A Conversation with Skip Gates

The Oak Bluffs summer resident talks about his routines on-Island, racial and class issues on the Vineyard, who will be the next president, and his sexy red tricycle.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., known as “Skip,” is a professor at Harvard University, where he is also the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. A prolific writer, editor, and film producer, he has received numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” a National Humanities Medal, and nearly fifty honorary degrees from institutes for higher education. A seasonal resident of the Vineyard for the past twenty-seven years, he spoke with Martha’s Vineyard Magazine writer Laura Roosevelt by phone from off-Island in June.

How did you first come to Martha’s Vineyard?

I first came in the summer of 1981. I was invited by my mentor, Charles Davis, who was the first black man to be tenured in Yale’s English department. Charles and his wife, Jeanne, had been going to the Vineyard since the fifties, and Charles often talked about the Vineyard as a very special place. When he died in March, Jeanne invited me and my family to visit anyway, and we did. It was great, and I’ve been going ever since.

I understand you rent a big white house in Harthaven. Have you always stayed there?

No. We rented all over the Island. I used to like to walk from Oak Bluffs toward Edgartown, because I just love the view from the bike path. And I’d pass this big white house and wonder who lived there, in a house that looked like the White House. Eventually, I found out that it was rented to the Davenports, a black family. I thought, “That’s cool.”

My idea of a vacation on the Vineyard was to look at real estate. We’d take the kids to the beach, and then we’d go look at houses. Then one day, our real estate agent said, “You know the white house in Harthaven?” And I said, “Oh my God, no!” She said, “It just opened up.” I took it on the spot. The last several years, I’ve written a book there every summer. It’s a great house for events too. We had a fundraiser for Barack Obama when he was running for the Senate, and two fundraisers for Deval Patrick.

Don’t you think it looks like a plantation, right off of Beach Road?

Yeah, that’s what I like about it. I love the irony of the neo-plantation look. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most elegant and historic houses on the Vineyard, and my family and I are lucky to have it.

What do you like to do when here?

I’m a creature of habit: Every day, I wake up, read The New York Times, make my coffee, do my e-mail, and write until midday. By noon it’s over; I can only work creatively for so long. I like the freshness and the quietness of the morning. I write in the dining room, looking at the water. In all the years I’ve rented that house, we’ve had maybe two meals in that dining room; that dining room’s my office.

My daughter [Maggie] works at the Slice of Life [restaurant in Oak Bluffs], so I go there every day to get breakfast. They have an 11 a.m. cutoff, so I’m often known to call at 10:59 to order my biscuit and bacon and egg sandwich.

What do you do for the rest of the day?

There are several things I love to do on the Vineyard. The first is ride my tricycle. I have two adult tricycles, and I ride every day on the same route, to South Beach. It’s eight miles from the front door of my house to South Beach, and sometimes I get off the tricycle and go look at the waves. Then I turn around and ride back. That’s what I do every day unless it rains.

I come down to the Island July 1 and leave in mid-September. The first thing I do when I arrive is buy a half a dozen new Inkwell T-shirts. I love the Vineyard so much that I named my film production company Inkwell Films, and I started a family foundation called the Inkwell Foundation [an outgrowth of his interest in helping African Americans trace their roots, the foundation aims to use genetic and genealogical research to reform the teaching of science and history in schools].

Most of my friends who summer on the Island come in August, and in August, I’m usually having dinner at their houses. In July, I go to a movie almost every night, and I eat out every night. I never cook. I’m either sponging off friends, or I’m at one of the restaurants. I try to sample them all – new and old.

I also love my annual fishing trip. Every year in mid-August, Buddy Vanderhoop takes me and three friends out to catch striped bass off the coast of Gay Head [Aquinnah]. We have so much fun, just drinking beer and catching bass, or blues. I have an arrangement with Jimmy at Jimmy Seas [restaurant in Oak Bluffs]: When we get off the boat, I drop the fish off with him, and then I come back at 7:30 or 8 and eat it. He cooks it with tomatoes and onions and garlic, over pasta, and Jesus, it’s just – oh! So good, with a big red wine and hot pepper.

