Part 1—In search of a human reply: Last week, we had the pleasure of watching a major public figure asking an excellent question.
The public figure to whom we refer is Professor Gates. He spoke with director Ava Du Vernay as part of his PBS program, Finding Your Roots.
To watch the full program, click here.
Three cheers for Professor Gates! He not only asked an excellent question, he did so in jocular fashion. For the record, there was nothing "wrong" with DuVernay's answer to Gates' question, to the extent that she gave one. She too behaved in a jovial way.
At any rate, the question Professor Gates asked was this, and we think it was wickedly great:
"What difference does it make?"
What difference does it make! If we might borrow from Groucho Marx, it's a familiar question, a question you hear every day! But within the context of Gates' discussion, we thought the question was so strong that it deserved recording.
During the program, Gates had acquainted DuVernay with the personal histories of (a handful of) her ancestors. When he asked his excellent question, he'd just finished the second part of his presentation, in which he reported the contents of DuVernay's DNA.
Briefly, we interrupt our discussion to note a tiny semi-McGuffin:
Professor Gates, a bit of a showman, may work the tiniest sleight of hand in the part of his presentations which deal with "surprising ancestral stories."
In the current instance, Gates devoted roughly half his presentation to DuVernay's "fourth great grandfather," a man named Henry Glaudin, whose colorful history took him from Saint-Domingue (today's Haiti) to Cuba, and then on to New Orleans, where he met and married Du Vernay's "fourth great grandmother," Magdeleine Glaudin.
For the record, Henry Glaudin was socially defined as "white." Indeed, his father, also named Henry Glaudin—one of DuVermay's fifth great grandfathers—had owned slaves in Saint-Domingue, Gates' research had found. According to historical records, he had even branded these people, searing their flesh with his name.
Please note: Barring an instance of "pedigree collapse," DuVernay, and everyone else, has sixteen different "fourth great grandfathers" (great great great great grandfathers), along with 32 fifth great grandfathers. In his presentations, Gates sometimes gives the impression that he is tracing the sole family line of his subjects, when he is actually telling a few of the many stories which constitute the sprawling history of any person's ancestors.
There's nothing (necessarily) wrong with that, though we think Gates could, and ideally should, make this point more clear. But when the professor asked his excellent question, he'd moved on from the personal histories to a less selective matter:
He was reporting the makeup of DuVernay's own DNA. A small drum roll was supplied!
As Professor Gates built the suspense about what he had learned, DuVernay voiced concern that her DNA might turn out to be "more than fifty percent" European. When she finally received the actual results of her DNA test, this exchange included the professor's excellent question:
GATES: Can you read those percentages?"What difference does it make?" That's the question Professor Gates asked, chuckling as he went.
DUVERNAY: 57.3 percent African. (Pretending to take a bow and exult) Thank you! 41.5 percent European.
This makes me so happy.
GATES: (Chuckling) I can tell.
DUVERNAY: This makes me sooo happy.
GATES: Wait a minute! What difference does it make?
We thought his question, and his attitude, were both transplendently wise.
We're not suggesting there was or wasn't anything "wrong" with DuVernay's initial reaction. We're not suggesting there was anything wrong with her brief response to Gates' question, which you can see for yourself at the 51-minute mark of the program's tape.
We're saying that Gates asked an excellent question, especially so in the context of modern progressive "identity politics." His question leads to other good questions, questions about what it means to have, or belong to, a "race."
What does it mean to belong to a "race?" If we might adapt the language of Professor Genovese, is this one of the concepts the slaveholders made?
Why do we liberals seem to believe so strongly in the concept of "race?" We'll ponder these questions all week long. They flow from the genial wisdom lodged in Gates' question.
We'll ponder such questions all this week. As we do, we'll think about the way we liberals and progressives are sometimes seen by The Others. We'll also consider the longstanding, self-flattering claim in which we residents of the west like to insist that we're "the rational animal."
Tain't necessarily so! Or at least, that what some of our idealistic young analysts have thoughtfully said.
Professor Gates asked a very good question. We'll ponder its logic all week.
Tomorrow: "What difference does it make?" We look at what DuVernay said