Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

From New World Encyclopedia

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.jpg
Born September 16 1950 (1950-09-16) (age 71)
Piedmont, West Virginia, United States
Occupation Author, essayist, literary critic, professor
Nationality American
Genres Essay, history, literature
Subjects African American Studies,

Henry Louis (Skip) Gates, Jr. (born September 16, 1950, Piedmont, West Virginia) is a literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, editor, and public intellectual. Gates currently 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.

Gates has been a strong advocate for African literature, and for a more pluralistic approach to the question of the literary canon. There has been an ongoing, intensely political debate over the nature and status of the canon since at least the 1960s. In the USA, in particular, it has been attacked by some as a compendium of books written mainly by "dead white European males," and thus not representative of different viewpoints from societies around the world. Gates' approach has been more one of canon reform that elimination.


Raised in the mill town of Keyser, West Virginia, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who initially enrolled at Potomac State College, transferred as an undergraduate to Yale College. While at Yale, Gates spent a year volunteering at a mission hospital in Tanzania and traveling throughout the African continent in order to complete the year-long “non-academic” requirement of his five-year Bachelor of Arts program; upon his return, Gates wrote a guest column for the Yale Daily News about his experience. Having been appointed a "Scholar of the House" during his final year at Yale and thus relieved of academic coursework requirements[1], Gates spent his final undergraduate year writing, under the guidance of John Morton Blum, an unpublished manuscript entitled The Making of a Governor, which described John D. Rockefeller IV's gubernatorial campaign in West Virginia. In 1973, Gates graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in history from Yale.

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 the University of Cambridge, where he studied English literature at Clare College. With the assistance of a Ford Foundation Fellowship, he worked toward his MA and 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 Clare College, 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 at the time was deemed "at best, sociology or socio-anthropology, but it was not real literature."[2] Soyinka would later become the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize; he remained an influential mentor for Gates and became the subject of numerous works by Gates. Finding mentors in those with whom he shared a "common sensibility" rather than an ethnicity, Gates also counts Raymond Williams, George Steiner, and John Holloway among the European scholars who influenced him.


Gates withdrew after a month at Yale Law School, and 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. He left Yale for Cornell in 1985, where he stayed until 1989. After a two-year stay at Duke University, he moved to his current position at Harvard University in 1991. At Harvard, Gates teaches undergraduate and graduate courses as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and as Professor of English[3]. 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 and has instead 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."[4] Gates tried to articulate what might constitute a black cultural aesthetic in his major scholarly work The Signifying Monkey, a 1989 American Book Award winner; the work extended the application of the concept of “signifyin(g)” to analysis of African-American works and 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, Gates does not advocate a "separatist" black canon but, rather, a greater recognition of black works that would be integrated into a larger, pluralistic canon. He has affirmed the value of the Western tradition but envisions a loose canon of diverse works integrated by 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."[4]

Moreover, Gates has argued that a separatist, Afrocentric education perpetuates racist stereotypes, criticizing the notion 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,"Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag

Mediating a position between radicals advocating separatism and traditionalists guarding a fixed, highly homogeneous Western canon, Gates has faced criticisms from both sides; some criticize that the additional black literature will diminish the value of the Western canon, while separatists feel that Gates is too accommodating to the dominant white culture in advocating integration.[5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17]

As a literary historian committed to the preservation and study of historical texts, Gates has been integral to the Black Periodical Literature Project[18], an archive of black newspapers and magazines created with financial assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 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 amassed by Dominique de Menil in Houston, Texas. Earlier, as a result of his research as a MacArthur Fellow, Gates had discovered Our Nig, the first novel in the United States written by a black person, Harriet E. Wilson, in 1859; he followed this discovery with the acquisition of the manuscript of The Bondswoman’s Narrative, another narrative from the same period.

As a prominent black intellectual, Gates has focused throughout his career not only on his research and teaching but on building academic institutions to study black culture. Additionally, as a "public intellectual" he has worked to bring about social, educational, and intellectual equality for black Americans, such as writing 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' prominence in this field led to the defense to call him as a witness on behalf of the controversial Florida rap group 2 Live Crew in their obscenity case. He argued the material the government alleged was profane, actually had important roots in African-American vernacular, games, and literary traditions and should be protected.

Asked by NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about how Gates would describe what he does, 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.”[2]

Beer Summit with Obama

On July 16, 2009, Gates was arrested at his Cambridge, Massachusetts home after returning from a trip to China to research the ancestry of Yo-Yo Ma for Faces of America. Gates found the front door to his home jammed shut and with the help of his driver tried to force it open. A local witness reported their activity to the police as a potential burglary in progress. Accounts regarding the ensuing confrontation differ, but Gates was arrested by the responding officer, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, and charged with disorderly conduct.[19]. On July 21, the charges against Gates were dropped. The arrest generated a national debate about whether or not it represented an example of racial profiling by police.

