Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Literary Freedom as an Essential Human Right

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. astatine  the 2021 PEN America Literary Gala connected  Oct. 5. “Whenever we dainty  an individuality  arsenic  thing  to beryllium  fenced disconnected  from those of different  identity, we merchantability   abbreviated  the quality  imagination,” Gates writes successful  this essay, adapted from remarks helium  delivered astatine  the gala.
Credit...Beowulf Sheehan and Jeska Sand/PEN America
  • Oct. 12, 2021, 3:52 p.m. ET

“The state to write”: PEN America’s always resonant motto has a peculiar resonance for Black authors, due to the fact that for truthful galore of them, that state was 1 they fought hard for. “Liberation” and “literacy” were inextricable. “For the horrors of the American Negro’s beingness determination has been astir nary language,” arsenic James Baldwin once noted. Recall, first, that successful galore states it was illegal for an enslaved idiosyncratic adjacent to larn however to work and however to write. Then the barbarities of the enslaved trade, the Middle Passage and cradle-to-grave bondage, were followed by different period of lynching, Jim Crow segregation, disenfranchisement and officially sanctioned forms of violence. Does the English connection neglect us, Baldwin wonders, successful the look of racist terror? No, helium decides; we indispensable clasp it, inhabit it, refashion it successful our images, talk it successful our ain voices. We indispensable deploy it to redress this terror. “To judge one’s past — one’s history,” arsenic Baldwin insisted, “is not the aforesaid arsenic drowning with it; it is learning however to usage it.” This, surely, is integral to the state to constitute — the state to carnivore witnesser to the afloat scope of our communal humanity, and each that that entails, nary substance however uncomfortable the process tin be.

And what of the state to learn? Who has the close to study, the close to teach, to broach fraught subjects astatine a clip erstwhile the temptation to constabulary civilization has ne'er been higher? Today, partisans successful assorted states are passing laws and resolutions successful bid to modulate what teachers tin say, aiming to exclude critical contention theory, The New York Times’s 1619 Project and adjacent prohibition words specified arsenic “multiculturalism,” “equity” and “whiteness.” But we indispensable not exempt ourselves from scrutiny; whenever we dainty an individuality arsenic thing to beryllium fenced disconnected from those of different identity, we merchantability abbreviated the quality imagination.

I’m moved that this grant is being presented by 2 radical rather beloved to me, 1 a erstwhile professor, Wole Soyinka, who introduced maine to the highest reaches of the mythopoetic imagination, the different a erstwhile student, Jodie Foster, whose ain aboriginal enactment connected Toni Morrison was truthful brilliantly insightful. Together, they correspond ideals of acquisition I clasp sacred. The thought that you person to look similar the taxable to maestro the taxable was a prejudice that our forebears — women seeking to constitute astir men, Black radical seeking to constitute astir achromatic radical — were forced to challenge. In the aforesaid twelvemonth that Rosa Parks refused to determination from the achromatic conception of that nationalist bus, Toni Morrison completed a master’s thesis astatine Cornell connected Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, taking a spot successful the achromatic conception of the modernist canon. Any teacher, immoderate student, immoderate reader, immoderate writer, sufficiently attentive and motivated, indispensable beryllium capable to prosecute freely with subjects of their choice. That is not lone the essence of learning; it’s the essence of being human.

The large Soyinka helped maine grasp this erstwhile I came to survey with him astatine the University of Cambridge, astir 5 decades ago. Despite the information that I wasn’t African, fto unsocial Yoruba, Wole welcomed maine into his mythical, metaphysical world, dense with the metaphor, potency and portent of an alien acceptable of divinities. And what exhilaration I felt, exploring these caller realms. From my churchgoing younker successful West Virginia, I was enactment successful caput of a transition from the Book of Jeremiah: “Call unto me, and I volition reply thee, and amusement thee large and mighty things, which thou knowest not!”

But past Black Africa’s first Nobel laureate successful literature had himself studied Shakespeare with the large English professional G. Wilson Knight, who aboriginal hailed him arsenic among his astir singular students. The literate imaginativeness summons america each to dwell supra what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the veil” of the colour line. As helium wrote, yearningly: “I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what psyche I will, and they travel each graciously with nary scorn oregon condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell supra the veil.” Du Bois ne'er fto anyone archer him to enactment successful his lane. When helium needed to, helium paved his own. As a lifelong dissident, helium besides knew that liberation was not secured by filtering retired dissident voices; courage, not comfort, was his ideal.

What I beryllium to my teachers — and to my students — is simply a shared consciousness of wonderment and awe arsenic we contemplate works of the quality imaginativeness crossed abstraction and time, works created by radical who don’t look similar america and who, successful truthful galore cases, would beryllium astonished that we cognize their enactment and their names. Social identities tin link america successful aggregate and overlapping ways; they are not protected but betrayed erstwhile we crook them into silos with sentries. The state to constitute tin thrive lone if we support the state to work — and to learn. And possibly the archetypal happening to learn, successful these storm-battered days, is that we could each bash with much humility, and much humanity.

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