What do you like to read when you’re on the Vineyard?

In the morning, I read things related to my writing and other work. But I also like to go to the beach and read novels – you know, The Da Vinci Code, best sellers.

Do you have a favorite book?

Books that shaped me fundamentally when I was an adolescent include A Tale of Two Cities, Les Misérables, and The Agony and the Ecstasy. That was the most erotic book I’d ever read, at the age of fourteen or fifteen. There was one page I must have read a thousand times. It describes a day when Michelangelo visits his mistress, and man, I read that page so often it turned a different color from all the other pages in the book.

Everyone here seems to recognize you on the street. Do you usually know your greeters?

I’ve been accused of running for mayor of the Vineyard. I have a good memory for faces, but a terrible memory for names. It’s genetic. I generally recognize people, but now, since I’ve started making TV shows, lots of people stop me whom I’ve never met before. Sometimes they ask me for an autograph or to shake my hand. The idea of anybody asking me for an autograph just cracks me up.

Why? You’re a celebrity.

I’m just a poor boy from Piedmont, West Virginia. I’m from a village – a small town of two thousand people where everybody spoke to everybody. That’s what I like about Martha’s Vineyard. And I also like the class diversity and the racial diversity.

How would you describe race relations on Martha’s Vineyard? Do you think there is a divide?

Not at all. In fact, there are a few things that are special about race relations on Martha’s Vineyard. First of all, the Island must have the highest concentration in the world of successful, middle- and upper-class black people. If you’re a successful black person, chances are you’ve raised your children in predominantly white neighborhoods, and they’ve attended predominantly white schools. Martha’s Vineyard allows the black upper-middle class to get to know each other, and it allows our children to socialize every day with other black children – and white children – of their same educational and economic backgrounds. This is particularly valuable for mixed-race children: They don’t feel abnormal for being smart and the children of successful people. This performs a very important function within the African American community.

Martha’s Vineyard was one of the first resorts at which black people could purchase property. One of the last social arenas in the country to be integrated was the beach, because of nudity and semi-nudity, which awoke fears of miscegenation. As late as 1968 or 1969, when I used to go to Ocean City, Maryland, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, the beaches there were very segregated. But Martha’s Vineyard has been integrated, more or less, for a hundred years.

Have you noticed an increase in integration in your social life here?

Yes, I think the degree of integration at social events here has increased in the twenty-seven years that I’ve been coming to the Vineyard. It’s partly because, over that quarter of a century, black people have made tremendous economic strides in American society, so there are more people of color coming to the Vineyard now who are already connected to white friends and associates from the workplace. Integration on the Vineyard reflects a larger integration of institutions such as investment banking firms, universities, law firms, and the government.

So, the divide here is more around class?

Yes, the divide here is about class, not race.

What are some of the biggest problems you see facing the United States today?

The gap in economic achievement, without a doubt. Whereas fifty years ago, race was the most important problem facing the United States, it’s class today. We have to figure out how to move people from the non-working class to the working class, and from the working class to the middle class. It’s a problem for all people now, not just black people. People are terrified because of the shrinking size of the pie, and when people are frightened, they become suspicious of each other. Homophobia, anti-black racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism all increase in times of scarcity. People scapegoat other people. The biggest problem facing a Barack Obama administration is going to be how to regenerate the economy and increase economic mobility for all Americans – for the white people in West Virginia with whom I grew up, but also for black and brown people and everyone else in the inner cities.

Are there any good things happening now that might help us?

I love the way Barack Obama has energized the black community and the younger segments of our society. If this carries over to the fall election and results in an Obama victory, then a revitalized citizenry could be called upon in the way that John Kennedy called upon young people to serve in the Peace Corps. I’d like to see a domestic version of that as well as a foreign version.

