Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., is all over the place. He was a
consultant to the movie Amistad and is a writer for New Yorker
magazine, the featured guest in a BBC series on Africa, a book author,
a department chairperson, and a professor. Described by many as an
“intellectual superstar,” the million-dollar earner has put Harvard
University’s Afro-American studies department on the map by attracting
a “Dream Team” of mostly male scholars.
New information? Hardly. “Skip” Gates’s work has been in the
limelight for a while. His career has skyrocketed since he won a
MacArthur Foundation “genius” award a decade or so ago. In a recent
article, he is described as “the most eloquent voice articulating the
middle class Black experience to White America.” However, the awestruck
and somewhat fawning article, featured in the April edition of Boston
Magazine, became the subject of some national debate — not because of
its content, but because of its title.
“Head Negro In Charge,” the headline blazes. In the body of the
piece, author Cheryl Bentsen rather coyly explains this as longhand for
H.N.I.C. However, most folks don’t translate “H.N.I.C.” so politely.
Her laudatory profile, therefore, was transformed into the subject of
Rev. Charles Stith, a prominent Boston minister and civil rights
activist, demanded an apology for the use of the “historically
offensive phrase.” Boston Magazine editor Craig Unger demurred. Gates,
the subject of all the furor, let days pass before telling Boston Globe
writer Mark Jurkowitz that he felt terrible about the furor and was
dismayed about the headline because it might “exacerbate racial
tension” in Boston. Newsweek described the tumult as “a tempest over a
headline,” and the controversy hit the Today show.
In some ways, the fuss about the term used to describe Gates is
less than a footnote in the volume on the status of African Americans
in higher education and is not worthy of much further discussion. In
other ways, though, the contention speaks Volumes about our status,
both in the academy and in the media.
Some of the commentary about “H.N.I.C.” speaks to the contempt in
which many hold Gates, despite his accomplishments. And some of the
commentary, frankly and unfortunately, speaks to the contempt in which
we, African Americans, hold ourselves and the short distance we have
traveled since Booker T. Washington was our nation’s designated “head
Black man,” and the Tuskegee Machine was the filter through which all
other African Americans had to be sifted.
At its best, the H.N.I.C. term is an anachronism, a throwback to a
time past when African American people were so segregated that one of
us could speak for all of us. Often it is a term used derisively to
speak of one who has an exaggerated sense of his or her own importance.
When viewed from this perspective, the article on Gates seems more
a parody than flattery. Someone who is aware of the subtlety of the
term would hardly describe Gates in superlative terms on one hand and
with a disdainful historical term on the other. “H.N.I.C.” is, at best,
a backhand compliment, much like the mixed praise that comes when one
describes the only African American in their academic department as the
“best Black,” not as “the best.”
Another reason that the term caused such a tempest, though, is
because the “N” in “H.N.I.C.” doesn’t always stand for Negro. The use
of the “n” word has been hotly debated recently, especially since the
Merriam-Webster 1999 Collegiate Dictionary once proposed to merely
describe the word as “a Black person, usually taken to be offensive.”
In response to protests about the definition, the word now will be
described as “perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur
Some of the complaints about the Boston Magazine headline had to do
with the way the “n-word” has crept back into ordinary usage. Was the
headline a sly way of reminding Gates that he “ain’t all that” — and
reminding the rest of us that if the “best Black” can still be called
the “n-word,” so can we?
Whatever the answer, White folk can claim some legitimate confusion
when they hear African American people using the “n-word” so freely.
Perhaps if we look at this controversy from a different perspective,
then we Black folks will see that there’s no such thing as closed space
and “inside talk” in a multicultural society. Despite African American
sensitivities, many see everything — even our coded internal
conversations — as fair game.
Now that much of the furor has died down, it is possible to step
back and both chuckle and scream at the way Boston Magazine must be
laughing all the way to the bank. Their provocative, insulting title
was used to garner attention for a magazine that is rarely read outside
the tiny state of Massachusetts. It undoubtedly increased the number of
hits to the magazine’s Web site, although it may have lost as many
subscriptions as it gained. And it raised disquieting questions about
race, journalism, higher education, status in the United States.
For all his much-touted brilliance and many contributions to our
nation’s life, is Gates satisfied to he considered a filter, an
intermediary, an interpreter of Black folks? Are we content to have any
African American described that way? And is ignorance any excuse for
the insult Boston Magazine lobbed at Gates and at the rest of us?
What are Black folk actually in charge of in America when a man
Boston Magazine described as our most eloquent interpreter isn’t even
allowed the courtesy or dignity of interpreting his own reality?
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