Ever since the media first noticed Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., professor of Afro-American studies at Harvard, he has held their attention and affection. He may now be the most famous literature professor in America, and it’s easy to understand why. Besides being, Gates is a force for good in the world. Known by fellow scholars for his theories linking the Afro-American literary tradition to the African vernacular and for his excavation of forgotten masterpieces of black literature, he caught the public’s eye in 1992 when he published several salutary and well-reasoned articles criticizing the inflammatory anti-Semitic rhetoric of certain black nationalists. The all-star department he’s built at Harvard over the past seven years (it includes philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, sociologist William Julius Wilson, and philosopher Cornel West) has helped elevate “Afro-Am” from relative marginality to one of the most thrilling and visible disciplines around. At The New Yorker, where he is a staff writer, he has produced several strong pieces of literary journalism on subjects as varied as Harry Belafonte and the declining importance of loyalty.
Gates does so many things at the same time that you have to wonder how he makes sure all of them meet the same high standard. The answer is, he can’t. In 1997 alone, according to his curriculum vitae, he wrote four long pieces for TheNew Yorker, published one book, and edited two more. He also supervised doctoral dissertations, taught two undergraduate courses, ran Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research (raising funds, balancing budgets, recruiting professors, planning conferences), served as director of editorial content for a publishing imprint he co-founded, was a consultant on Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, scripted and hosted a Frontline documentary on the black bourgeoisie, and developed a six-part BBC-PBS documentary on Africa–the entire continent. He continued as an editor of Transition magazine; the Black Periodical Literature Project; the Zora Neale Hurston Library series; the 30-volume African-American Women Writers, 1910-1940; and the 2 million word Encyclopedia Africana. Nominally, at least, he sat on the board of editors of 29 other journals and on 82 advisory committees for museums, theaters, institutes, literary prizes, and universities.
Gates works very hard. Most days, he starts writing at 5 a.m. A 9,000-word New Yorker profile that would take most journalists weeks or months flows effortlessly from his pen. An incisive piece on Louis Farrakhan was reported Monday afternoon, written Tuesday, edited Wednesday, and closed Thursday. Gates drafted his 216-page memoir, Colored People (1994), in six weeks, though thought the final result reflected the hasty composition.
But hard work alone doesn’t explain Gates’ output. He also understands a fundamental maxim of capitalism: Don’t do yourself what you can pay others to do for you.
It is a time-honored perquisite of senior professorship to have students act as minions, fetching books from the library and doing grunt research. Many scholars have figured out how to turn this somewhat feudal tradition into an industry. In the 1980s, for example, Yale Professor Harold Bloom served as the “editor” of 160 anthologies of literary criticism, even though it was graduate students (and a few undergraduates) who actually waded into the library and picked out the selections. But Gates pushes the envelope. He may be the only academic with a self-designated “chief of staff” who handles day-to-day details and deals with reporters. An assistant edits his writing. Another conducts research, keeping him abreast of the latest developments in hip-hop and digging up quotes for New Yorker pieces. Dozens of other writers and editors are hired to help produce his various projects. To put together one volume, TheDictionary of Global Culture, for instance, Gates used 32 research assistants and 32 fact checkers, in addition to 27 writers. (For this piece, I spoke with 17 current and former Gates employees.)
The project Gates considers his most important is also his most lucrative to date–the Encyclopedia Africana, co-edited with Appiah. Originally conceived by Du Bois, the Encyclopedia is intended to be the definitive guide to Africa and the African diaspora. Gates says it will be the factually unassailable foundation upon which Afro-American studies will grow to maturity. It is designed to trounce, once and for all, the fictions promulgated by Afrocentrists (they hold, among other things, that Jews ran the slave trade and that Egyptians were black). To finance the Encyclopedia, Gates reportedly cut a $1 million deal with Microsoft to put out a CD-ROM; signed a book deal with Civitas, the imprint he co-owns; and formed a partnership with music mogul Quincy Jones.
