Who are you?

Gomes describes his "Afro-Saxon" upbringing.
  • Transcript


Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?

Peter Gomes: Well I was brought up in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which is an old town … a really Yankee incarnation. And most of the black people that I knew growing up looked and sounded and talked just as I do, which may seem peculiar to many people. But that is part of the local inheritance. I think we are as native there as salt cod or blueberries or cranberries, and that’s how it is. And the term “Afro-Saxon” was coined by a colleague of mine here not entirely as a compliment. But I have always taken it as an apt description of the world in which I grew up. Because my family was very much conscious of our race. I think it could be said that my momma was a race woman. She had a very high notion of our race, and I was never brought up to think other … otherwise for myself. I remember she once said, “You must always remember you were descended from kings!” Well I thought that was wonderful. Of course she meant African princes and African kings. But we could never document that. I suspect the time will come when the truth will really be known. But it’s not a small thing for a little boy to think he was the descendant of kings. So I never had any ego problems with my identity; but the culture – even though I was, no doubt, a descendant of Africans – the culture was a very Yankee, New England, Puritan, Anglo-Saxon culture and I took to it. I absorbed it – mainlined it as you might say. And that, I think, is what my genial critic referred to when he described me as the first Afro-Saxon that he had ever known. Now I think he meant by that that I was lacking in sufficient, readily identifiable African . . . or American black ethnic qualities. My speech doesn’t conform to what people think is standard African-American speech. And that my values seem derived from the local countryside as opposed to a more, shall we say, southern or African … African-American identified … . It didn’t help that I went to college in Maine, which was even more central to the Yankee myth and even of Plymouth itself. And of course I spent all of my career here in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Harvard college, which is, of course, the institutional expression of all that. So for better or worse, as the kids like to say, “It is what it is! I am what I am! I am what I am”. And it confuses people, which gives me great pleasure.

Recorded on: 6/12/07