Henry Louis Gates: Wikis


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Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Born September 16, 1950 (1950-09-16) (age 59)
Keyser, West Virginia, United States
Occupation Author, documentary filmmaker, essayist, literary critic, professor
Nationality United States
Alma mater Yale University (B.A.)
University of Cambridge (Ph.D)
Genres Essay, history, literature
Subjects African American Studies

Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., B.A., Ph.D. (born September 16, 1950) is an American literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, editor and public intellectual. He was the first African American to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship. He has received numerous honorary degrees and awards for his teaching, research, and development of academic institutions to study black culture. In 2002, Gates was selected to give the Jefferson Lecture, in recognition of his "distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." The lecture resulted in his 2003 book, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley.

As the host of the 2006 and 2008 PBS television miniseries African American Lives, Gates explored the genealogy of prominent African Americans. Gates sits on the boards of many notable arts, cultural, and research institutions. He serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, where he is Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Michael Kinsley referred to him as "the nation's most famous black scholar."[1]


Early years

Gates was born in Keyser, West Virginia, to Pauline Augusta Coleman and Henry Louis Gates, Sr. He grew up in neighboring Piedmont, the inspiration for his best selling memoir Colored People. At the age of 14, Gates was injured while playing touch football, fracturing the ball and socket joint of his hip, resulting in a slipped epiphysis. The injury was misdiagnosed by a physician who told Gates's mother that his problem was psychosomatic. When the physical damage finally healed, Gates' right leg was two inches shorter than his left. Because of the injury, Gates uses a cane to help him walk.[2][3]

Gates graduated from Piedmont High School in 1968 and attended Potomac State College in Keyser, West Virginia before earning his undergraduate degree at Yale University, gaining a B.A. summa cum laude in History. To his eventual embarrassment, he wrote in his Yale application, "As always, whitey now sits in judgment of me, preparing to cast my fate. It is your decision either to let me blow with the wind as a nonentity or to encourage the development of self. Allow me to prove myself." Professor Gates regrets the language he used in his Yale application, saying, "I wince at the rhetoric today, but they let me in."[4]

The first African American to be awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship, the day after his undergraduate commencement, Gates set sail on the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 for England and the University of Cambridge. There he studied English literature at Clare College. With the assistance of a Ford Foundation Fellowship, he worked toward his Ph.D. in English. While his work in history at Yale had trained him in archival work, Gates' studies at Clare introduced him to English literature and literary theory.

At Cambridge, Gates was also able to work with Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian writer denied an appointment in the department because, as Gates later recalled, African literature was then deemed "at best, sociology or socio-anthropology, but it was not real literature."[5] Soyinka would later become the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; he remained an influential mentor for Gates. His novels were the subject of numerous works by Gates. Finding mentors in those with whom he shared a "common sensibility" rather than an ethnicity, Gates also counted Raymond Williams, George Steiner, and John Holloway among the European scholars who influenced him.[5]

Gates married Sharon Lynn Adams in 1979.[6] They had two daughters.[7] They later divorced.[citation needed]


After a month at Yale Law School, Gates withdrew from the program. In October 1975 he was hired by Charles T. Davis as a secretary in the Afro-American Studies department at Yale. In July 1976, Gates was promoted to the post of Lecturer in Afro-American Studies with the understanding that he would be promoted to Assistant Professor upon completion of his dissertation. Jointly appointed to assistant professorships in English and Afro-American Studies in 1979, Gates was promoted to Associate Professor in 1984.

