst of such a viable and powerful campaign? There is much to consider about how far we have come and what we have yet to achieve.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I wonder if Dr. King could have imagined that in the year 2008, a black person was poised to win his party's nomination for the office of President of the United States? I think that this fact alone makes the fortieth anniversary of Dr. King's brutal assassination worthy of note, a genuine milestone, and that we all should pause to reflect on how our society has changed and how it has remained the same over the past four decades.

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Cleveland, Ohio: Thank you for the Root. Do you unsolicited accept "Views" submissions, or do you request established news writers to opine on timely topics?

Lynette Clemetson: We absolutely accept unsolicited submissions. We have run several. We had a wonderful story, for instance, from Jordyn White, a linebacker for the DC Divas football team, that was a real gem. And Bryant Terry, an eco-chef who is now writing for us regularly, wrote his first piece, True Grits, about healthy soul food, as a blind submission. Submission guidelines are on the About Us section of the site.

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Madison, Wisc.: Thanks so much for your television productions, and for taking questions today. Following the Rev. Wright controversy, I've been reading more blog chatter about "African American racism" or "reverse racism." It seems some people never tire of trying to cut the word racism from its historical moorings by claiming that African Americans can be as "racist" as Caucasians, or that "we're all a little racist." Accordingly, we're supposed to forget about lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and enforced segregation when using the word "racist." I'm a middle-aged white man, and I'm concerned for our society when a significant part of our nation's history is obscured by the trivialization of the word "racism." I'm happy that your productions seem to counter this trend; does the feedback you receive show that people still want to deny the past?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I believe that the enthusiastic responses to my PBS film series reveal a genuine hunger to learn American history in a new and exciting manner. I am dedicated to teaching, whether in the classroom at Harvard, on through television. Thank you for your kind words.

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Orlando, Fla.: To what extent do superficial interracial friendships play a part in the misunderstanding of the Rev. Wright situation? Many people say they have black friends but during their friendship neither person trusts the other enough to provide their true thoughts on race if they think their friend may disagree. I've heard many people say that they have black friends and their black friends don't express the same feelings that Rev. Wright said. It doesn't mean that they don't think it. I'm 27 and have many discussions about race with my friends. We give our opinions and the reasoning behind them and sometimes we agree to disagree but our friendship continues. This has perplexed and amazed my parents who can't imagine having these discussions with a white person.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Communication--honest, open dialogue--will be the beginning of the end of the race question in this country. So, I applaud your efforts to maintain open discourse with your friends--all your friends.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm curious about your take on the LeBron James Vogue cover story. It seems to me that Mr. James and the model (I can't remember her name right now)were just clowning around and having fun in front of the camera -- and didn't know (or care) about the possible racial implications.

washingtonpost.com: Vogue Magazine

Lynette Clemetson: Well, I think it's fine to disagree. But Vogue cover shoots are highly conceptualized. Annie Leibovitz is a master. It's highly unlikely that the subjects where just clowning around. I think it's great that you didn't care about the racial implications. But clearly, many, many, many, many, other people did. It was being blogged about all over the web a week before most of the press got to it. Even if the image was not intended to be offensive, it was certainly meant to be provocative.

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Fairfax, Va.: Are the campaigns a good place to start about a national dialogue on race in America? Would Clinton, Obama and McCain bed up for it, do you think?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: This is a superb idea! But whether or not the candidates would be willing to engage in such an open and honest series of discussions remains to be seen! I sincerely doubt it, though Senator Obama made a brilliant beginning in his most recent speech on race.

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Washington, D.C.: Who do you think will win the election?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Which one?

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Washington, D.C.: How is The Root doing? What has been the reaction? How did the association with The Post come about?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The Root has generated an enormous amount of enthusiasm from readers throughout the country, and all over the world. It has quickly become the conduit for many new and thoughtful voices about race in America and politics and culture in Africa. We are especially proud that we publish a wide variety of intellectual opinions and ideological positions. The idea to create The Root.com came from Donald Graham, a dear friend of mine, who is the CEO and Chairman of the Board of The Washington Post. And it was a brilliant idea!

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Washington, D.C.: I am also delighted for the chance to speak with you both. I wonder what your opinions are of Senator Obama's recent dilemma involving Pastor Jeremiah Wright. I was greatly proud of the way he responded to the criticisms through the speech he gave in Philadelphia and thought it might be another opportunity to start a dialogue in this country that so many shun.

On the other hand, as the days progress, I am somewhat concerned that he feels the need to increasingly, if ever so subtly, denounce Jeremiah Wright's views. I mean, he 'was' there for a long time. Most likely because he agreed with more than he disagreed. I thought he did an excellent job of explaining the rationale behind such teaching in his speech. Now I feel like I'm hearing more and more from him that more of Wright's teachings are/were wrong/outdated than not, and that, besides -- he 'wasn't there' for those parts.

Furthermore, Senator Obama says he would have left had Wright remained pastor. Well, that's convenient. I've been to that church and many like it. No I don't agree with it all -- but most I do. Some is exaggerated -- most is true. Most is a matter of opinion. Opinion is honored in a democracy, isn't it? Obama is my candidate of choice and I don't want to see him double-talking or back-tracking or feeling the need to continually justify his actions to a segment of the population that isn't likely to support him regardless. Alas -- I'm too longwinded. I'd rather hear both your opinions?

Lynette Clemetson: The primary reason for Obama's "race speech" in Philadelphia was to answer the controversy and move on. I, for one, thought it would die down by the end of the week. I was somewhat surprised that the cable news shows were still talking about it days later. Candidates often get into these "damned if you do, damned if you don't," situations. If he simply ignores ongoing questions, he's avoiding the issue. If he continues to distance himself from Rev. Wright, he runs the risk of sounding opportunistic. Even if the conversation moves on in coming weeks, I think it is certain to come back in the general election, should Obama win the nomination.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm sure you knew there would be a question like this- BUT- to what extent are the feelings expressed by Rev. Wright prevalent in Black America? Most of what I have read have been by opinion writers or columnists that only report on the facts and aren't capable to report on the general perspective of the community. For example, going with one of the more extreme quotes, when he says (paraphrasing) AIDS was a creation of the government to suppress Black America, do people believe this?

Lynette Clemetson: I do not think is a widely held belief.

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New York: Why do you think it is so difficult for black people to just admit they want to vote for Obama because he is black? I find that perfectly understandable given our history and his viability as a candidate. Last week there was a very offensive article in the WP about the perspective of black women and their decision to support Obama rather than the "woman" candidate -- none of those interviewed could bring themselves to just say I'm black and I'm supporting him because he's black. Instead they relied upon insulting white women (in particular "feminists") suggesting that they should turn to their husbands (the white male power holders) in bed and ask for more progressive policies. The very idea indicates there is no understanding of feminism and denigrates women who are voters and citizens in their own right. I see lots of positive reasons to support Obama but stepping on women is not one of them.

washingtonpost.com: A Vote of Allegiance? ( Post, March 24)

Lynette Clemetson: I think many blacks resist that simple reasoning for their support, because, for many, their support is much more nuanced. If blacks supported candidates simply for being black, we would have had many more viable candidates by now.

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Lynette Clemetson: Thank you all for such good questions. Thank you, too, for your interest in The Root. Please keep reading, keep sending in suggestions, and keep pushing us to include the voices and perspectives you think are valuable to our conversations on the site.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Thank you all so very much for your questions, and your interest in my documentary series on PBS and our Web site, The Root.com. Just remember: "Go Deep," on TheRoot.com!

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Editor in Chief, The Root

Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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