The following is an excerpt of a speech that Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. delivered at the 2017 Massachusetts Governor’s Awards in the Humanities in Boston on Sunday.
In 1922, the great critic and novelist James Weldon Johnson, the composer of “The Negro National Anthem,” wrote:
“A people may become great through many means, but there is only one measure by which its greatness is recognized and acknowledged. The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art. No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.”
I was 19 and a sophomore at Yale when I read those words. They struck me quite powerfully, and made me wonder to what claim about black people Johnson was responding.
A few years later, in graduate school in Cambridge, I figured out that Johnson was responding to a long list of Western philosophers who, starting with Hume and Kant, then Jefferson and Hegel, had argued that until black people created great works of art, they would be judged as distinctly inferior as a “race,” as an entire ethnic group, not qualified to deserve their equal rights as human beings because they were not equal to other races or nationalities in mental endowments as gifted by God or by nature.
Much of my career for the last 26 years as a professor at Harvard has been a response to James Weldon Johnson’s challenge, an attempt to make cultural pluralism and cultural diversity “with excellence” values to be upheld and treasured, indeed, values and propositions to be assumed, in contradistinction to the intellectual racism that we inherited from the Enlightenment.
I have tried to make a small contribution to telling what we might think of as “the larger story of America,” and the larger story of the history of civilization itself, adding new monuments of hope and of democratic heroes to a landscape cluttered with too many memorials to a poisoned past. I have tried to use a variety of media to let the world know, to echo the words that I quoted from James Weldon Johnson, that civilizations of color have, in fact, been “great” for centuries, indeed in some cases for millennia, because they have long produced great literature, music, and art. But those contributions needed to be unearthed, resurrected, explained, critiqued, annotated, explicated, and canonized. And that’s what my colleagues and I have tried to do.
Benjamin Mays, the spiritual mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., once said: “We are so interlaced and interwoven that what affects one touches all. We are all bound together in one great humanity.” With unbroken faith in America, I remain hopeful that we will succeed in reclaiming, refining, and expanding upon the best of the ideals of the Enlightenment — if not its blind spots and some of its unfortunate practices — and building on our nation’s founding ideals.
We cannot allow forces of reaction to turn back the clock on American racial relations, obliterating the heroic efforts of legions of Americans, white and black, Asian and Latino, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, gay, straight, and trans, who risked — and sometimes gave their lives — to make certain that the arc of the moral universe bent toward justice, to paraphrase King. Too many hands today are trying to bend that arc back, in another direction. May those of us who love truth and justice, who love the principles of democracy and equal opportunity upon which this great nation was founded, and who understand that Truth and Beauty are both cosmopolitan and color-blind, resist division and hatred.
Regardless of our ideological differences — be we Republicans or Democrats or Independents — we must link arms and stand publicly against anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-black racism, and white supremacist ideology, in all of its ugly, hateful forms. If we hold firm to our moral conscience and to our faith, to our shared history and to the possibilities it secured for us, “the tragic midnight” of our time, as Dr. King put it so beautifully 60 years ago, “will be transformed into the glowing daybreak of freedom and justice.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is university professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also host of “Finding Your Roots.”