My thoughts and Henry Louis Gates on double-digit birthday - Beaking Kenya News

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Saturday, 13 February 2021

My thoughts and Henry Louis Gates on double-digit birthday


I turned 77 last Wednesday, February 10, 2021, an identical double digit. This happens to me once in every eleven years, since I was born in 1944, with 44 being a multiple of 11, as the mathematicians would put it.

Are there any people who are not fascinated and intrigued by numbers? Maybe we should ask the numerologists, who claim ability to interpret all life and creation with reference to numbers.

I, for example, was further intrigued to remember, on further reflection, that my mother, Maria Salome Kyolaba, who died of respiratory failure just over 20 years ago, was born in 1922, with those last digits also being a multiple of eleven.

Her birthday was December 10 (comparing with my February 10), and she gave birth to me in 1944, a little before she turned 22.

It was such fascination with numbers that led me to a startling and humbling discovery related to my age and its paucity of achievement.

As I was, futilely, searching for significance behind the numbers around my birth and my longevity, I remembered something I told you recently.


I said that humans are “interpreting” beings. They are always looking for significances or meanings in and relationships among all the phenomena that they encounter.

This reminded me of a book, The Signifyin’ Monkey, which I read with thorough enjoyment and deep absorption way back in the early 1990s.

Note that the dropping of the g in “signifyin’” is deliberate, as it is derived from a deep tradition in African-American orature.

The book, by Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, was a landmark in African-American literary studies as it convincingly used the main prevailing theories of the time, like deconstruction, reader-response, dialogism and semiotics, to highlight significant continuities in the corpus of African-American literature over the centuries.

My jaw-dropping discovery was that Henry Louis Gates, now a household name in American scholarship, is all of seven years younger than I. He turned 70 only in September last year. I had always read and revered him as an academic elder, a venerable greyhead who pontificated from the heights of accumulated decades of wisdom and life experience.

My discovery of Henry Louis Gates’ “youth”, compared to me, did not diminish my respect for him.

On the contrary, it increased it with my realisation that greatness does not consist in the number of years that you live but in the quality and quantity of action that you pack into those years.

Gates was a prodigy from the word go, rising from his childhood in West Virginia to become a “cum laude” (first class) graduate of Yale University and a scholarship Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge (England).

But he never sat on his laurels. He went on to become a top notch scholar, academic and teacher.

While lecturing at America’s best schools, he consistently researched into and published on his areas of interest, and doing “all that appertained” to his qualifications.

Little wonder, therefore, that many of us his contemporaries and even his seniors in years looked up to him as our “elder” and teacher in our fields.

I confess that there are several other such scholars, including a few of my own former students, whom I treat with the same admiration and respect, for similar reasons.

I will not, for diplomatic reasons, mention names here, but I am sure you can make intelligent guesses. After all, I have gladly had some of them as my own teachers and supervisors.

Before we leave Gates, however, let us share these three pieces of information about him.


The first is the well-publicised incident of his wrongful arrest (by a White policeman) when he was trying to get into his own flat in Cambridge, MA, in 2009. It ended in a reconciliation meeting over a drink between Gates and the arresting policeman on the lawn of the White House, in the presence of President Barack Obama and then-Vice-President Joe Biden.

Does it tell you something about Gates’ status out there?

Among scholars of African and Diaspora studies, however, enthusiasm for Henry Louis Gates had cooled down somewhat in the early 2000s when it looked as if he had agreed to lend his support to the US’s opposition to Africa’s demands for reparation or compensation for the ravages of the slave trade.

Apparently, the core argument against these demands is that many of our own African ancestors were complicit in the nefarious business.

Love feast

Professor Gates struck many Africanists as subscribing to this view. But the jury is still out on that.

On a more positive and creative note, my “elder” scholar and younger brother Henry Louis Gates is launching, next Tuesday, a new book called The Black Churches: This is Our Story, This is Our Song.

Accompanied by a four hour video documentary, it is a compact narration of 400 years of US Black Christianity. I understand that Oprah Winfrey had a hand in the choice of that title, which obviously alludes to the much-loved hymn “Blessed Assurance”. Incidentally, did you notice that Amanda Gorman, the performing poet at Joe Biden’s Inauguration, identifies as “Black Catholic”?

Anyway, that is just my not-so subtle way of moving towards the ladies and matters romantic. You know, they become even more important as we age.

With the love feast just around the corner, I was wondering who would be my Valentine this year. Then I landed on this utterly irresistible French dame called la Soeur (Sister) André, née Lucie Randon.

Sister André, Europe’s oldest person, who recently tested positive for covid-19 but duly recovered, celebrated her 117th birthday last Thursday.

Asked for the secret of her longevity, she keeps saying that she has none. But on how she survived the covid-19, she says, “Je n’ai pas peur de mourir” (I’m not afraid of dying).

Is that not the secret a truly deserving Valentine?

Have a blessed Valentine’s Day, remembering it is a holy day, deserving only respect and truthful love.

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