Henry Louis Gates Jr. – From Teacher to Teachable Moment in an Instant

July 29, 2009

Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his Cambridge, MA home.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his Cambridge, MA home.

The confrontation at his Cambridge, MA home of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has stayed hot on the newswire since its occurrence on July 16, 2009. It has left some stunned. It has left others outraged. And it has certainly reminded all Americans of something most already knew – that racial bias exists in this country.

When a man with accolades like “Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential Americans” (1997) is arrested at his own house after a 911-caller reports a possible break-in, even after he provides both state-issued and University ID, there obviously exists a disconnect. It almost baffles – the irony – that the noted professor who serves as Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Studies would be involved in what ultimately has become the next catalyst on a national level to incite discussions on what needs to and can be done to improve race relations among Americans.

Everyone, currently, is weighing in with an opinion – from political analysts to talk show hosts to co-workers at the water cooler – and perhaps the positive note to be found in all of this is that it has gotten people talking. Speaking both from personal experience, when his career suddenly was elevated to National Security Advisor, and also offering some insight as to how the two men’s interaction might have refrained from escalating to the level of discord that it did, former Secretary of State Colin Powell on CNN’s Larry King weighs in slightly critical of both parties, saying Henry Louis Gates Jr. could have been more patient with the police officer who arrested him, and chiding the police. “Once they felt they had to bring Dr. Gates out of the house and to handcuff him, I would’ve thought at that point, some adult supervision would have stepped in and said ‘OK look, it is his house. Let’s not take this any further, take the handcuffs off, good night Dr. Gates.’ ”

More than once, President Obama has been asked to weigh-in on the issue, and made the following summarizing statement about not just the controversy of the event itself, but where it should lead us in the future, “My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what’s called ‘a teachable moment’ where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other,” which articulates to people everywhere that instead of trying to decide who was wrong or wronged in this situation, that the focus should be on starting a dialogue about how to prevent this from happening in the future.

It is the mission of Sojourn to the Past to bring the historical Civil Rights movement to life for young people (11th and 12th grade students), to develop communication and advocacy skills that better enable them to promote awareness of social injustice in their community, and create a more civil society where diversity is embraced, injustice is spoken out against, and all people are treated with dignity. It carries the hope the educating young people about the past to prepare them for the future will in some ways minimize the number of situations like the one in which Dr. Gates and arresting officer Sgt. James Crowley found themselves.

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