Colored People, By Henry Louis Gates Jr.

2087 words - 8 pages

One of the most influential and enlightening scholars in contemporary academics who focuses primarily on African-American issues, both from the past and the present, is undoubtedly Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Born in 1950 and raised in the small, middle-class, 'colored' community of Piedmont, West Virginia, Gates's acclaimed 1995 autobiography, Colored People, brings readers to a place and time in America when both the racial boundaries and the definition of progress were changing weekly. Colored People, however, is not about race specifically. Rather, it is a story which chronicles how his family existed during a unique time in American history -- a time when attempts at desegregation were just beginning. Starting with a preface that takes the form of a letter written to his daughters, Maggie and Liza, and continuing on throughout the rest of the book, Gates -- in spite of the fact that he graduated summa cum laude from Yale and received a Ph.D. from Cambridge University -- writes his autobiography in a conversational tone that is so accessible that it comes off as though he is telling his story to the reader in person and for the first time, thus making us both understand and empathize with it more. Through his story, he provides details about all the characters that influenced his life -- from Uncle Earke the Turkey, who loved to rant about the female sex, to his grandmother Big Mom, who founded the local Episcopal church, onto to his first true love, the little bookworm Linda, and finally Reverend Monroe, who inspired all who came into contact with him -- but he pays special attention to describing his mother. Based off the writing in Colored People, Gates's mother was one of the bravest, accomplished, and most determined women to have ever lived. In addition to becoming the first colored secretary of the local PTA and becoming famous for her eulogies at funerals, she also, at the end of her life, managed to buy the house she had worked in for so many years as a young girl. His mother's purchase of the house she had previously labored away in is, in many ways, symbolic of the end of the era in which Gates's autobiography depicts. That era is one in which blacks and whites, previously segregated, were all of a sudden being forced, whether they wanted to or not, to integrate with each other. Gates gives us a little taste of what it was like to live during that era, both the good and the bad.
Although the two sides of Gates's family -- those of his father, the Gates, and those of his mother, the Colemans -- both were from that small town of Piedmont and both lived through the era in which Colored People presents, their experiences were incredibly different from each other. However, because they were both African-American families, they both -- though in entirely different ways -- help illustrate the saying, "It's no disgrace to be colored but it is awfully inconvenient." To highlight the fact that it's no disgrace to be colored,...

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