Can He Save Afro-Am?


Harvard, at least for the moment, has pinned its hopes to resurrect the Afro-American Studies Department on one scholar: Duke's Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Gates is the nation's preeminent scholar in the field of Afro-American literature and, according to peers, the person with the entrepreneurial spirt necessary to bring the department back from the brink of oblivion.

And if "Skip" Gates comes to Harvard that will be his job. After last year's death of Nathan I. Higgins, DuBois professor of history and Afro-American Studies, the department was left with only one senior faculty member, Cabot Professor of English Literature Werner Sollars.

"Henry Louis Gates would make a considerable difference and bring a great deal to reinforcing Afro-Am," says Princeton University Professor Arnold Rampersad, who turned Harvard down for a position only a few years ago. "He is enormously creative and if any one can build at Harvard he can."

Some believe the most important thing Gates will do for Harvard will be to put the currently moribund department among the leaders in Afro-American scholarship.


"I think it is a very good appointment. Skip is one of the leading theorists in his field. His presence, with Professor Sollars, will make Harvard a center [of Afro-American Studies] immediately," says Andrew Delbanco, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. "If there is any single appointment that would energize Afro-Am at Harvard it would be his appointment."

In order to "re-energize" the department, Gates' first step must be to draw more scholars, particularly junior professors, to Harvard. As of now, the University's junior Afro-Am ranks are empty, making inside senior appointments--promotions--unlikely.

"[If] he brings in more people within three or four years Harvard would be back on the map," Princeton's Rampersad says. "His presence alone won't be enough, but if he can make certain appointments, Harvard would be an envious place to be."

Rampersad and others say this won't be difficult for Gates. His association with Harvard, they say, will bring in graduate students and young scholars that want to study with him. Since Gates has arrived at Duke, the number of graduate students studying Afro-American-related fields has jumped, according to Stanley Fish, chair of Duke's English department.

"He is the premier scholar in his field," says the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, acting director of Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute and Plummer professor of Christian morals. "If his name is attached to [the Afro-Am Department], what has been a sad state for 20 years will be turned around."

"Scholars will want to come to Harvard because he is here. He will attract graduate students and enrich the pool of junior scholars," continues Gomes. "He is a catalyst. You can't underestimate the impor- tance of a single individual...I can't think of a single scholar who will have the impact I believe he will have."

It is Gates' leadership and personality that make others believe the Duke scholar is the best person to build an Afro-Am Department at Harvard. Peers most frequently refer to him as an "entrepreneur," "energetic" and "cosmopolitan."

This entrepreneurial spirit, makes Gates a high-profile powerhouse in his field. In fact, some critics have accused him of grandstanding. But Gates' admirers rigorously support him.

"Some people think there is something shady about being popular, I think that is a ridiculous point of view," says Gomes. "He brings a high profile to the field. He is able to attract attention and support. He has a Midas touch."

Midas touch or not, Gates has an uphill battle ahead of him. Few think Afro-Am will turn around in a day. Most observers say that it will be a minimum of four or five years before the department is on its feet again.