Coloured People: A Memoir Paperback – 30 Apr 1995
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" Affecting, beautifully written and morally complex...The heart of the memoir is Gates' portrait of his family, and its placement in a black society whose strength, richness and self-confidence thrived in the darkness of segregation." --Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times
" [Colored People] may well become a classic of American memoir." --The Boston Globe
"Affecting, beautifully written and morally complex...The heart of the memoir is Gates' portrait of his family, and its placement in a black society whose strength, richness and self-confidence thrived in the darkness of segregation."--Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times
"[Colored People] may well become a classic of American memoir."--The Boston Globe
About the Author
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Ph.D.Cambridge), is Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and American Research, Harvard University. He is the author of Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513 2008; Black in Latin America; Tradition and the Black Atlantic: Critical Theory in the African Diaspora; Faces of America; Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self; The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Criticism; Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars; Colored People: A Memoir; The Future of Race with Cornel West; Wonders of the African World; Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man; and The Trials of Phillis Wheatley. His is also the writer, producer, and narrator of PBS documentaries Finding Your Roots; Black in Latin America; Faces of America; African American Lives 1 and 2; Looking for Lincoln; America Beyond the Color Line; and Wonders of the African World. He is the editor of African American National Biography with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and The Dictionary of African Biography with Anthony Appiah; Encyclopedia Africana with Anthony Appiah; and The Bondwoman s Narrative by Hannah Crafts, as well as editor-in-chief of TheRoot.com.
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He has written for The New Yorker, The Village Voice, Time, The New Republic, and other prominent magazines. In addition to Colored People: A Memoir, Gates has authored and co-authored several books including Figures in Black: Works, Signs, and the "Racial" Self (1987), The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988), and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997).
The preface to Colored People is a letter from Gates to his daughters, Maggie and Liza and, though the book is dedicated to his father Henry Louis Gates, Sr. and in memory of his mother Pauline Augusta Coleman Gates, the entire autobiography is written in conversational tone, as if Gates were recounting his stories not only to his daughters, but to their entire generation.
Gates' collection of memories describes the era, long since past (both for good and for bad) when blacks and whites were segregated, and the subsequent integration of these colors, and what it was like to live in that world, and be a part of it's evolution. The title Colored People is beautifully appropriate, not only for the shades of black America it represents, but for each and every one of us; black, white, red, yellow: none of us are see-through.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. invites us to live with him in Piedmont, West Virginia, and experience life-black life-through his eyes. We walk through his town, invade his cultural rituals as a welcome guest, experience the love of family and community with him, and suffer the pain and frustration of segregation alongside him. I felt privileged to walk with Gates into segregated, comfortable, welcoming, "safe" black cultural spaces I could never enter otherwise: a black funeral, a black church, a black barbershop, a black family reunion. In contrast, I felt anger and pain at being judged, criticized, and belittled because of skin color.
Gates emphasizes to his readers, through his personal life experiences, the fact that color is only an outside condition that changes with the sunshine. He allows us to see that we are all human beings first, experiencing the same emotions, passions and ambitions as the man next to us, regardless of his color.
He doesn't discount white racism though, nor try to "Uncle Tom" it into something to be scoffed at as negligible. He allows us to know what West Virginia was like in the 1950's through the eyes of a young black man. We feel his warm acceptance when he falls for the affections of a white girl, and when he is recognized for superior intellect among his peers, many of whom are white. We share in the camaraderie he feels when he plays ball with his white friends. But then we are appalled when he is forced to leave the company of their table in a restaurant and stand at the counter, because of his skin color. We get angry because those same white friends don't stick up for him when he is forcibly thrown from a dance club, simply because he is black.
Through both the segregation and integration, Gates shares with us what he finds to be of greatest value in his life; that being the love of his family. His memoir is somewhat biographical in this sense, in that the lives of his maternal family, the Colemans, and his paternal family, the Gateses, are shared with us in detail. We learn how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. found the support and strength to become the intellectual force he is today. Through the lives of his family members, we see yet another generation of segregated black America. We learn what it is like to be "kept down" in a dead-end mill job, to be forced to drink from a separate water fountain, to be drawn into a box and dared to cross its lines.
Through the Colemans and the Gateses we experience the freedom of integration, but also the fear and uncertainty of leaving behind a safe and comfortable life we have come to accept, if not love. There is fear and discomfort in change, and we dread its revolution, even as we feel its excitement, through Gates' memories.
Gates' optimistic personality shines throughout his book. It's refreshing to me that, despite his formidable education and vast first-hand knowledge of racism, segregation and integration, his autobiography is not written in lofty, scholarly terminology, but in an easy, relaxed manner that informs, educates and leaves the reader with the impression of having enjoyed a talk with a good friend.
Colored People: A Memoir is a text which, in my opinion, should be a part of every student's university curriculum. Gates' underlying message, that freedom should never be taken for granted, is one that should be ingrained in every American citizen, regardless of color or creed. His personal memoirs, one West Virginia man's record of an era, offer a candid glimpse into the trails of integration few of us today, thankfully, will ever experience. This book is not to be missed by anyone who cares about history, about race, and about multicultural America as we now know it and how it came to be.
Rhonda Browning White
I don't always agree with the way in which Prof. Gates places himself in the politics of academia or the pronouncements he sometimes makes about being of color in these United States, but he sure tells a good story. Through sharing his early years, some of the complexities of the man are made understandable. I leave it to others to decide exactly what that means.
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