Is it true that you “flipped” from supporting Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama?

As editor-in-chief of [an online magazine with news and analysis from a variety of black perspectives, and tools for ancestry research, published by Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive], I can’t officially endorse candidates because of journalistic ethics. The Clintons are very dear friends of mine. I pledged my full personal support to Senator Clinton long before I’d ever heard of Barack Obama, in hopes that she would run for president. I thought she ran a brilliant race, and I feel her disappointment. There was only one person who could have defeated her, and that was Barack Obama.

I’ve talked to Obama several times, and I like and admire him. I’ve made the maximum allowable contribution to his candidacy. He’s been on the Vineyard two summers in a row, and I hope that that continues.

I think that either of them would be a great president. Because of the luck of the draw, Barack has won. In the best of all possible worlds, they would be on the ballot together in the fall. I think they would be a powerful ticket. It’s historic anyway, just having Barack at the head of the ticket, but imagine how much more historic it would be to have a black man and a white woman running for the president and vice president of the United States. I mean, my Lord, we’d kill two birds with one stone.

Are you surprised to see an African American with a real chance at being president?

A year ago, I thought it was highly unlikely that a black man would get the nomination. I had no question about Obama’s qualifications, but I questioned whether our fellow Americans were ready for him. It’s one thing to win Martha’s Vineyard; it’s another to win West Virginia. Barack has a lot of work to do with white working-class Americans who have expressed reservations, through their votes, about his candidacy. But if anybody can do it, it’s him. He’s got the magic touch. He’s brilliant and charismatic, and he’s tough.

Do you think he can beat John McCain?

When Americans see a debate between John McCain and Barack Obama – even people who are skeptical about a black candidate – I believe they will put those concerns aside for the good of the country, because clearly Obama is the superior candidate.

Let’s talk about your work: You’re so productive; how do you do so much, and how do you balance your professional and personal life?

I think I’m never productive enough, and that motivates me. It’s a trick. At fifty-seven, I have achieved some things that have been very satisfying, but you have to work at it. I am a compartmentalized person with a strict routine. I wake up every morning at the same time, ride my bike at the same time, go to the movies at the same time, grind the same coffee bean at the same time. So when my routine works, it’s because I’m disciplined and compartmentalized. But if you interviewed my kids [Maggie, twenty-eight, and Liza, twenty-five] as I was building my career, well, it wasn’t exactly Cliff Huxtable around my house. I was often off giving a speech, or making a film in Africa. My parents were home virtually every day of my first eighteen years of life. My children didn’t have that experience with me.

But you’ve set a good example for them.

Well, in one way, but it will be interesting to see – if they get married and have children – what kind of parents they are. How one balances aspiration and ambition and the desire to provide for one’s children on one hand, with the obligations of being a parent on the other, is a complicated question that each of us has to confront in our own way. I didn’t want my children to go to Yale on scholarship, like I did. Also, I had dreams that I wanted to fulfill. Having children was one of those dreams, but teaching at Harvard was another one. It’s always a balancing act. There are a lot of things I might think I’d do over differently, but if I were put back in a time machine, I’ll bet I’d make exactly the same choices. They felt right at the time.

I think we all feel we are inadequate as parents, that we could have done better, that we need to do better. But I love my daughters very much. They’re the best thing that ever happened in my life.

You mentioned “running for mayor” of the Vineyard. Why do you think people are so drawn to you?

They’re drawn to my sexy red tricycle. And the secret is my bell. Anyone who passes me on the bike path gets the bell treatment, especially beautiful women, and that bell is just irresistible. I’m sorry that there’s only one in the world, and God gave it to me. The bike shop only had one, and they’ve never had another. The tones are just magical.

Also, I love people. Again, I’m from a small town, and I love that town and the people in it, and the Vineyard reminds me of where I grew up. I care about the people here.