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Eugene F. Rivers III still chuckles at what he says was his best quip ever--the time he called Du Bois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "the emcee at the Cotton Club on the Charles."
Those kinds of remarks are part and parcel of why many call Rivers, a Dorchester minister leading the fight against gang violence in the area, Gates' most severe and most persistent critic.
For years, Rivers has labeled Gates and other members of the "black elite intelligentsia" as ivory tower intellectuals who do little other than engage in theoreticals, far removed from the facts of life in poor black communities.
His first formal criticism came in a 1992 Boston Review essay, in which he challenged black intellectuals to take on more activist roles in the black community.
The debate continued at a Kennedy School forum later that same year, called "The responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack." Panelists included Gates, Rivers and Fletcher Jr. University Professor Cornel West.
Rivers penned another essay in 1995 calling for the formulation of what he called an "activist research agenda." Rivers says the call went unheeded, though Gates had always professed his respect for Rivers.
Relations between Gates and Rivers were commonly acknowledged to be strained--several articles mentioned their strained rapport.
But with the October inauguration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. after-school program, a cooperative effort between Rivers and Gates targeting digital illiteracy among Dorchester youth, that characterization seems poised to change.
Gates developed the idea for the program while working on his Encyclopedia Africana with Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah.
Forty neighborhood middle school and high school students--many of them "sentenced to literacy" as part of their probation terms--are spending the semester using the encyclopedia and the related website to learn about the Internet, as well as about global black culture and history.
The program runs seven classes a day, five days a week from the computer room of the Baker House in Dorchester. The location is symbolic--Baker House had a former life as a crack den.
Rivers applauds the program as a step toward achieving those measurable outcomes he says are necessary for black elevation.
"With his idea of the Martin Luther King after-school program, Gates has produced a signature prototype for addressing one of the most urgent social policy questions," Rivers says. "He's bridging the digital divide that's emerging between the poorer black community and the world."
Gates said in October that he sees the program as a kind of "Hebrew school" for blacks, "an after-school program to teach culture and language in your local neighborhood."
"We use the basic concept and digitize it," he said. "We're concerned that black people master the new form of literacy. We want these programs to serve as digital bridges."
Appiah, who was also involved in establishing the after-school program, says the program also "tests the hypothesis that the right content will bring minority kids to the web."
The curriculum was designed by Aaron Meyers '98 and is structured around the Africana website and encyclopedia.
So far, the program seems to be working.
"The response from children and parents has been overwhelming," Rivers says. "We have a waiting list of 30 kids for the weekends."
Rivers adds that he has been approached by churches in eight other cities across the country interested in implementing similar after-school programs.
If the program makes the grade in end-of-the-year evaluations set up by the Markle Foundation, which sponsors the program along with the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Studies, it will expand nationwide.
While the new after-school program signals an emphasis on intellectual and cultural literacy for Dorchester youth, it may also mark the start of a more collaborative relationship between Gates and Rivers.
"My sense is, in retrospect, that one cannot do all things at all times. Things need to move sequentially," Rivers says. "Skip's role at Harvard in leading the [W.E.B. Du Bois] Instutite and the [Afro-American Studies] Department, and now this, is what I'd call a reasonable progression."
Gates, who underwent hip surgery on Monday, was not available for comment, according to his assistant.
Rivers says he hopes that the Du Bois Institute and the Department of Afro-American Studies will play a greater role in the community in years to come.
Still, he says, the after-school program will remain important because of its role in bridging the gap between intellectuals and activists.
"Looking back over the last 25 years, this is the most exciting program to be instituted in the poor black community at Harvard," Rivers says.
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