A closer look at how Gates, et al., are putting the Encyclopedia together, however, raises the question of whether reference works benefit from a Gatesian pace. Writers have been told to hit a 500 word a day quota. Editors, at times, have had to groom 7,000 words a day. Their pay depends on it. The results are unimpressive. According to some of Gates’ deputies on the project, Microsoft execs grouched that the first 150,000 word batch of entries they received was poorly organized and badly written. Gates later confessed to Microsoft that he had made an appalling discovery: Nearly one-third of the entries had been plagiarized wholesale from other reference books. (For the record: This magazine is owned by Microsoft. However, no Microsoft employee spoke to me about Skip Gates’ project. My information comes exclusively from current and former employees of Gates himself.)
T he Encyclopedia is due out in stores next February. Gates says he has become much more involved in editing the book so as to avoid further anomalies. According to some who have worked on the project, however, his main concern still seems to be meeting Microsoft’s deadlines. He has described the Encyclopedia to his colleagues in classic Microsoft terms: If Version 1.0 contains bugs and glitches, not to worry. You let readers point out problems, then try to get Version 2.0 right.
With an electronic encyclopedia, a process of constant revision may have its advantages–unless you’re among the customers for Version 1.0. But print is less flexible. The last large-scale reference work Gates co-edited, also with Appiah, was The Dictionary of Global Culture, published last year. The book was meant to be the multiculturalist rebuttal to E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s controversial The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1988); the idea was to highlight the accomplishments of non-Western societies and their contributions to Western culture. But it was too weirdly conceived and poorly edited to do all that. As a response to Hirsch, it is irrelevant, appearing long after most had forgotten Hirsch’s book. It is also filled with easily dismissable. As a reference work it fails, because entries are shorter and less informative than most entries for the same subjects in even the Encyclopedia Britannica. And it is.
Why would Gates allow the publication of such a book with his byline and photo on the dust jacket? He had no idea it was so bad. After coming up with the idea for the project and appointing an “associate editor” to run it, he says, he was only minimally involved. According to those who edited the Dictionary, Gates read entries only just before they were sent to press, then looked closely only at items within his area of expertise, such as the Harlem Renaissance and Hurston. The book’s introduction was drafted by Appiah.
Gates’$2 29-page CV is packed with other projects to which he devotes scant energy. Between 1992 and 1998, for example, he contributed not a single word to 28 of the 29 magazines where he is listed as an editor. He does none of the line editing of articles for Transition, even though it proclaims his editorship in ads. For the 40 volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers he edited, he appointed others to put together the books and write their introductions. Ten other editors helped put together TheNorton Anthology of African American Literature, even though it was his byline that appeared on the cover.
The activities cited here would not be unusual, or even objectionable, if Gates imposed strict quality control standards upon them. Members of scholarly journals’ editorial boards rarely edit; they are guarantors of the journals’ intellectual integrity–which is to say, they’re figureheads. And if Gates didn’t edit the anthologies himself, his name nonetheless lent credibility and, therefore, enhanced funding prospects to deserving projects. Reference books are perforce feats of organization, not individual scholarship.
The problem is, the work that comes out of his scholarly chop shops isn’t nearly as good as it should be. And even if it were, there is something dishonest about marketing under Gates’ signature work that is produced mainly by his assistants. At worst, he is amassing credentials, fame, and wealth on the basis of others’ uncredited labor–once considered a scholarly sin. At best, he is severely diluting the brand name that is Henry Louis Gates Jr.–a brand name based in large part on. This is bound to hurt both his own reputation and that of the enterprises he believes in so sincerely.
So why does Gates produce at such a frantic pace? A profile in the April issue of Boston Magazine hinted it was for the money; the magazine put Gates’ annual income at nearly $1 million. He denies both the amount and the motive. He clearly is driven by a kind of missionary zeal: “I think that these projects will make a difference to people and the field of Afro-American studies. I am a canon builder,” he told me. Another explanation may lie in his brilliance: He comes up with more ideas than he can handle, and he lacks the discipline not to overextend himself. “By impulse, I am an entrepreneur,” he says. “If I weren’t in the academy, I could be a CEO. Quincy Jones is my hero. I have a picture of Vernon Jordan on my wall, right over one of John Hope Franklin.” It’s an appealing image for a professoriate that has long been accused of being out of touch and moribund–the consummate schmoozer combined with the eminent scholar. One just wishes the results looked more like scholarship.
If you missed the links in the piece, click to read, a of Colored People, about the in the Dictionary of Global Culture, a short in the Dictionary, and a recap of the for original scholarship rests.