Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Literary Freedom as an Essential Human Right

“The freedom to write”: PEN America’s always resonant motto has a special resonance for Black authors, because for so many of them, that freedom was one they fought hard for. “Liberation” and “literacy” were inextricable. “For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language,” as James Baldwin once noted. Recall, first, that in many states it was illegal for an enslaved person even to learn how to read and how to write. Then the barbarities of the slave trade, the Middle Passage and cradle-to-grave bondage, were followed by another century of lynching, Jim Crow segregation, disenfranchisement and officially sanctioned forms of violence. Does the English language fail us, Baldwin wonders, in the face of racist terror? No, he decides; we must embrace it, occupy it, refashion it in our images, speak it in our own voices. We must deploy it to redress this terror. “To accept one’s past — one’s history,” as Baldwin insisted, “is not the same as drowning with it; it is learning how to use it.” This, surely, is integral to the freedom to write — the freedom to bear witness to the full range of our common humanity, and all that that entails, no matter how uncomfortable the process can be.

And what of the freedom to learn? Who has the right to study, the right to teach, to broach fraught subjects at a time when the temptation to police culture has never been higher? Today, partisans in various states are passing laws and resolutions in order to regulate what teachers can say, aiming to exclude critical race theory, The New York Times’s 1619 Project and even ban words such as “multiculturalism,” “equity” and “whiteness.” But we must not exempt ourselves from scrutiny; whenever we treat an identity as something to be fenced off from those of another identity, we sell short the human imagination.

I’m moved that this award is being presented by two people quite dear to me, one a former professor, Wole Soyinka, who introduced me to the highest reaches of the mythopoetic imagination, the other a former student, Jodie Foster, whose own early work on Toni Morrison was so brilliantly insightful. Together, they represent ideals of education I hold sacred. The idea that you have to look like the subject to master the subject was a prejudice that our forebears — women seeking to write about men, Black people seeking to write about white people — were forced to challenge. In the same year that Rosa Parks refused to move from the white section of that public bus, Toni Morrison completed a master’s thesis at Cornell on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, taking a seat in the white section of the modernist canon. Any teacher, any student, any reader, any writer, sufficiently attentive and motivated, must be able to engage freely with subjects of their choice. That is not only the essence of learning; it’s the essence of being human.

The great Soyinka helped me grasp this when I came to study with him at the University of Cambridge, almost five decades ago. Despite the fact that I wasn’t African, let alone Yoruba, Wole welcomed me into his mythical, metaphysical world, dense with the metaphor, potency and portent of an alien set of divinities. And what exhilaration I felt, exploring these new realms. From my churchgoing youth in West Virginia, I was put in mind of a passage from the Book of Jeremiah: “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not!”

But then Black Africa’s first Nobel laureate in literature had himself studied Shakespeare with the great English critic G. Wilson Knight, who later hailed him as among his most remarkable students. The literary imagination summons us all to dwell above what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the veil” of the color line. As he wrote, yearningly: “I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.” Du Bois never let anyone tell him to stay in his lane. When he needed to, he paved his own. As a lifelong dissident, he also knew that liberation was not secured by filtering out dissident voices; courage, not comfort, was his ideal.

What I owe to my teachers — and to my students — is a shared sense of wonder and awe as we contemplate works of the human imagination across space and time, works created by people who don’t look like us and who, in so many cases, would be astonished that we know their work and their names. Social identities can connect us in multiple and overlapping ways; they are not protected but betrayed when we turn them into silos with sentries. The freedom to write can thrive only if we protect the freedom to read — and to learn. And perhaps the first thing to learn, in these storm-battered days, is that we could all do with more humility, and more humanity.

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