All of us, I trust, recall the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings, entitled "The Scouring of the Shire." Frodo and his intrepid little band of hobbits have returned to the Shire from their extraordinary adventures to find a pair of scalawags terrorizing their idyllic community. Grima Wormtongue, the evil, twisted, conspiratorial advisor to King Theoden, and Saruman, the powerful wizard who turned to Sauron and what in other contexts would be called the dark side of the Force, have been defeated and deposed. They are now reduced to tyrannizing over innocent hobbits with cheap magician's tricks and schoolyard bullying. Frodo, Sam, Merry and the others have no difficulty rousting them and driving them from the Shire. I have long cherished this lovely fillip at the end of the saga as a literary representation of pomposity and self-importance brought low.
This was called to my mind this morning by yet another circular e-mail from Henry Louis Gates. I have made it onto what is undoubtedly an enormous distribution list compiled by Gates, presumably because my email address still identifies me as a member of the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. Gates burst on the scene with a genuinely interesting book, The Signifying Monkey, and after a bit of academic peripatetics, settled at Harvard as Chair of their languishing Afro-Am Department. Gates proceeded to assemble what he rather grandiosely called his Dream Team [a term appropriately applied to the group of American superstars who won the first Olympic basketball competition.] In short order, the department launched a doctoral program most notable for the fact that it required all of its graduate students to earn an M. A. in another department [thereby making clear the department's belief that it was not the home of a real academic discipline.] After his maiden publication, Gates has never done another serious piece of real research, instead spending his time on endless editing efforts and television promotions, all of which are characterized by an insatiable hunger for publicity and a singular absence of taste. In those early years at Harvard, one of his proudest boasts was that he had lunched with Tina Brown, then the editor of The New Yorker. One of the interesting aspects of Gates' career is that he has no discoverable relationship to the Black community, unlike his quondam colleague, Cornell West, who, despite his pyrotechnic self-promotion, has genuine roots in the Black church.
The email is titled "Amazing Fact #15: Where Was the First Underground Railroad?" It is to this that the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University is reduced. It can surely not be long before a line of commemorative coins, "suitable for framing," appears under his name, together with a collector's edition of Little Black Sambo.