The following contains spoilers for Watchmen episode 2.
She bypasses the mass of white protestors outside yelling about the unfairness of “Redfordations” and marches right to a console within the museum. As she approaches it, a familiar face pops up and announces himself.
“Hello I’m United States Treasury Secretary Henry Louis Gates Jr. If you like, you can call me Skip,” the recorded Skip Gates in the video says.
And just like that, Watchmen has incorporated another real life figure into its world like it’s done previously with Oklahoma cowboy lawman Bass Reeves and President Robert Redford. If you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., don’t panic. Granted, you absolutely should know who he is but this is a judgment free zone. You likely clicked on the headline looking for an explainer, sit back and be explained to.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., often called “Skip,” is one of the country’s most preeminent and astute voices on race in America. An author, documentarian, filmmaker, literary critic, teacher, and historian, Skip Gates currently serves as the Professor and Director of the Hutching Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He might be best known in the popular consciousness, however, for creating and hosting the popular PBS TV series Finding Your Roots, in which celebrities and other public figures have their family history and genealogy examined to learn more about their ancestors.
With that in mind, Gates is a pretty appropriate public facing figure for the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage and its program of providing compensation for victims and descendants of victims of the Black Wall Street Massacre.
“I can check your eligibility, would you like me to do that?” the robot Gates tells Angela before continuing on with the purpose of the Center, “On behalf of the entire United States government, President Redford offers his condolences for the trauma you or your family may have suffered. May I have your consent to test a sample of your DNA?”
After Angela provides the machine with a swab of Will’s DNA retrieved from a coffee mug, the pre-recorded Gates concludes with a speech about the center’s purpose and the government’s sympathies for the Tulsa Massacre.
“Thank you. Our country appreciates the opportunity to right the wrongs of a dark past so that we all share a bright future. God bless America.”
Gates’ role in the story as United States Treasury Secretary is just another example of how things seem a little “off” in this Watchmen universe…but “off” in a surprisingly logical way. We don’t know if Gates created Finding Your Roots in this Watchmen continuity, but wouldn’t it make sense for an executive branch run by a celebrity turn to another celebrity (albeit a very qualified and intelligent one) who specializes in African-American history to head up the department in charge of “Redfordations?”
The selection of Gates for this Watchmen Treasury Secretary job has a couple of added bits of irony surrounding it given some of Skip’s history. Despite being the one (at least publicly) to lead the charge for reparations in Watchmen, in real life Gates published an op-ed in the New York Times in 2010 that questions the efficacy of reparations for the descendants of slaves.
Watchmen also deals with the role of race in policing and that’s something else that Gates has some unfortunate real life experience with. Back in July of 2009, Gates returned home from China to find the door to his front door jammed and not opening. While Gates and his driver attempted to somehow get into Gates home, a passerby called the police. Upon arrival, the Cambridge police arrested Gates and charged him with disorderly conduct…for trying to get into his own home.
President Barack Obama was asked about the incident at the time during a press conference and said, quite fairly, that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates. That of course initiated a level 10 conservative media meltdown accusing the president of inadequately supporting police in the incident. Obama would eventually invite both Gates and arresting Officer James Crowley to share a beer at the White House and talk about the incident. And as we know now racist policing practices were never a problem again.
Watchmen is dealing with some volatile, difficult, and ugly stuff in these first two episodes. As such, sometimes it’s helpful to pull real life figures into the mix so that the show and viewer can develop shorthand based on the particulars we understand in the real world. The inclusion of Henry Louis Gates Jr. as our guide through the intricacies of the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage is therefore quite the inspired choice.