The Yale campus has settled into its summer calm, but inside the office of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., in the Afro-American studies building on College Street, the air crackles.
"I've been writing all morning," Gates explains, although it is only 10 o'clock. He arrives slightly late and smiling, in a green and gold dashiki as familiar to him as his suits and ties. Gates is "Skip" to everyone, from students to Oxford University Press editors.
Only 32, the literary critic and Yale assistant professor of English and Afro-American studies has been racing through project after project, receiving one honor after the next, for his entire professional life, which is comparatively brief by academic standards. A Mellon scholarship to Cambridge at 22, a MacArthur prize at 30, and now, no fewer than four books to be published in one year, all either written, edited or rescued from obscurity by Gates himself.
Gates, who is co-director of the Yale Black Periodical Fiction Project, is riding high right now on the republication of Harriet Wilson's 1859 text "Our Nig," the earliest known novel published by a black person in the U.S. Why? Because he "discovered" it.
"It fulfilled my Christopher Columbus complex," he says with a laugh. He found "Our Nig" in a rare-book store in 1981 and bought it for $50. Intrigued by the derivative of "nigger" in the title, Gates decided that Wilson was black and not "of dubious authorship," as previously believed, and went on to prove it, in a painstaking six-month search. A research team headed by David A. Curtis scoured the East Coast, combing through documents from Washington to Massachusetts to New Hampshire for clues to Wilson's identity. They scanned copyright information, census data, magazines and newpapers. The quest culminated when a researcher poring through the 1860 Boston census found the block where Wilson lived, "in a page folded under a page," with a letter "B" for black next to her name.
"The moment I opened the book, three paragraphs into the preface, I was convinced," Gates says. "Why? Because she says she's black. There was absolutely no reason for a white person to pretend to be black--seven years earlier, Harriet Beecher Stowe had published 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' and that was the most popular novel published ever . . . If anything, Stowe's whiteness enhanced sales."
On the shelf behind Gates stand the serried rows of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, next to the Encyclopedia of Afro-American History, next to the Encyclopedia of Islam. On the next shelf, the complete African Writers Series: at least 100 volumes containing the poetry, prose and plays of various African writers.
A huge 1908 illustration hangs on one wall: "Frisco," a black man in a top hat and cane, leers lasciviously at a very proper white woman. What makes it unusual? Gates: "The fact that she returns the flirtation."
"My artistic tastes are fundamentally black," he says. "It's esthetically pleasing to me." He collects jazz and blues music, black art and, naturally, books of all sorts--10,000 of them.
In 1981 Gates received one of the so-called "genius awards," totaling $64,000 over five years, from the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation for his work in literary theory.
"If it had not been for the MacArthur prize, I would not have had the financial and psychological freedom to pursue what initially seemed obscure," says Gates. "Anything I want to pursue I can now pursue. People will take even unusual claims seriously."
Gates churns out the books at breakneck speed: Two collections of essays that he edited and that Oxford University Press will publish in 1984, one on slave narratives and the other on the contemporary Nigerian tragedian Wole Soyinka. Also expected in 1984: "Figures in Black," Gates' own essays, and "The Signifying Monkey," named after "a black mythological character who stands for the collective rhetoric used in the black tradition." ("Skip's fascinated with how long it took for whites to even believe that blacks could read and write," an associate, Caroline Jackson, remarks.)
His primary business, though, is that of the critic and teacher. "Human society is built upon language use insofar as literary critics make society aware of language use," he says. "The problem is that often the society and the critics forget their mutual relationship, and literary criticism is seen as rarefied and esoteric."
This is the way a recent Yale graduate and former student of Gates assesses him as a teacher: "For all of the flamboyance, there's definitely a very calculating and thorough scholar . . . If you want to know how to take something and not just see it straight on but how to look around it, under it, behind it, Skip will teach you, if you hang in tough with him."
And what academic approach does Gates advocate to his students? " 'Okay, this is what's gotta get done,' " says the same graduate. " 'Bitching about it is not gonna get it done. Hard work is gonna get it done.' "
Gates himself puts it more elegantly; his words are carefully measured, as if he visualizes them on the page before they leave his mouth: "I enjoy the challenge of trying to incite in people a love and understanding of a subject that I have," he says.