On July 22, President Barack Obama commented that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly." Law enforcement organizations and members objected to Obama's comments and criticized his handling of the issue. In the aftermath, Obama stated that he regretted his comments exacerbating the situation, and hoped that the situation could become a "teachable moment."[20]

On July 24, Obama invited both parties to the White House to discuss the issue over beers, and on July 30, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden joined Crowley and Gates in a private, cordial meeting in a courtyard near the White House Rose Garden. The meeting was labeled by the media as the "Beer Summit."[21]


Awards and recognitions

Gates has been the recipient of nearly 50 honorary degrees and numerous academic and social action awards. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1981 and was listed in TIME (magazine among its “25 Most Influential Americans” in 1997. On October 23, 2006, Gates was appointed the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor at Harvard University. In January 2008, he co-founded The Root, a website dedicated to African-American perspectives published by The Washington Post Company. Gates currently chairs the Fletcher Foundation, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is on the boards of many notable institutions including the New York Public Library, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Studio Museum of Harlem[2], the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, located in Stanford, California[22].

African American Lives

Henry Louis Gates has been the host and co-producer of African American Lives and African American Lives 2 television series in which the lineage of notable African Americans is traced using genealogical resources and DNA testing. In the first series, Gates learns of his White ancestry (50 percent), and in the second installment we learn he is descended from the Irish King, Niall of the Nine Hostages. He also learns that he is descended in part from the Yoruba people of Nigeria.

In 2006, Gates was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution, after he traced his lineage back to John Redman, a Free Negro who fought in the Revolutionary War.[23]

Gates hosted Faces of America, a four-part series presented by PBS in 2010. This program examined the genealogy of 12 North 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



  • Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self. (Oxford University Press, 1987).
  • The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. (Oxford University Press, 1988). Winner of the American Book Award.
  • Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. (Oxford University Press, 1992)
  • Colored People: A Memoir. (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)
  • The Future of the Race. (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), with Cornel West
  • Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man. (Random House, 1997)
  • Wonders of the African World. (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1999)
  • Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. (Perseus_Books, 1999)
  • The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century. (Perseus Books, 2000)
  • Finding Oprah's Roots: Finding Your Own. (Crown Publishing, 2007)

Gates has also edited many books and written a wide number of essays, notably:

  • African American National Biography, (with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, (with Nellie Y. McKay, W. W. Norton, 1996; 2nd. Ed., 2005), a standard textbook
  • The Bondwoman's Narrative, a Novel by Hannah Crafts (Virago Press, 2002)


  • "From Great Zimbabwe to Kilimatinde," BBC/PBS,, Great Rail 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.
  • African American Lives, Host and Narrator, PBS, February 2006, February 2008


  • Microsoft Encarta Africana, an encyclopedia focusing on the history, geography and culture of people of African descent worldwide, packaged within Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia program and created in collaboration with Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah[3]


All links Retrieved July 20, 2008.

  1. Harvard University profile
  2. 2.0 2.1 Bruce Cole, 2002.Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Interview. National Endowment for the Humanities. accessdate 2007-01-04
  3. Harvard University profile
  4. 4.0 4.1 Black History - Biographies - Henry Louis Gates. Thomson Gale accessdate 2007-01-04
  5. Audio Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. - RealAudio at Wired for Books.
  6. Harvard Faculty Webpage for Henry Louis Gates, Jr., with links to biography, CV, and full list of publications
  7. Sons of American Revolution welcome Gates
  8. Wonders of the African World Program with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for PBS
  9. Archives, Article from Harvard Gazette on Gates after C. West and K.A. Appiah left for Princeton
  10. Articles from the Harvard Crimson on Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
  11. PBS page for America Beyond The Color Line.PBS.org.
  12. TheRoot.com
  13. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Beware Of the New Pharaohs." Newsweek, 23 September 1991, 47. accessdate 2007-01-19
  14. "Henry Louis Gates, Jr." Africana. K. Anthony Appiah and H. L. Gates, Jr., (eds.) (New York: Oxford UP, 2005). 770.
  15. "Henry Louis Gates, Jr." Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Leitch, et al., eds. (New York: Norton, 2001), 2421-2431.
  16. "Henry Louis Gates, Jr." Notable Black American Men. J.C. Smith, ed. Detroit: Gale, 1999. 448-50.
  17. Nishikawa, Kinohi. "African American Critical Theory." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature, Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. 5 vols. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 36-41.
  18. Black Periodical Literature Project. [1]
  19. Harvard professor Gates arrested at Cambridge home
  20. Top cop: Officers 'pained' by Obama remark
  21. Review of Harvard Professor Arrest Finds Incident Was Avoidable
  22. Harvard University profile
  23. Harvard University profile

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Appiah, K. Anthony and H. L. Gates, Jr., eds. "Henry Louis Gates, Jr." Africana. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005. 770. ISSN 0095-1080
  • Gates, Henry Louis Jr., "Beware Of the New Pharaohs," Newsweek, 23 September 1991, 47. ISSN 0028-9604
  • Hochschild, Adam, 35 Million Ways to Be Black, March 14, 2007, Interview.MotherJones.com. Retrieved December 6, 2013.
  • Leitch, et al., "Henry Louis Gates, Jr." Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 9780393974294
  • Nishikawa, Kinohi. "African American Critical Theory." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature, Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. 5 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. 36-41. ISBN 9780313330599
  • Smith, J.C. "Henry Louis Gates, Jr." Notable Black American Men, ed. Detroit: Gale, 1999. 448-50. ISBN 9780787607630


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