On a frank and, sometimes, heated conversation about race, between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Ilan Stevens

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Ilan Stavans (©2012 Nancy Crampton )
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Last night the 92nd Street Y staged a suprisingly frank conversation about race. Or, not quite a conversation: Henry Louis Gates Jr. monologued—and it was a funny and erudite monologue—while Ilan Stavans burst in with the odd question, and tried, with some success, to get a word in edgewise.

Given Gates' prominence on the topic of race (he's the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University and the force behind the hit series "Finding Your Roots" and "Black in Latin America") it's fitting he should get the lion's share of airtime, though Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, is also an eminent writer, critic, and professor, having edited more than 40 books, including the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature.

The evening, which was titled "Our America," began with a screening of scenes from "Black in Latin America," the four-part PBS miniseries written and produced by, and starring Gates, which examines the cultural and social role of blackness in Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Something like 11.2 million Africans were brought to the new world as slaves, but only about 450,000 came to the United States; the rest went south.

"The real African American experience in the New World," said Gates, "unfolded in the Caribbean and South America."

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Racial history in much of that part of the world has, the film asserts, been defined and determined by various "whitening" processes. Brazil imported Japanese people to shift the country’s racial dynamics; blackness as an official racial category was abolished for over a century in Mexico; and Peru still lacks it as an option on census forms.

After the screening, Stavans asked Gates what the response had been among Latinos ("Less the applause than the criticisms," he said).

Gates said Miami Film Festival audiences wondered, "How come you didn’t denounce Castro in every scene?" His answer to that questions was "I’ve been to jail."

Dominican viewers also had some negative reactions since, as Gates put it, the film "hit them so hard about being ashamed of their blackness."

Talking about the Dominican reaction, he said: "It’s the same problem we have with African Americans [on "Finding Your Roots"]. I make people guess their admixture of your African, European, and Native American ancestry since the time of Columbus."

After years of research on the subject, Gates found that 35 percent of all black Americans were descended from "a white man who impregnated a black woman…. Shaquille O’Neil did not get that name in the Congo if you know what I’m talking about."

Most African Americans, Gates said, believe they’re partially descended from Native Americans, which is rarely true. The average African American is 20 percent white, with less than 5 percent of the population having any Native American ancestry. The situation is similar in the Dominican Republic, where many believe they’re descended from the Taino native people. There were millions of Tainos when Columbus arrived in the West Indies, but just 500 by the year 1550. This gap between Dominican self-perception and reality, Gates explained, is pernicious since the Haitians who share the island of Hispanola have traditionally been seen by Dominicans as outsiders, systematically exploited and denied basic citizenship and rights.

This tension between biological identity and socially-constructed identity became the night's theme, and Gates didn’t restrict his analysis to others. He noted that his DNA test revealed that he’s 56 percent white. In fact, it was his own family’s racial mixture that catalyzed his passion for genealogy.

"My grandfather was so white, we used to call him Casper behind his back."

"How has your standing in the African American community changed?" Stavans asked Gates.

"I got a raise at Harvard," Gates said.

After the laughter died down, Gates went on to say that there is no such thing as a pure African American. His series, he said, are meant to "deconstruct the notion of racial purity."

But he didn’t downplay race’s importance.

"It’s the beginning of wisdom and knowledge to know where you came from and to hear stories told about the people who begat you," he said.

The conversation showed that there are, perhaps, some occasions that resist racial deconstruction.

"I don’t think Latinos register for Obama," Stavans said. "I think he’s been a great president, but he’s also been disappointing to people who are in the multiracial landscape ... the Trayvon Martin case and George Zimmerman has pushed the debate on race to a different direction. Zimmerman’s a white Latino of Peruvian descent. According to his father he speaks Spanish."

"He was a lunatic," Gates replied.

"No doubt about it," Stavans was quick to say.

But the implication seemed to be that there are real racial tensions between Latinos and blacks, and that the history of racial obfuscation and erasure was not limited to Latin America.

"Do you think with Obama we have reached a post-racial America?" asked Stavans.

"I don’t even know what post-racial America would be," said Gates. "That was some fantasy invented after President Obama was elected."

Stavans then asked how, given the lack of Latino representation on PBS, Gates was able to make his various films.

"I raised the money," Gates said, "I walked into Coca-Cola and I said, 'How would you like to have your product associated with the world knowing what tribe Oprah Winfrey is from?' And you know what that was like? Ladies and gentlemen, if you can see that ceiling, imagine that ceiling opening up and a giant A.T.M. machine descends."

"But It’s much easier to do this among Jews and blacks than Latinos," Stavans said. "Latinos don’t have a bank the way Oprah has a bank, the way Jewish philanthropists have a bank."

But Gates had an answer for that, too.

"The president of the Ford Foundation," he said, "is a Mexican American who graduated from Harvard. If I were you, I’d be beating on his door right now. The Inter-American Development Bank gave me a grant to do a sequel [to "Black in Latin America"] on Colombia. The president of the Inter-American Development Bank graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School. He’s Latin American."

"I love your way of saying no doors are closed," Stavan replied, but it was difficult to say whether admiration or sarcasm was the prevalent tone.

Still, the atmosphere was more than congenial between the two as the event wound down. Stavans called Gates a "mentor," and at one point said he loved him. For his part, Gates affirmed the timeless and timely value of literature, saying he was most proud of Stavans’s work making the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and his own work editing The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.