“Most of the black people that I knew growing up looked and sounded and talked just as I do.”
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.
Question: How did your mother influence you?
Gomes: She was a preacher’s daughter . . . the only daughter of a prominent preacher here in Cambridge at the turn of the 19th century. And she had a rather grand view of herself and hence me. And I think I have inherited that. But it was full of all of these, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” “Handsome is as handsome does.” All the Victorian virtues which she had, I inherited, I think, through my mother’s milk and didn’t challenge them by and large. I accepted them. Her view was that great things would be expected of me, and I must live into them. There was no doubt that the sun shone on me. I was an only child, and therefore there were a set of expectations and obligations and responsibilities. I must always do the right thing, whatever that was. I must always do my duty. And since I was her only child, I was the object of her total attention, and that was considerable. And I regarded her as my best teacher and my wisest counselor. And in most instances, except for the odd moment of teenage rebellion, as my best friend. She was a great soul to me.
Question: Did your mother push you toward the clergy?
Gomes: I’m not altogether sure that that’s true. She was a preacher’s daughter. And preacher’s daughters always had ambiguous relationships toward the clergy. Her father – her “Papa”, to whom she was devoted – died at a very early age in his 40s. And I think she always blamed the church for doing her father in. He worked too hard. There were too many rivals for his affection and his duties. So I’m not altogether sure she liked the church. I’m not even altogether sure she liked the clergy. But she liked me, and she thought it was a respectable, honorable calling and that I was well suited to it. So she rather enjoyed being the minister’s mother, and I think expected me to make that calling a useful one for her as well as for me. In a way, I always thought my job was to redeem the church which had disappointed her, and which had treated her father not as well as she thought he should have been treated. I never knew my grandfather, so I never knew how accurate that really was; but I certainly got that impression.