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Sunday, January 31, 2010

A golden moment

Since I landed at Harvard last August, I have been waiting for the chance to sit in on a class by celebrated professor Henry "Skip" Gates - yes the Harvard academic who put the debates about race and racial profiling back on the agenda after he was arrested by Cambridge cops for suspected breaking and entering - into his own home.
I wasn't the only one who was curious. His Introduction to African-American Studies undergrad class in one of the larger lecture rooms at Harvard was packed beyond the doorway on day 1 of the Spring semester on Monday.
Would be be jaded? Was he all show and no substance? Could he actually deliver a decent lecture? These were my thoughts as I squeezed my way through the crowd of 18 and 19 year-olds with a few other Nieman fellows.
He opened by telling us that there are 35 million African Americans in the US, and 35 million ways to be black. "There is no one way," he said. "There has never been one way, not since 1619, when 20 slaves arrived here on a boat. the debate has continued since then."
He said in the same way, the "name game" about what to call African-Americans has been going on for 200 years.
He then got a little personal, telling us how when he went to Yale University as an undergraduate, his father warned him about three things: 1) don't mix with only African-Americans in the residences; don't hang out only with African-Americans at the dining tables; and don't go to university to learn only about African Americans.
But what did Gates do? All three.
I am sure that his dad is not complaining now.
The professor was clearly enjoying himself in class as he raced through a history of the horrors of racism and slavery during the so-called Enlightenment. His words were interspersed with lashings of humour. Within minutes, he had the class eating out of his hand.
Moonlighting as a documentary filmmaker, Gates said that in an upcoming documentary, he shows through DNA analysis that comedian Chris Rock is 20% white, and actor Don Cheadle 19%. Chris Rock's response apparently was: "At least I ain't as black as Don Cheadle." To which Cheadle's response was: "Well you can kiss my black arse."
You can be sure that me and a few hundred others rocked up for session 2 on Wednesday.
How did the dapper professor start the next lecture? Wearing a gold tie and a gold handkerchief sticking out of his breast pocket, he put on a rap song by G-Mike that started off: "Read a book, read a book, read a mother-fucking book." Next minute, the erudite, veteran professor with a grey stubble was darting his head around to the beat, making the most of yet another class at Harvard University.
You can be sure Gates's class (which he co-hosts with another impressive professor, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham) was a highlight of the week's course shopping.
But there were others. more later.

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