After being denied tenure at Yale, Gates accepted a position at Cornell University in 1985, where he taught until 1989. After a two-year stay at Duke University, he was recruited to Harvard University in 1991. At Harvard, Gates teaches undergraduate and graduate courses as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, an endowed chair to which he was appointed in 2006, and as Professor of English.[8] Additionally, he serves as the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

As a literary theorist and critic, Gates has combined literary techniques of deconstruction with native African literary traditions; he draws on structuralism, post-structuralism, and semiotics to textual analysis and matters of identity politics. As a black intellectual and public figure, Gates has been an outspoken critic of the Eurocentric literary canon. He has insisted that black literature must be evaluated by the aesthetic criteria of its culture of origin, not criteria imported from Western or European cultural traditions that express a "tone deafness to the black cultural voice" and result in "intellectual racism."[3] In his major scholarly work, The Signifying Monkey, a 1989 American Book Award winner, Gates expressed what might constitute a black cultural aesthetic. The work extended application of the concept of "signifyin(g)" to analysis of African-American works; it thus rooted African-American literary criticism in the African-American vernacular tradition.

While Gates has stressed the need for greater recognition of black literature and black culture, he does not advocate a "separatist" black canon. Rather, he works for greater recognition of black works and their integration into a larger, pluralistic canon. He has affirmed the value of the Western tradition, but has envisioned a more inclusive canon of diverse works sharing common cultural connections:

Every black American text must confess to a complex ancestry, one high and low (that is, literary and vernacular) but also one white and black...there can be no doubt that white texts inform and influence black texts (and vice versa), so that a thoroughly integrated canon of American literature is not only politically sound, it is intellectually sound as well.[3]

Gates has argued that a separatist, Afrocentric education perpetuates racist stereotypes. He maintains that it is "ridiculous" to think that only blacks should be scholars of African and African-American literature. He argues, "It can't be real as a subject if you have to look like the subject to be an expert in the subject,"[5] adding, "It's as ridiculous as if someone said I couldn't appreciate Shakespeare because I'm not Anglo-Saxon. I think it's vulgar and racist whether it comes out of a black mouth or a white mouth."[9]

As a mediator between those advocating separatism and those who believe in a fixed Western canon, Gates has faced criticisms from both sides. Some critics suggest that the additional black literature will diminish the value of the Western canon, while separatists say that Gates is too accommodating to the dominant white culture in his advocacy of integration of the canon.[citation needed]

As a literary historian committed to preservation and study of historical texts, Gates has been integral to the Black Periodical Literature Project, an archive of black newspapers and magazines created with financial assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities.[10] To build Harvard's visual, documentary, and literary archives of African-American texts, Gates arranged for the purchase of "The Image of the Black in Western Art", a collection assembled by Dominique de Ménil in Houston, Texas. Earlier, as a result of his research as a MacArthur Fellow, Gates discovered Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson, written in 1859 and thus the first novel in the United States written by a black person. He followed this discovery by acquiring and authenticating the manuscript of The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts, a novel from the same period that scholars believe may have been written as early as 1853, which would give it precedence as the first novel by a black person. It was first published in 2002 and became a bestseller.

As a prominent black intellectual, Gates has focused throughout his career on building academic institutions to study black culture. Additionally, he has worked to bring about social, educational, and intellectual equality for black Americans. His writing includes pieces in The New York Times that defend rap music and an article in Sports Illustrated that criticizes black youth culture for glorifying basketball over education. In 1992, he received a George Polk Award for his social commentary in The New York Times. Gates's prominence in this field led to his being called as a witness on behalf of the controversial Florida rap group 2 Live Crew in an obscenity case. He argued that the material which the government charged was profane, had important roots in African-American vernacular speech, games, and literary traditions, and should be protected.

Asked by NEH Chairman Bruce Cole to describe his work, Gates responded, "I would say I'm a literary critic. That's the first descriptor that comes to mind. After that I would say I was a teacher. Both would be just as important."[5]

Other activities

In 1995 Gates presented a programme in the BBC series Great Railway Journeys (produced in association with PBS). The programme documents a 3000 mile journey Gates took through Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, with his then wife Sharron Adams and daughters Liza and Maggie. This trip came 25 years after Gates worked at a hospital in Kilimatinde near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania as a 19-year-old pre-medical student at Yale University.[11]

Gates was the host and co-producer of African American Lives (2006) and African American Lives 2 (2008) in which the lineage of more than a dozen notable African Americans is traced using genealogical and historic resources, as well as DNA testing. In the first series, Gates learned of his high percentage of European ancestry due to his descent from the mulatto John Redman. In addition, he discussed findings about ancestry of his guests.[12]

In the second series of episodes, Gates learned that he is part of a genetic subgroup possibly descended from or related to the 4th-century Irish king, Niall of the Nine Hostages. He also learned that his ancestors included the Yoruba people of Nigeria. The two programs demonstrated the many strands of heritage and history among African Americans.

