Henry Louis Gates Jr.
|Born||September 16, 1950|
Keyser, West Virginia, U.S.
|Education||Potomac State College|
Yale University (BA)
Clare College, Cambridge (MA, PhD)
|Genre||Essay, history, literature|
|Notable works||The Signifying Monkey (1988)|
Sharon Lynn Adams
(m. 1979; div. 1999)
Marial Iglesias Utset
Henry Louis Gates Jr. (born September 16, 1950) is an American literary critic, professor, historian, and filmmaker who serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is a trustee of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. He rediscovered the earliest known African-American novels and has published extensively on the recognition of African-American literature as part of the Western canon.
In addition to producing and hosting previous series on the history and genealogy of prominent American figures, since 2012, Gates has been host of the television series Finding Your Roots on PBS. The series combines the work of expert researchers in genealogy, history, and historical research in genetics to tell guests about the lives and histories of their ancestors.
Gates was born in Keyser, West Virginia, to Pauline Augusta (Coleman) Gates (1916–1987) and Henry Louis Gates Sr. (c. 1913–2010). He grew up in neighboring Piedmont. His father worked in a paper mill and moonlighted as a janitor, while his mother cleaned houses. His early life is described in his memoir Colored People (1994).
Gates learned through research that his family is descended in part from the Yoruba people of West Africa. He also learned that he has 50% European ancestry, including Irish forebears; he was surprised his European ancestry turned out to be so substantial. Having grown up in an African-American community, however, he identifies as Black. He has learned that he is also connected to the multiracial West Virginia community of Chestnut Ridge people.
At the age of 14, Gates was injured playing touch football, fracturing the ball and socket joint of his right hip, resulting in a slipped capital femoral epiphysis. The injury was misdiagnosed by a physician, who told Gates' mother that his problem was 'psychosomatic'. When the physical damage finally healed, his right leg was two inches shorter than his left. Because of the injury, Gates now uses a cane when he walks.
Graduated from Piedmont High School in 1968, Gates attended Potomac State College of West Virginia University before transferring to Yale University, from which, in 1973, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, summa cum laude, and he gained membership in Phi Beta Kappa. The first African American to be awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship, Gates sailed on the Queen Elizabeth 2 for England, where he studied English literature at Clare College, Cambridge, and earned his Ph.D. degree.
After a month at Yale Law School, Gates withdrew from the program. In October 1975, he was hired by Charles 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 doctoral dissertation. Jointly appointed to assistant professorships in English and Afro-American Studies in 1979, Gates was promoted to associate professor in 1984. While at Yale, Gates mentored Jodie Foster, who majored in African-American Literature there and wrote her thesis on author Toni Morrison.
In 1984, Gates was recruited by Cornell University with an offer of tenure; Gates asked Yale whether the university would match Cornell's offer, but they declined. Gates accepted the offer by Cornell in 1985 and taught there until 1989.
Following 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 he was appointed to in 2006, and as a professor of English. Additionally, he is the director of the Hutchins Center 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 analyze texts and assess 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". In his major scholarly work, The Signifying Monkey, a 1989 American Book Award winner, Gates expressed what might constitute an African-American cultural aesthetic. The work extended application of the concept of "signifyin'" to analysis of African-American works. "Signifyin(g)" refers to the significance of words that is based on context, and is accessible only to those who share the cultural values of a given speech community. His work has 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."
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," 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."
As a mediator between those advocating separatism and those believing in a Western canon, Gates has been criticized by both. Some critics suggest that adding 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. Gates has been criticized by John Henrik Clarke, Molefi Kete Asante, and the controversial Maulana Karenga, each of whom has been questioned by others in academia.
As a literary historian committed to the preservation and study of historical texts, Gates has been integral to the Black Periodical Literature Project, a digital archive of Black newspapers and magazines created with financial assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). 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.
As a result of research he conducted as a MacArthur Fellow, Gates discovered Our Nig, written by Harriet E. Wilson in 1859 and thought to be the first novel written in the United States by an African American. Later, he acquired and authenticated 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. If that date is correct, it would have precedence as the first-known novel written in the United States by an African American. (Note: Clotel (1853) by William Wells Brown is recognized as the first novel published by an African-American author, but it was both written and published in London.) The Bondwoman's Narrative was first published in 2002 and became a bestseller.
As a prominent Black intellectual, Gates has concentrated 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 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 English, games, and literary traditions, and should be protected.
When asked by National Endowment for the Humanities 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." After his 2003 NEH lecture, Gates published in the same year a book entitled The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, about the early African-American poet.
In July 2022, Gates announced that he would serve as editor-in-chief of the Oxford Dictionary of African American English, a new glossary of language that will contain popular phrases used by historical Black figures and modern-day Black Americans.
In 1995, Gates presented a program in the BBC series Great Railway Journeys (produced in association with PBS). The program documents a 3,000-mile journey Gates took through Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania, with his then-wife, Sharon Adams, and daughters, Liza and Meggie Gates. This trip came 25 years after Gates worked at a hospital in Kilimatinde, near Dodoma, Tanzania, when he was a 19-year-old pre-medical student at Yale University.
