Among many hot-button issues in higher education, few reach the stratospheric temperatures of affirmative action, though one of the country’s most celebrated educators comfortably counts himself a beneficiary of quota politics.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — Harvard history professor, author and, most recently, television producer — will speak about his own journey from curious 9-year-old to public intellectual at the Race and Pedagogy Conference held Sept. 25-27 at the University of Puget Sound. Gates joins a high-profile lineup that includes political activist Angela Davis and environmentalist Winona LaDuke.
United under the theme, “What Now is the Work of Education and Justice?” the conference aims to engage educators — from kindergarten through college — around this question.
Race, however, is rarely an easy topic to tackle.
“Even in higher education, in our classrooms we sometimes have a hard time coming to grips with these issues — they can be awkward, or embarrassing for people, often contentious,” said Dexter Gordon, who directs African-American Studies at the university. “But no one can claim to be an educated person in the United States until they have some understanding of race — including its role in who’s the classroom, who’s not, and why.”
The conference runs three days and will spotlight such issues as the interplay between education and the criminal justice system, and equity (or the lack thereof) in public schools.
Gates, who is African-American and made headlines when he was arrested trying to get into his own home, says he first became curious about the role of race in his life when he attended his grandfather’s funeral, looked into the casket and suddenly wondered about the man’s light skin.
“He looked like a white man!” said Gates in an interview.
The next day, Gates’ father showed the boy a picture of his great-grandmother, who’d been a slave.
“After that, I began I interviewing my parents about our family tree — how someone seemingly so white, like my grandfather, could be connected to me, and how we were all connected to this lady, who was brown and had been a slave.”
A lifelong fascination with genealogy followed — Gates has since discovered that he is 52 percent European — and it inspires his current project, the television program “Finding Your Roots,” which airs on PBS and uses DNA testing to trace the backgrounds of celebrities like Stephen King, Anderson Cooper and Derek Jeter.
“To think that the Jeter name came from a slave owner!” the baseball superstar says as Gates, ever the teacher, shows him archival records.
The professor believes a similar approach to making history personal could supercharge teaching.
“I don’t preach at people, but we’re all mixed — all of us — and by telling the family stories of these celebrities, we see that no matter what our apparent differences, we are all fundamentally the same, with the same fears, the same anxieties — no matter our tradition. We’re united by a hell of a lot more than anybody ever dreamed.”