Gates hosted Faces of America, a four-part series presented by PBS in 2010. This program examined the genealogy of 12 Americans: Elizabeth Alexander, Mario Batali, Stephen Colbert, Louise Erdrich, Malcolm Gladwell, Eva Longoria, Yo-Yo Ma, Mike Nichols, Queen Noor, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Meryl Streep, and Kristi Yamaguchi

Cambridge arrest

On July 16, 2009, Gates returned home from a trip to China to find the door to his house jammed. His driver attempted to help him gain entrance. A passer-by called police reporting a possible break-in and a Cambridge police officer was dispatched. The resulting confrontation resulted in Gates being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Prosecutors later dropped the charges.[13] The incident spurred a politically charged exchange of views about race relations and law enforcement throughout the United States. The arrest garnered national attention which eventually led to invitations from President Obama to him and the officer, for a discussion of race relations at the White House over beer.[14]

On March 9, 2010, Gates revealed on the Oprah Winfrey Show that he and Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer in the Cambridge incident, share a common ancestor.

Awards and honors


Books (author)
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (1987). Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self (First edition ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019503564X. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (1988). The Signifying Monkey (First edition ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195034635.  American Book Award
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (1992). Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (First edition ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195075196. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (1994). Colored People: A Memoir (First edition ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0679421793. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.; Cornel West (1996). The Future of the Race (First edition ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 067944405X. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.; McKay, Nellie Y (1996). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (First edition ed.). W. W. Norton. ISBN 0393040011. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (1997). Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (First edition ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 0679457135. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (1999). Wonders of the African World (First edition ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0375402357. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (2000). The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century (First edition ed.). New York: Free Press. ISBN 0684864142. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (2003). The trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's first Black poet and her encounters with the founding fathers. New York: Basic Civitas Books. ISBN 0465027296. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (2007). Finding Oprah's Roots: Finding Your Own (First edition ed.). New York: Crown. ISBN 9780307382382. 
Books (editor)
  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony; Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1998). The Dictionary of Global Culture. Vintage. ISBN 978-0679729853. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (1999). Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (First edition ed.). New York: Basic Civitas Books. ISBN 0465000711. 
  • Crafts, Hannah; Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (2002). The Bondwoman's Narrative (First edition ed.). New York: Warner Books. ISBN 0446690295. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.; Hollis Robbins (2004). Searching for Hannah Crafts: Essays in the Bondwoman's Narrative. New York: Basic/Civitas. ISBN 0465027148. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.; Hollis Robbins (2006). The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 9780393059465. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (2008). The African American national biography. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 9780195160192. 
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.; Yacovone, Donald (2009). Lincoln on Race and Slavery. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691142340. 


  • From Great Zimbabwe to Kilimatinde, BBC/PBS, Great Railway Journeys, Narrator and Screenwriter, BBC/PBS, 1996.
  • The Two Nations of Black America, Host and Scriptwriter, Frontline, WGBH-TV, February 11, 1998.
  • Leaving Eldridge Cleaver, WGBH, 1999
  • Wonders of the African World, PBS, October 25–27, 1999 (six-part series) (Shown as Into Africa on BBC-2 in the United Kingdom and South Africa, Summer, 1999)
  • America Beyond the Color Line, Host and Scriptwriter, (four part series) PBS, 2004.[18]
  • African American Lives, Host and Narrator, PBS, February 2006
  • African American Lives 2, Host and Narrator, PBS, February 2008
  • Looking For Lincoln, Host and Narrator, PBS, February 2009
  • Appiah, Anthony; Gates, Henry Louis, Jr (1999). Microsoft Encarta Africana Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Black History and Culture (First edition ed.). Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corp. ISBN 0735600570. [19] (CD-Rom)