In September 1995, Gates narrated a five-part abridgement (by Margaret Busby) of his memoir Colored People on BBC Radio 4.
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 was traced using genealogical and historical resources, as well as genealogical DNA testing. In the first series, Gates learned that he has 50% European ancestry and 50% African ancestry. He had known of some European ancestry, but was surprised to learn the high proportion; he also learned that he was descended from John Redman, a mulatto veteran in New England of the American Revolutionary War. Gates has joined the Sons of the American Revolution. In the series, he discussed findings with guests about their complex ancestries.
In the second season of the program, Gates learned that he is part of a genetic subgroup that may be descended from or related to the fourth-century Irish king, Niall of the Nine Hostages. He also learned that one of his African ancestors includes a Yoruba man who was trafficked to America from Ouidah in present-day Republic of Benin. The two series demonstrated the many strands of ancestry, cultural 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 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.
Since 1995, Gates has been the jury chair for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, which honors written works that contribute to society's understanding of racism and the diversity of human culture. Gates was an Anisfield-Wolf prize winner in 1989 for The Schomburg Library of Women Writers.
Since 2012, he has hosted a PBS television series, entitled Finding Your Roots – with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. The second season of the series, featuring 30 prominent guests across 10 episodes, with Gates as the narrator, interviewer, and genealogical investigator, aired on PBS in fall 2014. The show's third season was postponed after it was discovered that actor Ben Affleck had persuaded Gates to omit information about his slave-owning ancestors. Finding Your Roots resumed in January 2016.
Gates's critically acclaimed six-part PBS documentary series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, traced 500 years of African-American history to the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. Gates wrote, executive-produced, and hosted the series, which earned the 2013 Peabody Award and a NAACP Image Award.
In 2022 and 2023, Gates was involved with the creation of AP African American Studies, the new college-level course created by the College Board for high school students.
In 2010, Gates wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that discussed the role played by Africans in the Atlantic slave trade. His op-ed begins and ends with the observation that it is very difficult to decide whether or not to give reparations to the descendants of American slaves, whether they should receive compensation for the unpaid labor of their ancestors, and their lack of rights. Gates also notes that it is equally difficult to decide who should get such reparations and who should pay them, as slavery was legal under the laws of the colonies and the United States. In an article for Newsweek, journalist Lisa Miller reported on the reaction to Gates' article:
The enemy of individuality is groupthink, Gates says, and here he holds everyone accountable. Recently, he has enraged many of his colleagues in the African-American studies field—especially those campaigning for government reparations for slavery—by insistently reminding them, as he did in a New York Times op-ed last year, that the folks who captured and sold Blacks into slavery in the first place were also Africans, working for profit. "People wanted to kill me, man," Gates says of the reaction to that op-ed. "Black people were so angry at me. But we need to get some distance from the binary opposition we were raised in: evil white people and good Black people. The world just isn't like that."
The Letters page of The New York Times of April 25, 2010, featured criticism and examination of Gates's views in response to his op-ed. Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University, considered Gates's emphasis on there being "little discussion" of African involvement in the slave trade to be unfounded, stating that "today, virtually every history of slavery and every American history textbook includes this information". Author Herb Boyd, who teaches African and African-American history at the College of New Rochelle and City College, CUNY, argued that despite the complicity of African monarchs in the Atlantic slave trade, the United States "was the greatest beneficiary, and thus should be the main compensator". Lolita Buckner Inniss, a professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, argued that notwithstanding African involvement as "abductors", it was Western slave-owners, as "captors", who perpetuated the practice even after the import trade was banned. "Up until that recent piece, people would have thought of him as someone who took a cautious and nuanced approach to questions like reparations. Gates has such an eminent reputation", she said, "and so much gravitas. Many of us were troubled."
Main article: Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy
Following a trip to China, Gates returned home to his residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard Square on July 16, 2009, only to find the front door jammed. His taxi driver attempted to help him gain entrance. A passerby called police, reporting a possible break-in after describing to 911 "an individual" forcing the front door open. Cambridge police officers were dispatched. The confrontation resulted in Gates being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Prosecutors later dropped the charges.
The incident spurred a politically charged exchange of views about race relations and law enforcement throughout the United States. The arrest attracted national attention after U.S. President Barack Obama controversially declared that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" in arresting the 59-year-old Gates. Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden eventually extended an invitation to Gates and the Cambridge officer who was involved to share a beer with them at the White House, which they accepted.
Gates married Sharon Lynn Adams in 1979. They had two daughters together before they divorced in 1999. As of 2021, Gates is married to historian Dr. Marial Iglesias Utset.
In 1974, Gates learned the Transcendental Meditation technique. He reported:
"I had this spiritual event where it was like the top of my head opened up. And I was just overwhelmed with emotion. And tears just streamed down my face. And I was exhilarated. It was astonishing. So I know that moment of transcendence is real."