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How Heavy the Load

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The first time that Henry Louis "Skip" Gates' name actually registered in my mind was when I saw a Vibe Magazine profile of Harvard's African American Studies Department. Dubbed the "Dream Team," the article included a picture of Gates standing alongside fellow professors Kwame Anthony Appiah, Lani Guinier, Cornel West and William Julius Wilson. As the profile suggested, Gates was the maestro responsible for Harvard's unprecedented level of black star power. I remember marveling at that photo as an undergraduate at Queens College in New York -- it was a turning point in my life as I was in the process of transitioning from a high school sports fanatic well versed in the original Dream Team to a "budding scholar" with his eyes firmly poised on graduate school in the near future.

It's been a decade since that article and while a number of the faces have changed in Harvard's African-American Studies Department, it's still the bastion of black star power in the academy and Henry Louis Gates is still the maestro.

More to the point, Gates is a celebrity as much as he is a professor, and the recent incident in which he was arrested for "disorderly conduct" after refusing to cooperate with a police officer responding to an alleged break-in -- albeit at his own home -- has more in common with Christian Bale's tirade from earlier this year than it does the Amadou Diallo murder, for example. Yes, race played a role in this situation, but the American nightmare of a Harvard professor gunned down by cops while entering his own home was avoided during this encounter and Gates must bear a peculiar burden as a survivor of this incident to which so many are now bearing witness. Diallo was an unknown immigrant who became famous -- and his death instructive of the tragic outcomes of overly aggressive police tactics. Gates' behavior in the aftermath of his arrest bears shades of survivor's guilt; with Diallo and Abner Louima having already set recent precedents of the harm that can befall black men in the hands of police, Gates finds himself once again beholden to what Hazel Carby once referred to in another discussion of Gates' life "as a particular anxiety of masculinity, an anxiety which is embedded in the landscape of a crisis in the social order." Here Carby was addressing Gates' struggles responding to the premature deaths of two of his classmates at Yale -- experiences that caused him to steel himself so that he can continue doing his part to push along with the tasks that his generation was expected to complete. Carby cites Gates' own words where he professes:

Ours was to be the generation with cultural accountability, and cultural security: the generation that would tell white folks that we would not be deterred -- that, whether they knew it or not, we too were of the elite.

Unfortunately, in Gates' lifetime, the quest for elitism has become intertwined with the quest for celebrity. That so many people are simply famous for being famous makes people like Gates and the aforementioned Christian Bale vulnerable to the engines propelling these vapid strains of elitism. In this particular instance, like Bale in his infamous encounter with a stagehand, Gates felt that his space had been invaded by the police officer. The officer was wrong for arresting Gates, but not for investigating the incident for which he was called to the scene, just as the stagehand was not wrong for being on set. Gates was inevitably flexing the same muscle, the same power that I found alluring in that Vibe photo when he shouted down the officer, and Bale's intensity dressing down the stagehand likely correlates with why he is now the star of two blockbuster movie franchises, Batman and The Terminator. Neither Gates nor Bale were willing to concede that what they saw as an intrusion on their space, their antagonists saw as simply doing their jobs, and in both instances these stars were left to piece back together their shards of celebrity.

The reason for this Bale comparison is because there's a strand in the threads of responses to this incident that infers that Gates should never have had to deal with this because he's an acclaimed Harvard professor. If this is the case, we cannot ascribe one facets of 21st century culture to Gates' arrest while conveniently disregarding the others. Getting closer to the point, I am saying that we can not cherry pick instances in which celebrities are to be treated differently from non-celebrities. As Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal writes in a recent essay on this case:

The attention that the case has attracted raises more troubling issues about which black bodies really matter. Few blacks -- and fellow black scholars for that matter -- are fortunate to have Charles Ogletree on their speed dial; or edit an on-line magazine in collaboration with the Washington Post and Newsweek magazine. Indeed Antwi Akom, a professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at San Francisco State University didn't have such a profile when he was arrested in front of his campus office in October of 2005 while retrieving books.

I still cannot help find it amusing however that early in this same essay Neal declares:

That he is legitimately the most well known black person at Harvard University and Cambridge at large is beyond dispute. That any Cambridge police officer would not recognize Professor Gates or adhere to the confirmation by campus police that the figure he was arresting was indeed Professor Gates raises obvious suspicions -- yet another iteration of the "uppity Negro" backlash that has reached a fever pitch in the Obama era.

As a fellow academic, I can understand Neal's rendering of Gates' visibility. It has been virtually impossible to have a discussion about African American Studies in the last 20 years without mentioning Henry Louis Gates.

That said, I would need more evidence to believe as Neal suggests that Gates is "the most well known black person at Harvard and Cambridge." Cambridge has recently elected two black Mayors, Ken Reeves who's second stint ended in 2007, and current Mayor Denise Simmons, both of have the distinction of being the first open gay and lesbian mayors in the city's history. Reeves, is also a Harvard graduate who remains in contact with legions of Harvard students, and Cambridge residents who worked on his campaigns. I would be hard pressed to believe that Gates can be better known in the area than either of these two elected officials. He may be Harvard's maestro, but he isn't Cambridge's mayor.

I bring up this point because it touches on another controversial element festering in this case, the often-tense relationships between universities and the cities in which they reside. Harvard is not exempt from this, especially in the eyes of non-Harvard-affiliated Cambridge residents who have seen their rents rise, or pushed out of their homes altogether during Harvard's recent decade of expansion, a period that coincidentally coincides with Gates' own expansion from university professor to media entrepreneur. It is likely then that the irony is not lost on longtime Cambridge residents that a famous Harvard professor would be arrested while asserting his right to be in his own home. If this is truly to be an injustice committed against Gates, than we must be prepared to render Harvard professorship moot -- and if not, then we should prepare ourselves to reconcile that this case may be less about an uppity Cambridge Negro, and more about a pretentious Harvard professor, a distinction well worth remembering because of the -- dare I say it -- double consciousness it invokes.

Readers of W.E.B. Du Bois' seminal work, Souls of Black Folk, will remember a scene that DuBois resurrects from his early life to show the bitter nature of racism. In this scene a young white female classmate he sought to give a card to rebuffs a young Du Bois in Great Barrington, Massachusetts:

The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, refused it peremptorily, with a glance. The it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others, or like, mayhap, in heart and life and long, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.

Writing for the American Prospect blog, Adam Serwer paints an adult rendering evocative of the schoolhouse scene described by Du Bois a century ago:

What really disturbs me though, is the fact that Gates' own neighbor didn't recognize him. Regardless of who is ultimately at fault in the encounter between Gates and Sgt. Crowley, the most frightening thing is that a Harvard professor could be mistaken for a burglar by his own neighbor.

Gates, his neighbor and the arresting officer all seem to have been impaired by Du Bois' proverbial veil. Like the incident with Du Bois' classmate, Gates' imbroglio begins with a misreading of his intentions by his white female neighbor. The similarities end there because the affronts against Gates are being played out in public, and not within the confines of a classroom. Surely, this incident may become an apt teachable moment for many scholars, and even I may have an opportunity to refer to it when I return to teaching in the fall. Along with the characters at play, it has the added bonus of occurring only a week after President Obama told the crowd at the centennial celebration of the NAACP (the organization Du Bois helped found) "no more excuses."

If what we are to take away from this incident is that racial profiling is appalling, then we must be diligent in ensuring that training public servants to treat black people more humanely is a very different task than training public servants to treat black people more humanely because they might be Harvard professors.

And while this incidents reiterates how heavy the load, as this saga unfolds, we must remember that Gates' dream has not been deferred.