  1. ^ Michael Kinsley, "Profiling in Shades of Gray", Washington Post, July 24, 2009.
  2. ^ O'Hagan, Sean (2003-07-20). "The biggest brother: interview with Henry Louis Gates, black America's foremost intellectual". The Observer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/jul/20/society. Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  3. ^ a b c Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 67. Gale, 2008. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009.
  4. ^ Gates, Henry Louis (1995). Colored People: A Memoir. Vintage Books. p. 201. ISBN 067973919X.  See also: Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (1994-05-16). "Books of The Times; Colored to Negro To Black: a Journey". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/16/books/books-of-the-times-colored-to-negro-to-black-a-journey.html. Retrieved 2009-07-31. 
  5. ^ a b c d Bruce Cole (2002). "Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Interview". National Endowment for the Humanities. http://www.neh.gov/whoweare/gates/interview.html. Retrieved 2007-01-04. 
  6. ^ West Virginia Weslesyan College biography
  7. ^ Adam Begley, "Black Studies' New Star: Henry Louis Gates Jr.", New York Times, April 1, 1990.
  8. ^ a b History of American Civilization Program (2008). "Henry Louis Gates, Jr.". Harvard University. http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~amciv/faculty/gates.shtml. Retrieved 2008-08-07. 
  9. ^ Clarke, Breena and Susan Tifft, "A 'Race Man' Argues for a Broader Curriculum: Henry Louis Gates Jr. Wants W.E.B. DuBois, Wole Soyinka and Phyllis Wheatley on the Nation's Reading Lists, As Well As Western Classics like Milton and Shakespeare", Time: 137(16). 22 April 1991: 16.
  10. ^ W. E. B. Du Bois Institute (2008). "Black Periodical Literature Project". Harvard University. http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~du_bois/research_projects/black_periodical_literature_project.html. Retrieved 2008-08-07. 
  11. ^ "Great Railway Journeys". BBC. Retrieved on 6 February 2010
  12. ^ a b Staff writers (14 September 2006). "Sons of American Revolution welcome Gates". The Harvard University Gazette. http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2006/09.14/26-gates.html. Retrieved 2008-08-07. 
  13. ^ Trujillo, Melissa (2009-07-21). "Charge dropped against black Harvard scholar". Associated Press (Yahoo! News). http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090721/ap_on_re_us/us_harvard_scholar_disorderly. Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  14. ^ Neary, Lynn (2009-07-23). "Black And Blue: Police And Minorities". Talk of the Nation (National Public Radio). http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106928434. Retrieved 2009-07-27. 
  15. ^ Jefferson Lecturers at NEH Website . Retrieved January 22, 2009.
  16. ^ Henry Louis Gates,"Mister Jefferson and The Trials of Phillis Wheatley," text of Jefferson Lecture at NEH website.
  17. ^ Henry Louis Gates, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (Basic Civitas Books, 2003), ISBN 0465027296.
  18. ^ America Beyond the Color Line With Henry Louis Gates Jr. - PBS (2004)
  19. ^ Microsoft (8 January 1999). "Encarta Africana, the First Comprehensive Encyclopedia Of Black History and Culture, Launches Today". Press release. http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/1999/jan99/encaafricpr.mspx. Retrieved 2008-08-07. 

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (b. September 16, 1950) is an American literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, editor, and public intellectual . He is a Harvard University professor and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.


  • There haven’t been fundamental structural changes in America. There’s been a very important symbolic change and that is the election of Barack Obama. But the only black people who truly live in a post-racial world in America all live in a very nice house on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
    • Interview with The Root, July 21, 2009.

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