By Kam Williams
Sentinel Contributing Writer
Dr. Henry Louis Gates The “Black in Latin America” Interview
Professor Henry Louis Gates dominated the national news for much of the summer of 2009 after being mistaken for a burglar and handcuffed for breaking into his own home. President Obama eventually intervened to defuse the tension by inviting both the professor and the arresting officer to the White House for a glass of beer by Rose Garden.
But prior to the media circus surrounding that “Beer Summit,” Dr. Gates was already well known as a tenured Professor at Harvard University, as well as director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research. Here, he talks about his new PBS series, Black in Latin America.
SENTINEL: Hi Dr. Gates, thanks for the time.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates: Thank you, Kam.
SENTINEL: I know that your father, Henry, Sr., passed away since we last spoke, so I’d like to express my sincerest condolences on your loss.
HLG: Oh, thank you, man. We just had his memorial service this past Saturday back home in Cumberland, Maryland. All his friends turned out. It was a two-hour service. I spoke, my brother spoke, and our cousin Eddie spoke. Then we buried his ashes next to my mom’s. I loved him.
SENTINEL: I almost feel like I knew him because he played such a prominent role in African American Lives. In terms of your new series, Boston-based children’s author Irene Smalls asks: What do you hope to accomplish with Black in Latin America?
HLG: Between 1502 and 1866, 11.2 million Africans arrived in the New World. And of that 11.2 million, only 450 thousand came to the United States. So, in other words, the real African-American experience unfolded south of our borders. And most of us don’t know anything about that. It’s an extension of what scholars call “American Exceptionalism.” We think that everything revolves around the continental United States, including when we think about the slave experience and about race and racism. But obviously, over 10.5 million black people landed in countries throughout the Caribbean and South America. My goal with the series was to unveil that world to the average American. Did you know that the first black president of a multi-racial society was not Barack Obama but Vincente Guerrero, who became president of Mexico in 1829? How come we don’t know that? It’s incredible!
SENTINEL: I was a Black Studies major as an undergrad, and after watching all the episodes of Black in Latin America, I felt like I had never learned so much from a TV series about black folks.
HLG: Oh, you couldn’t have given me a nicer compliment than that. I was hoping viewers might experience that aura of discovery.
“Black in Latin America” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. (ET/PT) on PBS (check local listings).