Words We Cannot Say…Except When We Can

On 23 July 2009, Henry Louis Gates was arrested on his own porch in Cambridge, MA for disorderly conduct. A neighbor thought he had been breaking in, the police were called, and then, though Dr.Gates’ identity and residence status had been confirmed, he was arrested. Judging from all reports and comments by people who would understand far better than me, the incident was an unfortunate case of wounded pride on both sides. I come to that conclusion, of course, having no personal knowledge of not only the events but the potential lingering racial issues that may or may not have led up to the arrest.

(My favorite part of the story, of course, is the “Beer Summit” that President Obama held on 30 July which brought the professor and the officer together. “Okay guys, just cool it and we’ll hash it out over a couple of beers.” The only thing that would have made it more iconically male would have been if they’d met in a townie bar somewhere. I will try not to be disappointed that the President preferred to drink Bud Light.)

Imagine my surprise when I came out from under my rock to realize that I had just taught an essay written by Dr.Gates entitled “What’s in a Name.”  Although perfectly aware of the Cambridge incident, I had somehow failed to link the name from the news story to the name of the author of the essay in my writing textbook. In this essay, he describes an incident from his childhood about seeing a white man respectfully use the derogatory term “George” to address the author’s father at a drug store fountain shop.
Continue reading