Henry Louis Gates: Scholar, Freedom Fighter, Potty Mouth

Henry Louis Gates’ recent dust-up with the police, and today’s historic beer reconciliation (who’ll bring the pretzels and mustard?), have brought to mind the time about 14 years ago when I met Prof. Gates.

He and I had contributed essays to a marvelous collection called HOME: American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own. Assembled by my friends Steve and Sharon Fiffer, the book was built like a fictional house in which different writers chose a room (mine was “The Work Room”, Gates’ was “The Living Room”) and wrote a reflection on the personal meaning of that space. A portion of the book’s profits were given to homeless charities.

During the book’s launch, a reading was arranged at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, and somehow I was in town to participate. I met Prof. Gates and a couple of the other writers, whose names escape me now. When my slot came, I read the first three pages of my essay, explaining my new-found appreciation of the wisdom of the Three Stooges that had arisen upon the purchase of my first house.

The reading went pretty well, and when I returned to my seat, Gates leaned over to me with a wide smile on his face and whispered:

“You are one funny motherfucker.”

This was one of the most thrilling asides I’ve ever had in my life. A Harvard professor and international scholar not only thought I was funny, but also that I was cool enough to be called a motherfucker. I’ve often thought of how I could get away with using this endorsement, on a book jacket or play poster or something. Imagine how cool that would look on the back of a book: “James Finn Garner is one funny motherfucker”–Henry Louis Gates.

When Gates said this to me, I asked him to send me a letter with his opinion in writing. He must’ve thought I was kidding, but I really wanted a copy of this, especially on stationery from the chairman of Harvard’s African-American Studies Department. How cool would THAT be? A week or two later, I sent him a letter at the school, hoping I could josh him into it, but I got no response. Apparently the exchange was meant to be private. Well, until now.