Gates To Edit Web Magazine on Black America

Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. knows the feeling of talking politics in a black barbershop. “People don’t say ‘this is left-wing,’ or ‘this is right-wing,’ they just say whatever comes to them,” he said.

Gates, who is the director of the W.E.B Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, said he wanted to channel this barbershop atmosphere in “The Root,” an online magazine he launched Monday.

Geared towards blacks readers, The Root will create a forum for the political ideas of black America, which Gates said are typically oversimplified into a “monolithic black point of view” by mainstream media.

Lynette Clemetson, managing editor of The Root, which is owned by The Washington Post Company, said the Internet’s fluidity will allow a multifaceted dimension of black thought in America to show itself.

“As an editor, when I’m approaching issues, I want to think about, how many ways can we come at this. If we’ve written from one perspective, can we can quickly update the Web site, adding different perspectives,” she said. “People feel like The Root is filling a void.”

Clemetson said that while there are a number of publications geared towards the black community, the mission of these outlets typically tends to be entertainment, not academic debate.

“The editorial product [of The Root] is more what you’d find in a smart, general interest magazine,” she said.

Professors at Harvard supported the idea of creating an intellectual publication geared toward black readers.

“Most popular black magazines are pretty solidly capitalist,” said anthropology professor J. Lorand Matory ’82, faulting the mainstream black media’s tendency to exalt the “virtues of being super rich and the glory of being covered in bling-bling.”

Professor Emmanuel K. Akyeampong said that with recent immigrants from Africa trickling into the older black population, “the African-American identity is becoming more nuanced and more complex.”

But the void in intellectual black debate has already been filled at Harvard, said W. Bilal Belardo II ’08, the co-president of “Remix,” a biannual magazine put out by the Black Men’s Forum.

“I think at Harvard there’s a lot more diversity within the black community and people are more vocal with their different views which don’t reflect homogeneity, but instead heterogeneity and acceptance.”

Although students and professors have generally lauded The Root, some have voiced questions about the potential conflict-of-interest in the magazine’s connection to Gates’ genetics testing Web site, AfricanDNA.com.

Gates encourages black Americans to trace their roots with modern genetic technology. A link to his genetics Web site is present on The Root.

“I don’t care where black people have their DNA tested,” Gates said when asked about the potential conflict. He noted that other genetics testing Web sites publicized on The Root.

Columbia Journalism School professor Samuel G. Freedman also saw little wrong with The Roots’ connection to Gates’ other Web site.

“I think that if Professor Gates’ involvement in AfricaDNA.com is noted on the magazine Web site,” he said in an e-mailed statement, “and if indeed the site links to competing DNA companies, what he is doing is reasonable.”

Gates, who holds one of Harvard’s prestigious University professorships, taught the introductory African and African-American Studies course in the fall, the only class that he will teach this year.

—Staff writer Charles J. Wells can be reached at wells2@fas.harvard.edu.