By Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The world knows Gates as a groundbreaking scholar who has enlarged the canon of African-American history and literature. But did we know the man was funny? His memoir, Colored People, is one of my favorite books. The story of Gates's childhood in the hamlet of Piedmont, West Virginia (population 2,500), is both a self-portrait and a warm, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious depiction of a close-knit African-American community with a century of roots in the region. Although Tolstoy maintains that all happy families are alike, Gates's clan appears unique, as we watch him grow up on Rat Tail Road, sustained by a lively throng of kin—his millworker father, his cultured mother, his uncles, aunts, and the redoubtable matriarch Big Mom—whose talents and mutual support flourish even during the harshest years of segregation. Gates interweaves tales of town celebrations and scandals with autobiography, as the country moves through the dawn of the civil rights movement to the radicalism of the late sixties. "I am not Everynegro," he writes. "I am from and of a time and place—Piedmont, West Virginia…. So this is not a story of a race, but a story of a village, a family, and its friends. And of a sort of segregated peace." A classic as deeply American as Huckleberry Finn.