Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s book Colored People is an extra ordinary book that captures moments in history for the African American community and all the communities which existed during the transition period in America in the second half of the twentieth century. The author portrays this unique period in the American cultural life history by focusing on one small town in West Virginia as a microcosm for what was happening in the fifties and sixties across the American racial landscape.
Piedmont was Gates home as a child and the color lines between the communities living there were almost deteriorating. Gates mother and father played a very important role in Gate’s growing up. There was a very complex relationship that existed between Gates and his father. Gates discusses the importance of skin color and hair texture in the African American part of Piedmont. He says the people are evaluated depending on the color of their hair and skins. The colored section of Piedmont portrayed a very close kind of relationship. Most of the inhabitants of Piedmont equated success with property and ownership and this can be seen from Gates mother’s ambition to own a home. Gates accounts that he was motivated by the integration of schools when he realized that there was a greater world that existed beyond the “kitchen.” Gates aspirations were from books. He managed to beat all the odds in his community and ventured into books which made him become a great achiever in life.
1. Compare and contrast the experiences of Gates and Coleman extended families to illustrate the saying, "It’s no disgrace to be colored but it is awfully inconvenient."
It’s no disgrace to be colored but it is awfully inconvenient. Colored people were often looked down upon. Most of them suffered in the hands of the whites that made them become very bitter with the whites. It is not only a disgrace to be a black but it is also very inconvenient. This is because the blacks were the slavery victims. Most blacks were not morally upright. This can be seen from the way sexual promiscuity was rampant amongst the black families. The Coleman extended family was a black family. Information about this family can be found in chapter 5 “Up the Hill” and Chapter 6 “Down to Cumberland. Sexual promiscuity was very rampant in the black community and this had an effect on Gate’s family. The family matriarch on his mother’s side was believed to have been with two men. When the woman got pregnant, she decided to marry the man who was in real sense not the father of her child. This later led to an uprising case of tension and violence within the family. Big Mom’s husband on the other side reacted violently when he realized that one of the children in his house was not his. This kind of behavior continued with other members of the Coleman. The medieval society accepted a double standard of sexual behavior for men and women in Piedmont. The information about the Coleman’s extended family can be found in chapter five. We are able to see how several women came to the big mom with children that they claimed were her grand children.
In chapter 6, Gates recalls his father’s side of the family. The Gates father lived in Cumberland and left less an impression on him than his mother’s family. The story starts with the beginning of the Gates line with Jane Gates who was a former slave. Jane Gates had several children with her master. Gates also recounts his grandmother who insisted that only the girls were to be educated. This was a sore point with Gates father and his grandfather who owned several businesses. Gates’ father disliked Gates’ grand mother so much because of her advocating for girl’s education and ignoring the boys. In Gate’s extended family, there was also a case of sexual immorality between Jane Gate’s and her master. However, such cases are not as rampant as they are in the Coleman’s family. The case of Jane Gates can be thought of to have been caused by forced sexual relationships as she was a slave. However compared to the cases in the black families whereby most of the sexual actions seemed voluntarily. Gates recounts that the medieval society accepted a double standard of sexual behavior for men and women in Piedmont. Gates did not have much encounter with his father’s family but his relationship with the father was very complex as far as the book is concerned.
2. Compare Louis Gates’ experiences growing up in the "colored" sub-society of Piedmont, West Virginia (during 1950s and 1960s) with:
(a) Your own childhood and youth
During my childhood I lived in a single color community. There were no cases of colored people or white people. Everybody was the same and cases of hatred were never seen. My family was from one single color-line. There was no any form of mixed origin and things were always done in harmony.
(b) With the conditions and experiences of contemporary African American youths, especially young men and women living in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods.
