Memory  /  Q&A

How Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Helped Remake the Literary Canon

The scholar has changed the way Black authors get read and the way Black history gets told.

I’d like to start out by looking back at your family and West Virginia. You write about this beautifully in your memoir “Colored People.” Tell me a little about Piedmont, where you grew up.

My family never moved, from fourth great-grandparents down to me. We lived within a thirty-mile radius in eastern West Virginia. I have deep roots in those mountains. It’s not what you read about in textbooks like “From Slavery to Freedom.” It is not a typical Black experience, but it is a real Black experience.

In the year I was born, 1950, I believe there were about two thousand people in Piedmont, and just over three hundred were Black. It was an Irish-Italian paper-mill town. And because my dad worked two jobs—in the daytime, at the paper mill, and then as a janitor at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company—he had the highest income of any Black person in Piedmont. We had the nicest house. Wealth and poverty are always relative. In that context, we were in the Black upper-middle class. My mother never worked a job outside the home in my lifetime. When she was a girl, she cleaned houses to make extra money. One of the reasons my father worked two jobs was so my mother would never have to work.

As I understand it, your father’s attitude toward white folks in town was more easygoing than your mom’s.

My mother was very suspicious of white people. To help support her family, by the age of twelve, she was cleaning the Thompson house. She told us this awful story of them planting a twenty-dollar bill in the cushions of a sofa, to see what she would do. And she, of course, returned it. But, even at that age, she had figured out that this was a test, and she deeply resented that.

Brown v. Board of Education, the pivotal school-integration case, came along when you were a kid.

In 1956, when I started first grade, the schools had integrated, without a peep, though big social events, like town picnics, were segregated.

You describe the school in very positive terms.

I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve been asked about it a lot. But I never once experienced racial discrimination in the classroom. Right before I started the first grade, someone knocked on our door, and it was a white person from the school system. They had tested all the kids entering our first-grade class. My parents took this white person into our formal living room, where nobody ever sat down and all the furniture was covered in clear plastic. They were whispering in hushed tones. And then the white person left.