Henry Louis Gates, chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University, told his audience on Jan. 11 that "since the beginning of the century, Harlem has captured literary imaginations around the world." He discussed how the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and other similar periods in the 20th century have illustrated the dichotomy between African-American literature and American culture as a whole.
Gates was the keynote speaker at the King Center Symposium, held at Emory and co-hosted by the Atlanta University Center colleges. President Bill Chace said he hoped the event would be "the beginning of an institution that will carry forth the energy of" late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Calling Harlem "not so much a place in New York but a state of mind," Gates said the area was "a great magnet for Negro intellectuals." After detailing highlights of African-American literature in the 20th century, Gates called the function of the cultural renaissance "political," but said those involved were "never able to usher in civil rights through the arts."
Moving to present times and manifestations of the Civil Rights Movement, Gates said "never before have so many blacks achieved success in so many fields," but "for African-Americans as a whole, it is the best of times and it is the worst of times." Calling on the lessons of the Harlem Renaissance, Gates commented that "its creation occurred as Harlem was turning into the great American slum. Today's renaissance risks many of the same criticisms as the Harlem Renaissance ... we lead a hyphenated existence in America. What does this hyphenation cost us as a people?"