Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Colored People by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a memoir that covers many different themes. Below are a handful of the major ones.
Gates describes his hometown of Piedmont, West Virginia. It is a small town in the mountains with a thriving African-American community. He explains how most of the black community worked for the paper mill and was relatively closed off from their white neighbors. He describes how the resulting community had a social order of its own with music, potlucks, gossip, and governance. He shows how the community became defensive of its insulation and enjoyed its distance from the white world.
Gates explores the role media has played in the development of his own racial identity. He recalls television shows of his childhood. He learned of racial differences through the shows I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver. These shows displayed complex characters with love lives and conflict. He came to see the white characters as full individuals. Later on, television gave him the opportunity to see professional Black athletes and he was able to watch the Civil Rights movement unfold.
Gates considers how sexuality was modeled for him in his community and family. He then describes how he came to understand his own sexuality. The town of Piedmont was sexually promiscuous, and his grandmother was especially known for having multiple male partners at once. Gates attributes her sexuality to some of the violence in his family. His grandfather would often question the legitimacy of his children. As Gates grows older, he becomes very aware of his sexuality and how race and culture factor into it.
Gates looks at how racism has shaped his family history from many different angles. One example is the chapter he dedicates to his mother's struggle to own a home. He describes how his mother always wanted to own a home. For years, the family was unable to do so due to racist housing policies. Later on, his father was resistant out of a fear of accruing debt that he would never be able to repay.