Gates spoke at the PEN awards on October 5 (NY Times):
I’m moved that this award is being presented by two people quite dear to me, one a former professor, Wole Soyinka, who introduced me to the highest reaches of the mythopoetic imagination, the other a former student, Jodie Foster, whose own early work on Toni Morrison was so brilliantly insightful. Together, they represent ideals of education I hold sacred. The idea that you have to look like the subject to master the subject was a prejudice that our forebears — women seeking to write about men, Black people seeking to write about white people — were forced to challenge. In the same year that Rosa Parks refused to move from the white section of that public bus, Toni Morrison completed a master’s thesis at Cornell on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, taking a seat in the white section of the modernist canon. Any teacher, any student, any reader, any writer, sufficiently attentive and motivated, must be able to engage freely with subjects of their choice. That is not only the essence of learning; it’s the essence of being human.
The great Soyinka helped me grasp this when I came to study with him at the University of Cambridge, almost five decades ago. Despite the fact that I wasn’t African, let alone Yoruba, Wole welcomed me into his mythical, metaphysical world, dense with the metaphor, potency and portent of an alien set of divinities. And what exhilaration I felt, exploring these new realms. From my churchgoing youth in West Virginia, I was put in mind of a passage from the Book of Jeremiah: “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not!”
But then Black Africa’s first Nobel laureate in literature had himself studied Shakespeare with the great English critic G. Wilson Knight, who later hailed him as among his most remarkable students. The literary imagination summons us all to dwell above what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the veil” of the color line. As he wrote, yearningly: “I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.” Du Bois never let anyone tell him to stay in his lane. When he needed to, he paved his own. As a lifelong dissident, he also knew that liberation was not secured by filtering out dissident voices; courage, not comfort, was his ideal.
What I owe to my teachers — and to my students — is a shared sense of wonder and awe as we contemplate works of the human imagination across space and time, works created by people who don’t look like us and who, in so many cases, would be astonished that we know their work and their names. Social identities can connect us in multiple and overlapping ways; they are not protected but betrayed when we turn them into silos with sentries. The freedom to write can thrive only if we protect the freedom to read — and to learn. And perhaps the first thing to learn, in these storm-battered days, is that we could all do with more humility, and more humanity.