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 73)
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coursework requirements, Gates spent his final undergraduate year writing, under the guidance of John Morton Blum, an unpublished manuscript entitled The Making of a Governor, which described John D. Rockefeller IV's gubernatorial campaign in West Virginia.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 "wasn’t literature. It was sociology, it was anthropology."[1] Soyinka would later become the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature; 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 Harvard University in 1991, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and as Professor of English.

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."[2] 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.[2]

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:

If you mean, as some people do, that you have to be black to teach black studies, or that no white person could ever be a professor of African-American studies, I think that's ridiculous 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.[3]

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.[4][5][6][7]

As a literary historian committed to the preservation and study of historical texts, Gates has been integral to the Black Periodical Literature Project,[8] 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've always thought of myself as both a literary historian and a literary critic, someone who loves archives and someone who is dedicated to resurrecting texts that have dropped out of sight."[9]


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.

Gates hosted Faces of America, a four-part series presented by PBS in 2010. This program examined the genealogy of 12 North Americans of diverse ancestry: Elizabeth Alexander, Mario Batali, Stephen Colbert, Louise Erdrich, Malcolm Gladwell, Eva Longoria, Yo-Yo Ma, Mike Nichols, Queen Noor of Jordan, Mehmet Oz, Meryl Streep, and Kristi Yamaguchi. Gates became the first African American to have his genome fully sequenced, as part of the Faces of America project.

Gates's six-part PBS documentary series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, which he wrote, executive produced, and hosted, earned the 2013 Peabody Award and a NAACP Image Award.

Since 2012 he has hosted a PBS TV series, called Finding Your Roots – with Henry Louis Gates, Jr..[10] On each episode, Gates as the narrator, interviewer, and genealogical investigator explores fascinating ancestries and family mysteries for an array of notable guests. Several episodes have revealed surprising stories that challenge assumptions about black history. For example Suzanne Malveaux, who is of mixed ancestry but considers herself black, discovered that her roots include a black ancestor who owned over 40 slaves.[11]

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. 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."[12]

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."[13]


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.

In January 2008, he co-founded The Root, a website dedicated to African-American perspectives published by The Washington Post Company. Gates has chaired the Fletcher Foundation, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has served 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, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, located in Stanford, California.

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.[14]


Books (author)

  • 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)
  • In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past. (Crown. 2009)
  • Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary Americans Reclaimed Their Pasts. (New York University Press, 2010)
  • Tradition and the Black Atlantic: Critical Theory in the African Diaspora. (Basic Civitas Books, 2010)
  • Black in Latin America. (New York University Press, 2011)
  • Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513–2008. (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011)
  • The Henry Louis Gates Jr. Reader. (Basic Civitas Books, 2012)
  • The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. With Donald Yacovone. (SmileyBooks, 2013).
  • Finding Your Roots: The Official Companion to the PBS Series. (University of North Carolina Press, 2014)
  • And Still I Rise: Black America since MLK. With Kevin Burke. (New York: Ecco, 2015).
  • 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro. (New York: Pantheon, 2017)
  • Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow. With Tonya Bolden. (Scholastic Nonfiction, 2019)
  • Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. (Penguin Press, 2019)
  • The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. (Penguin Press, 2021)

Books (editor)

  • Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. (Penguin Publishing Group, 1990)
  • The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. With Nellie Y. McKay. (W. W. Norton, 1996)
  • The Dictionary of Global Culture. With Kwame Anthony Appiah. (Vintage, 1998.)
  • Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience With Kwame Anthony Appiah. (Basic Civitas Books, 1999)
  • In Search of Hannah Crafts: Essays in the Bondwoman's Narrative. With Hollis Robbins. (New York: Basic/Civitas, 2004).
  • The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin . With Hollis Robbins. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006)
  • The African American National Biography. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • Lincoln on Race and Slavery. With Donald Yacovone. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)
  • Encyclopedia of Africa: Two-Volume Set. With Kwame Anthony Appiah. (Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • The Annotated African American Folktales. With Maria Tatar. (Liveright-W.W. Norton, 2017).
  • The Penguin Portable Nineteenth Century African American Women Writers. With Hollis Robbins.(Penguin, 2017)


