Henry Louis Gates : kicking sand in my face

Professor skip gates

We can start with intellectual property. There are two aspects to this idea a) respect and b) money. To acknowledge an author was historically to show respect. “This idea came from X”. There are complexities in this such as the assertion of lineage and authority. ‘Confucius , he say…’ is an appeal to authority just as ‘it is said in the Bible’. In the world of poetry and the arts acknowledgement is a deep form of respect. As to say ‘I know what it takes to produce Z’ upon which I am building. At the same time there have always been those who conceal sources. This can get complicated. I might conceal a source because it might tend to discredit an idea. To say ‘Hitler said …’ is a trope to imply you must condemn whatever comes next, though it is impossible for anyone to say nothing but nonsense.

In this digital world, it is always possible to loose quotation marks, to make notes and loose references. Some ideas float in the ether and one is sometimes surprised to ever learn there was a specific origin to a specific idea.

One can on the other hand have a cavalier attitude to IP. This is closer to disrespect than theft. In not giving a correct or any reference to an idea one is claiming knowledge about but not seeking reward.

Journalism and rapportage have different standards to that of the creative arts. In music we can call it doing a ‘cover’, but for folk songs this is incoherent! The first version may be beautiful but later there is an amendment which everyone may prefer so the amended version becomes the canonical version.

I particularly like the saying attributed to Picasso: ‘good artist borrow, great artist steal’, meaning that a great artist makes it part of himself, and appropriates it while the good artist merely leaves it as an external addended foreign item. All things are partial, as even great artist do works that are ‘homage’ to their predecessors.

This hurts me. I like to keep a distance between personal and political. By having a respect for the political, one can work with persons we dislike. It is always good not to let personal feelings overwhelm one’s political judgment.  In what I say now, the political is important but it does not make sense without the context.

I know I am not the first to suggest that Skip Gates has a cavalier attitude to IP. I have read some of his early colleagues make similar comments.

While at Clare, Skip (as Henry Louis Gates jnr was then known) told me he had jointly written a paper on the Harlem Renaissance with his then girl-friend. After they broke up, he said she gave him permission to use the paper as he wished.  He gave a talk on this paper at a class on my lecture course on Black Studies  in London with no mention of anyone’s else’s contribution. After the class, he was subsequently invited to give the same paper at Oxford University (much to his then surprise). I was surprised and unhappy that he found no way to mention the contribution of his then girl-friend, such as the familiar ‘this work is based on an early study developed with ….’. I don’t know who contributed most to the study but apparently she gave him permission so that aspect is settled.

At a tutorial at Cambridge, his tutor asked him if there were any interesting Black ideas about literature. Skip then gave a detailed account of some ideas I had been developing and using in my teaching. To his surprise, his tutor thought the ideas were really interesting. Skip rushed back after the tutorial to tell me excitedly that the tutor found the ideas really interesting. Of course, from my side, I noticed he did not give any attribution to me. He seemed unaware of the issue.

I think this lack of respect is connected to another aspect  of Skip Gates behaviour. Prof Robin Chandler told me that she had a book approved for publication. She then made some criticisms of Skip Gates and later learnt that her book would not be published after all. This is the playground bully. When Robin Chandler visited the UK we met with several professors at SOAS. One of them told us that the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Paul Robeson’s  birth were blocked by Skip Gates. His reason: Paul Robeson had been a communist. Where would that leave Arthur Miller and Dos Passos? If this is true (and I welcome any rebuttal) then Skip is unfit to be called a champion of African-American culture.

This reminds me of  a popular African American saying ‘Negroes know that whites prefer institutionalized Blacks, i.e. Blacks who give their allegiance  to white cultural, political, social and economic institutions’  and a quote from John O’Neal: ‘Racism systematically verifies itself when the slave can only break free by imitating the master: by contradicting his own reality’ 1

There is a lecture by Prof Christopher Ehret where Skip asks definitely planted questions. This almost throws Ehret, not for the question itself, but because it was a question with negative assumptions usually made by white scholars, not made by Black scholars. It seemed obvious to me that Skip was not familiar with the technical details of this particular debate and had been simply given the question to ask by a colleague who knew it would come as a surprise to come from Skip. Nels Abbey has  identified this practice as ‘racism laundering’.2

This takes me to the crux of my point. Last year Skip Gates and Anthony Appiah received honorary doctorates from Cambridge University. Good for them! Skip encouraged the production of a pamphlet ‘Blacks at Clare’. I was at Clare a few days after his ceremony for my class’s 50th reunion. I was given a draft of the pamphlet for review: and was told my comments were welcome: I wrote on 5 July 2022 to the historian drafting the pamphlet:

‘Being Black at Clare is not a description of life if it assumes that one could live exclusively within Clare. What I mean is that next door was Kings College where Dr Patrick Cole was a History Fellow and Professor Boyo was a visiting Fellow , both Nigerian. Having African fellows at Kings impacted on one’s life and perceptions.

