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Study Questions: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "What's In a Name?"


Free-write for eight minutes about your response to "What's In a Name?" by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; journal your memory of an event you directly experienced, witnessed happening to someone else, or know of happening to someone else, that was similar to Gates's experience: a time when you realized you, a loved one, or a friend were being "profiled" based upon a stereotype. (Note: This needn't be explicitly about race. It can also be about physical features, class, gender, orientation, politics, age, disability, or anything else that created a feeling of alienation or powerlessness.)


"Blood, darky, Tar Baby, Kaffir, shine, moor, blackamoor, Jim Crow, spook, quadroon, meriney, red bone, high yellow, Mammy, porch monkey, home, homeboy, George, spear chucker, schwarze, Leroy, Smokey, mouli, buck, Ethiopian, brother, sistah." --Trey Ellis

The above quote from Trey Ellis's "Remember My Name" (Village Voice June 13, 1989) is the text to which Gates refers at the beginning of his story. What's your general reaction to this list? Does it affect your appreciation of Gates's story in any way? Why, or why not?

Gale King interviews Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Oprah Radio)

Interview with Charles Ogletree

Louis Gates Jr. (a.k.a. Skip Gates), a Harvard University professor, was wrongfully arrested in 2009 in a racial profiling incident that took place at his own house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (For more about this story, read the full article, "Skip Gates Speaks".) Gates, who broke into his own home after forgetting his keys, was arrested for resisting a police officer whom a neighbor called after reporting having seen an African American man breaking into the home. Even after Gates provided proof of his ownership of the home, officers arrested him once he exited his house to speak with them. In light of this incident, in what way might Louis Gates Jr. have written "What's In a Name" today? Do you think this incident would have influenced his point of view or arguments? Why, or why not?


Working in a group of four or five, perform the following tasks:

One by one, relate the story of your free-writing exercise to your group members and compare notes. Who had similar experiences or stories? What is similar about them? Which of your group's stories seem to relate best to Gates's story "What's In a Name?" Why?

As a group, agree on a similar list of terms used to label another group. (As with the free-writing exercise, your choices do not have to be racial, but they should be discriminatory--as most labels are.) Write down as many of these names as you can think of. When finished, select one or two and discuss what their intended effect is: Why is this term used? Who uses it? What makes it discouraging ? What is the most positive response to it your selected group should use, and why?


"Even then, that early, I knew I was in the presence of 'one of those things,' on of those things that provided a glimpse, through a rent [i.e., torn] curtain, at another world that we could not affect but that affect us."—Louis Gates Jr.

Using the above quote from "What's In a Name?" as a point of reference, discuss the ways and means by which your list and your two specific labels illustrate "one of those things," and raise a more general discussion about what that thing is and why people do it. Is it a matter of human nature or of nurture? Does it always have to lead to discrimination? Why, or why not? Point to another quote or a paraphrase of Louis Gates Jr.'s story that helps to illustrate your argument.

Last Updated: 01/15/2016


Karl J. Sherlock
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