  • From Great Zimbabwe to Kilimatinde (narrator and screenwriter), Great Railway Journeys, BBC/PBS, 1996.
  • The Two Nations of Black America (host and scriptwriter), Frontline, WGBH-TV, February 10, 1998.
  • Leaving Cleaver: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Remembers Eldridge Cleaver, WGBH, 1999.
  • Wonders of the African World (screenwriter and narrator), BBC/PBS, October 25–27, 1999 (six-part series).
    • Shown as Into Africa on BBC-2 in the United Kingdom and South Africa, Summer 1999.
  • Credited for his involvement in Unchained Memories (2003).
  • America Beyond the Color Line (host and scriptwriter), BBC2/PBS, February 2/4, 2004 (four-part series).
  • African American Lives (screenwriter, host and narrator), PBS, February 1/8, 2006 (four-hour series).
  • Oprah's Roots: An African American Lives Special (screenwriter, narrator, and co-producer), PBS, January 24, 2007.
  • African American Lives 2 (host and narrator), PBS, February 6/13, 2008 (four-hour series).
  • Looking for Lincoln (screenwriter, host/narrator, and co-producer), PBS, February 11, 2009.
  • Faces of America (screenwriter, narrator, and co-producer), PBS, February 10 – March 3, 2010 (four-hour series).
  • Black in Latin America (executive producer, writer, and presenter), PBS, April 19 – May 10, 2011.
  • Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (executive producer, screenwriter, and host/narrator), PBS, March 2012 to present.
  • The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (executive producer, writer, and host), PBS, October–November 2013 (six-part series).
  • Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise (writer, presenter, and narrator), PBS, November 15, 2016 (four-part series)
  • Africa's Great Civilizations (executive producer, writer, and presenter), PBS, February–March 2017 (six-part series)
  • Reconstruction: America After the Civil War (executive producer and presenter), PBS, April 9/16, 2019 (four-hour series)
  • Watchmen (actor), HBO, October 2019 (television series)


  1. David Remnick, How Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Helped Remake the Literary Canon The New Yorker, February 19, 2022. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gates, Henry Louis Jr. 1950– Contemporary Black Biography, May 29, 2018. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  3. Breena Clarke, 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, Monday, April 22, 1991.
  4. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (eds.), Africana (Civitas Books, 1999, ISBN 978-0465000715).
  5. Vincent B. Leitch, et al. (eds.), Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York: Norton, 2018, ISBN 978-0393602951).
  6. Jessie Carney Smith (ed.), Notable Black American Men (Detroit: Gale, 2006, ISBN 978-0787664930).
  7. Kinohi Nishikawa, "African American Critical Theory" In The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005, ISBN 9780313330599), 36-41.
  8. Black Periodical Literature Project Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  9. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. National Endowment for the Humanities, 2002. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  10. Finding Your Roots – with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  11. Season 4 Episode 6 Preview "Black Like Me" Finding Your Roots – with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  12. Top cop: Officers 'pained' by Obama remark NBC News, July 22, 2009. Retrieved October 2022.
  13. Review of Harvard Professor Arrest Finds Incident Was Avoidable Fox News, December 23, 2015. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  14. Gates inducted to Sons of the American Revolution The Harvard Gazette, July 20, 2006. Retrieved October 21, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (eds.). Africana. Civitas Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0465000715
  • Leitch, et al. (eds.). Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2018. ISBN 978-0393602951
  • Nelson, Emmanuel S. (ed). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. ISBN 9780313330599
  • Smith, Jessie Carney (ed.). Notable Black American Men. Detroit: Gale, 2006. ISBN 978-0787664930

External links

All links retrieved October 21, 2022.


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