Gates grew up in Piedmont a town that was made up of mostly Italians, Irish, African Americans and some few White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The town was a company town which was centered on Westvaco Paper mill and nearly all the African American population in this town worked for the paper mill. The black community looked down upon their white counterparts. Gates feel that he learned to see the white people as individuals through watching shows in the televisions and saw African Americans as professional in positions of authority. Television was also used here as the medium for civil rights. The black people hated the whites very much. Gates’ mother for instance hated the whites so much. Gates was able to watch television a gadget that was very rare with the young men and women who lived in impoverished inner city neighborhoods.
3. Describe Dr. Gates’ marginal status as a colored "overachiever" and its apparent affects on his personality. Speculate on how these characteristics may have shaped his subsequent aspirations, experiences, and view of the world as an adult.
Dr. Gates grew up in a marginalized community, a place whereby people could not easily prosper due to the warring groups between the communities. Life in this place was awful as the blacks hated the whites and whites also on the other hand hated the black. Dr. Gate came from a mixed family whereby the father was a white while the mother was a black. Despite the hatred that existed between the two separate groups (blacks and whites), Gates managed to beat all the odds and emerged an overachiever.
Dr. Gates having come from a marginalized community, worked hard in school as he always remembered his background while pursuing his studies. He wanted to disapprove all the odds so that he could emerge victorious and show the world that someone’s background did not matter at all and a person should not be held hostage by his/her background. He managed to beat all those who came from well off backgrounds and emerged victorious.
Today Dr. Gates is one of the most respected scholars in the United States of America. He has received about 51 honorary awards and several other rewards in different fields.
Gates humble background helped him work in different places with different personalities and different work conditions. Gates has been able to combine literary techniques of deconstruction with the ancient African literary works. Gates origin (being a black American) helped him stress the need for more recognition of black literature and black culture. He also works for a better recognition of black works and their integration into a larger pluralistic canon. Gates has served as a mediator between those who advocate separatism and those who advocate for a fixed western canon. He intends to build academic institutions where people can study black culture. Gates has also worked tirelessly to bring about social, educational and intellectual equality for black Americans. Gates had worked in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia and this helped him in the production of the BBC program great Railway Journey. His marginal color made him produce the program African American Lives and African American 2 whereby he traced the lineage of several notable African Americans using genealogical and historic resources. This helped him realize that he had more than 50% European ancestry and that he was descended from the mulatto John Redman. Gates also managed to discuss his findings with guest’s about their complex ancestries. From his studies, gates discovered that he descended from a 4th century Irish King. His studies also revealed that one of his ancestors were the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
4. In terms of at least one of the theories discussed in "Selected Theories of Racial and Ethnic Relations," (found in "Selected Essays," 2010-2011) relate Gates’ book Colored People to some of the key concepts and issues regarding the complex nature racial and ethnic relations in the United States.
They are concerned with the majority-minority relations. This is because of their potential for serious disruptions in the society. It is not practical for a society to become severely divided along lines of race, ethnicity or religion. If there is ethnic inequality in a society, there must be at least one of two conditions which are present. It is either the inequality which is meeting some kind of social need in the society or the inequality is present as a result of some kind of social condition which is useful to the society in some ways.
Possible functions create some form of motivations. There is no solid explanation on the reason why stratification should occur on the basis of race or ethnicity. It sees ethnic stratification as a product of ethnocentrism which is useful as the society needs shared identity.
Most functionalists agree that ethnic stratification is a problem and therefore needs to be minimized. This aspect cannot be completely removed from the society sue to diversity. Ethnocentrism will therefore always tend to occur.
Ethnocentrism can be minimized through:
- Reducing cultural differences between the dominant groups and minorities groups.
- Eliminating legal barriers and other forms of barriers which are set up by the dominant groups to exclude minorities.
Develop or encourage the development of any skill that might be lacking in the minority groups to enable them participate in other activities in the society.
- The burden of change is on the minority groups
- The minority groups will experience some form of hostility from the dominant group
Henry Louis Gates Jr. Colored People: A Memoir Vintage Publishers; Vintage Books edition 1995