Gates and Yale have been together since 1969, when he arrived as an undergraduate from Piedmont, which he describes as a "village" in West Virginia. "Everyone from my town does well," he says, when asked how his success is seen at home. "They like me there." Out of a graduating high school class of 36, "maybe four" students were black, he says.
"When I came here to Yale in 1969, I encountered the most black people I had come across in one place in my life," he continues. "It's ironic that one would go to Yale to learn about blackness." The "black activist group" on campus, Black Student Alliance at Yale, distinguished Yale from the other Ivies for Gates.
When he graduated, Gates won a Paul Mellon scholarship to study at Cambridge University in England, becoming, he believes, the first black American to earn a PhD from the university.
"My presence at Cambridge was political, to say the least. I insisted on a black topic when I would write papers. By doing as well as I did as a student, I would like to think that the study of black literature at Cambridge will be much easier after the battles I fought." He wonders, though, whether students are taking advantage of these new opportunities.
"I'm not primarily a reformer," he says, "but any conscious black person has to be aware that the capitalist system, as it manifests itself in our society, plus an endemic form of racism, places dramatic delimitations on a black person's life . . .
"I cannot be a 'free' person until black persons in general are not imprisoned and defined by this system. Every day I'm conscious of that."
Along the way back to teaching at Yale, Gates made a number of brief stops: Time magazine correspondent in London, a month at Yale Law School. Projects: "The Image of the Black in the Western Imagination," which, if funded, will be a documentary series for public television. Some 6,000 color slides of "racist Western popular art" he had photographed for his collection. An unpublished history of Jay Rockefeller's 1972 West Virginia gubernatorial campaign, during which Gates met artist Sharon Adams ("the best thing about that campaign"), whom he married seven years later. They have two daughters, Maggie, 3 years old, and Liza, 18 months.
At Yale, Gates can often be found at an "informal coffee klatch" at Naples, a casual restaurant a stone's throw from the Afro-American Studies Department. At night, it is overrun with pizza-eating students, but in the morning, it is the domain of Gates and his colleagues.
"We use each other as sounding boards for all kinds of wild ideas that we have," says John Blassingame, chairman of Yale's Afro-American Studies Department. "We both regularly stop by there, at about the same time. Not that we arrange it that way," he says with a chuckle. Other members of the Afro-American studies faculty often join the discussions, which are occasionally insightful, sometimes uproarious and always interesting.
Gates says he has felt no external pressure to live up to his accomplishments.
"It's not an outside pressure. My clock ticks from within. I place a lot of demands on myself and have since I was a child. That's part of my uprbringing. But I enjoy the things I do. I love to write. It's that internal mechanism that rules my life.
"I try to keep a sense of humor about myself, my work and my life, which is easy to do when you have two little girls," he says thoughtfully.
His daughters may have raised Gates' consciousness; another contributing factor was a class he taught last fall, "Black Women and Their Fictions," first offered at Yale in 1975 by author Toni Morrison.
The class read "Our Nig" in photocopy form before it was reissued. "Initially a number of women were skeptical that Wilson was black . . . as if because the sensibility of this didn't fit into people's preordained stereotype of what . . . black experiences are. Some were disturbed by the fact that the novel's protagonist clearly is in love with a white man. One even said that the heroine's best friend was a dog and therefore she couldn't be black! Since people fall in love with whomever they want to"--he grins mischievously--"and since I happened to like cats"--he pauses, waiting for the laugh--"I find that irrelevant!
"The level of interest in a class comprised overwhelmingly of women struck me over the head. It was one of the first times I was able to see how relevant literature could be to a person's growing understanding of themselves and their place in the world."
Then Gates grandly delivers his next proclamation:
"Gloria Naylor and I are writing a book on black women's fiction."
Naylor, who won a 1983 American Book Award for her first novel, "The Women of Brewster Place," was Gates' teaching assistant last fall; he advised her on her master's thesis, which is her "brilliant" second novel. "We will blend that which the critic brings to the study of literature and that which the writer brings." As if on cue, Naylor stops by the office, and Gates, the inveterate flirt, greets her with his customary kiss on either cheek.
He telephones a few days after the interview. "Did I remember to tell you about John Jea?" (Gates will write the introduction to the republication of Jea's slave narrative.) ". . . I made the discovery while rummaging through an antiquarian catalogue . . . it's just been lost since it was first published."
And he's off again. "My motto is Satchel Paige's motto," Gates says. " 'Don't look back; something might be gaining on you.' "