Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Find your roots and learn from the news

Later this week 1,500 educators, students and others will gather at the Race & Pedagogy Conference in Tacoma to examine issues at the intersection of race and education.

The three-day forum will begin Thursday at University of Puget Sound and bring several high-profile speakers, including Angela Davis, Winona LaDuke, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The conference, previously held in 2006 and 2010, is open to the public. Along with the speakers there will be more than 50 panels, roundtables discussions, artistic installations and music and theater productions.

Gates is a Harvard University professor, literary critic and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

His documentary series, “Finding Your Roots,” which traces the ancestry of public figures, will begin its new season Tuesday on the Public Broadcasting Service.

Gates’ list of academic and cultural achievements, honors and awards is extensive. But many Americans first became aware of him in 2009 when he was arrested by a Cambridge, Massachusetts, police officer on the front porch of his home.

President Obama weighed in on the arrest, causing even more controversy, which lead to a “beer summit” with Gates, the police officer, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House.

The News Tribune spoke with Gates on Friday.

Question: What will you be speaking about at the conference?

Answer: How we can use what I’ve learned over the past decade tracing people’s family trees and their DNA. To revolutionize how we teach race and science and social studies to inner city black and brown kids.

Q: How do you plan on doing that?

A: We, along with 40 other scholars, are developing a curriculum that would use ancestry tracing with middle school and high school kids.

If we walked in (to a classroom) and said, “Today’s lesson is Watson and Crick and the double helix (DNA molecule),” they’d say, “Get out of town.”

But if we walk in and say, “See this Q-tip? We’re going to swab your cheek and in six weeks we’re going to tell you where in Africa your family comes from and what your admixture is, your percentage of European, Native American, Asian ancestry.”

Who wouldn’t be interested in that? Nobody is not interested in learning about themselves.

Q: Where’s the money coming from?

A: We’ve gotten a grant from Ancestory.com which – full disclosure – is my lead sponsor on “Finding Your Roots” and we’ve applied to a major foundation. We’ll pick a few school systems and introduce this new curriculum we’ve been working on.

Q: How did finding out you were half white change, if any, your self-identity?

A: I found out I was 52 percent white and 48 percent black and less than 1 percent Native American. These tests are called admixture tests. They trace your ancestry back 500 years, to the time of Columbus.

I’m whiter than black. When they told me I was shocked. But my father looked like a white man. My grandfather was so white we called him Casper behind his back. So, I know I had a lot of mixture in my family but not that much.

Q: Did it change your views on race?

A: Despite our apparent differences, i.e. race, we’re all the same. No matter what the laws said about making certain liaisons and marriages illegal, when the lights came down, everybody was sleeping with everybody else. There’s nobody that’s pure. The concept doesn’t exist.

Q: I’ve heard that the typical African American is 25 percent white.

A: No African American has ever been tested by any of the major DNA companies that was 100 Sub-Saharan African. The average African American is 24 percent European.

Q: Tell me about the new season of “Finding Your Roots.”

A: This season we have Ben Affleck, Tina Fey, Derek Jeter, Nas, George Stephanopoulos, Anderson Cooper …

Q: And David Sedaris

A: Yes. We have a Greek show: David Sedaris, Tina Fey and George Stephanopoulos. Doing Greek genealogy is incredibly hard. It’s as hard as African-American genealogy because of slavery. In spite of that we were able to trace each of them back 300 years.

Q: What is an interesting story from your research?

A: Sally Field’s fifth great-grandfather, his name was Ralph Morden, remained loyal to the British during the American Revolution. He was hanged as a traitor in 1780.

Q: Did she know that?

A: Nobody knows anything when we do these family trees. People cry, they laugh, they’re shocked.

She is the first person we’ve ever done whose ancestor actually came on the Mayflower. She is a descendant of William Bradford, who was the governor of Plymouth Colony. The same family had patriot ancestors and loyalist ancestors.

Q: You’ve gotten heat from both sides in the debate over how to balance the “traditional canon” verse modern – and more diverse – writers. How should public schools resolve this debate for students?

A: Along with 12 others I edited “The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.” I knew that if we created a great anthology of African-American literature showing how rich the tradition was that that would have impact on “The Norton Anthology of American Literature” and “The Norton Anthology of English Literature.”

We don’t need to lower standards. We don’t need to bury white dead males. We just need to add to the canon in the form of excellence. Excellent women writers, black writers, etc. etc. I never wanted to throw out the canon. I was trained on the canon. I just wanted to add to it.

Q: In many urban school districts, such as Tacoma, children of color have constituted the majority of students for several years. For the first time this fall, minority students outnumber white students nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education. What are the implications for public education?

A: I’m not an expert on public education. My area of expertise is using genealogy and genetics to revitalize inner city black and brown kids who think getting straight A’s is white. Or speaking standard English is white. Or aspiring to be an educated man or woman is white.

When I was growing up, I’m 64, the blackest thing you could be, speaking metaphorically, was to be an educated man or woman. I’ll often ask audiences, “There’s 42 million African Americans. How many are in the NBA?” People guess the most outrageous numbers: a million, 5,000.

Q: What’s the real number?

A: There are 350 black men in the NBA. There are 8,000 black dentists. There are more black cardiologists than men in the NBA. Even black people think it’s easier to be in the NBA than to go to med school.

Q: You teach at Harvard, a school with a lot of really smart young people. What are their attitudes regarding race?

A: I think this is the least racist generation in the history of America. These kids see color less. They see difference but not in the way my generation does. There is less consciousness of race on the superficial level.

But the problem is that such a huge number of people of color live in an economic crisis. The problem is not primarily race. It’s economic discrimination and scarcity. Racism has always been rooted in economic scarcity. Slavery was an economic institution rooted in racial differences because it made it easier to control and justify.

My goal is to figure out ways to affect individual attitudes of poor people of color so that they know their liberation lies in education.