‘As a matter of sociology or social history one needs context. Now even the concept of Black at Clare needs some careful unpacking and this is urgent in that the personae are available in large part now but may not be soon! I am thinking opinion surveys etc – tempus fugit. On the one hand Skip lived directly above me at Clare on the other he did not socialise much among the African community. I was president of the African society so any expressed interest and he would be chaperoned in. Diane Abbot (labour politician) was around but she did not socialise among the African students. So what does ‘Black at Clare’ mean? Is this self-identification or just skin colour or …?  There is the issue of entryism. Among my ‘white ‘  colleagues there was the issue of arrival at Cambridge being interpreted as acceptance within the halls of power or at least social acceptance. An opportunity to jump a few class rungs. This then means the need to ditch one’s past identity. As far as I was aware Dianne Abbott at this time did not identify as “‘Black’. She behaved as if she had ‘gone beyond that’. Within this cauldron of issues, the presence of two black fellows at Kings plays an important role especially as both were very strongly African. There was a Black American from Harvard later on the  Fed Reserve  Board. I was told he was ‘important’ and that I should meet him.(There was a powerful Cambridge  ‘grapevine’ determining who to watch and who to ignore). In no way did he identify as Black other than as an accident of biology. I never saw him and Skip together. 

I am truly astonished at the ‘system’s’  ability to identify future leaders with accuracy. (Obviously, I count as the exception that proves the rule.)

‘So we must in my opinion avoid replicating a US mind set. The majority of Black students (mostly African) arriving at Clare (let alone Cambridge) did not come with any baggage of deprivation. They were children of the elite. For the majority of African students the issue of ‘entryism’ did not really arise. You came from a  privileged background and intended to return to it. Black Americans  many of whom saw themselves as a leading generation were not generally privileged. For most Africans, they had either family members or family friends who had been to Oxbridge. Tosan Rewane came from a leading Nigerian family, his father a major political figure in the Independence movement. His father knew my father. This is not the Black US experience. 

‘I suppose one way to look at it is to see Cambridge playing its post colonial role in educating future African leaders (political or thought leaders) whereas that was not the US experience. It was a widespread experience of African academics visiting the US at this time  (1970s) that they arrived on campus and were shunned. Then when the general faculty discovered they came from Africa (not a local interloper)  they were suddenly warmly welcomed.

‘Skip’s experience of Clare  was highly impacted because neither Anthony nor I were ‘Black’ in any US sense. Anthony and I were both highly privileged. It was unfashionable to discuss one’s social background so at that time Skip had no idea where we came from. He never asked me. I remember Skip asking his fellow white Americans if I and others got into Cambridge on a special scheme. Skip had got into Yale on a special scheme as he had originally been a student at Virginia. Having gone to a very good prep school then a good  ‘public school’ I never felt I had been given any favours. Fellow students who did less well at school than myself were also at Cambridge and I am sure that was also Anthony’s experience. Skip at that time expressed the sentiment that he was not truly a Yale person as he had not come through the front door. To me, this was absurd as he was so gifted and he had proved himself everyone’s equal. I remember Skip’s astonishment at witnessing me dismiss a white student as clearly of no consequence to the person’s face. Probably that did not happen in the US. In my mind this had nothing to do with his skin colour…. he was just clearly of no significance! 

‘So an issue that I recommend you to at least consider is Skip’s  reception (what a fashionable word!) among Africans at Cambridge. Both Wole and I saw Skip as a sophisticated person who could become an ally in the future. This is what drove Skip’s acceptance among Africans. Skip was accepted where other Black Americans were not. Skip was the only Black American I ever introduced to Wole Soyinka. The way Skip describes it we were all Black with a shared past…NOT SO! There were enormous class distinctions at play which his connection to myself and Soyinka allowed him to navigate without even knowing the rocks were there. Left to themselves the Nigerian elite would have thrown Skip out of their presence.’

A revised version was produced with greater sensitivity to this issue. Bravo!

Now to my problem: in the latest issue of CAM – issue 100, Skip writes of his meeting Wole Soyinka: ‘I wrote to him, he wrote back, we met..’ This writes me out of the history. Wole invited me to see him and I asked Skip if he would like to come along.  Skip kept asking if I could really take him along. He did not mention that he had written to Soyinka and received no reply. He only mentioned that to me afterwards. He then writes of his experience at Clare: ‘These experiences introduced me  to the concept of ‘race’ in a completely new way.. It made me approach race in a more sophisticated way – in its relationship to class, for instance  ‘. From my comments above on Skip’s first draft, this was completely untrue.

It was open to Skip to word matters in a way that did not specifically write me out (the art of ambiguity) and deny my specific agency. 

This is deliberately kicking sand in my face.


1.   (Brown, 1969, p. 39)

2.   (Abbey, 2023)


Abbey, N. (2023, September 19). We need to talk about ‘racism laundering’: What it is, who benefits – and how to be vigilant. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/sep/19/racism-laundering-ghostwriting-daily-mail

Brown, H. R. (1969). Die Nigger Die!: A Political Autobiography of Jamil Abdullah al-Amin (illustrated ed.). Chicago Review Press. https://www.everand.com/book/161288193/Die-Nigger-Die-A-Political-Autobiography-of-Jamil-Abdullah-al-Amin