Henry Louis Gates

Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr.
, (born September 16, 1950) is an American literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, editor, andpublic 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] However he is criticized as non-representative of Black people by prominent African-American scholars such as John Henrik ClarkeMolefi Asante andMaulana Karenga.[2][3][4]

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 memoirColored 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.[5][6]

Gates graduated from Piedmont High School in 1968 and attended Potomac State College in Keyser, West Virginia before earning his undergraduate B.A. degree at Yale University,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.”[7]

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. inEnglish. 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.”[8] 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 WilliamsGeorge Steiner, and John Holloway among the European scholars who influenced him.[8]

Gates married Sharon Lynn Adams in 1979.[9] They had two daughters.[10] They later divorced.[citation needed] Henry Louis Gates Jr was credited in the HBO slave narratives movies 2003 the “unchained Memories Patricia-h


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 hisdissertation. 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 toHarvard 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.[11] 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 structuralismpost-structuralism, andsemiotics 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.”[6] 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.[6]

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,”[8] 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.”[12] However, Afrocentrics such asMolefi Asante and others have never claimed that the study of Africa should be exclusively Black, but moreover that the weight and the approach of Afrocentricity is critical for setting up black people as agents of their own history.[13][14]

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.[15] 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 aMacArthur 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.”[8]

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 ZimbabweZambia 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 nearDar es SalaamTanzania as a 19-year-old pre-medical student at Yale University.[16]

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.[17]

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 North Americans: Elizabeth AlexanderMario BataliStephen ColbertLouise ErdrichMalcolm GladwellEva LongoriaYo-Yo MaMike NicholsQueen NoorDr. Mehmet OzMeryl Streep, and Kristi Yamaguchi

Since 1995, Gates has served as jury chair for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which honor written works that contribute to society’s understanding of racism and the diversity of humanculture. Gates himself was an Anisfield-Wolf prize winner in 1989 for The Schomburg Library of Women Writers.

Criticism of The Secret relationship between Blacks and Jews

Gates heavily criticized the book The Secret relationship between Blacks and Jews, published in 1991 by the Nation of Islam. The book’s thesis was that Jews played a leading role in the Atlantic slave trade. Gates called the book “the bible of new anti-Semitism” and added that “the book massively misinterprets the historical record, largely through a process of cunningly selective quotations of often reputable sources”.[18] The Nation of Islam called Gates an “apologist for the evil of white America”, and Abdul Arif Muhammad, an attorney and former editor-in-chief of the Nation of Islam’s Final Call newspaper writes, “Professor Gates demonstrates through this article that he has accepted his proper place at the back door, showing he is in the category of an ‘educated Negro’ that (sic) has, in fact, been mis-educated.”[19]

Slavery blame-game controversy

Henry Louis Gates wrote an editorial entitled “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game” in the New York Times on April 22, 2010, which analyzes and highlights the important role played by Africans in the slave trade.[20] As Gates points out, “The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.

The editorial 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, in other words whether they should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage. Gates also points out that it is equally difficult to decide who should get these reparations and who should pay them.

The essay was criticized by some African scholars who interpreted the essay to mean that reparations were moot because African kings were involved in the slave trade.[4][21] These reactions ignored that the editorial specifically states that reparations would be a good idea but should be based on the historical fact that “white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, [were] complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization”.

Other critics feel it is correct to consider all Europeans and their descendants in North America collectively responsible for the slave trade carried out by some Europeans and North Americans but feel this does not apply to Africans.

The viewpoint that “Africans” enslaved “Africans” is obfuscating if not troubling. The deployment of “African” in African history tends to coalesce into obscurantist constructions of identities that allow scholars, for instance, to subtly call into question the humanity of “all” Africans. Whenever Asante rulers sold non-Asantes into slavery, they did not construct it in terms of Africans selling fellow Africans. They saw the victims for what they were, for instance, as Akuapems, without categorizing them as fellow Africans. Equally, when Christian Scandinavians and Russians sold war captives to the Islamic people of the Abbasid Empire, they didn’t think that they were placing fellow Europeans into slavery. This lazy categorizing homogenizes Africans and has become a part of the methodology of African history; not surprisingly, the Western media’s cottage industry on Africa has tapped into it to frame Africans in inchoate generalities allowing the media to describe [a] local crisis in one African state as [an] “African” problem.

– Dr. Akurang-Parry, Ending the Slavery Blame, Ghana Web[22]

Some of the same and other critics dispute Gates’s summary of current consensus among historians on the active role played in the slave trade by some African kingdoms and the economic importance of the slave trade to these countries.[23] A coalition of academics and African-American slavery reparation activists wrote a public condemnation of the editorial, which was undersigned by Maulana KarengaMolefi Asante, Ray Winbush, and many more.[24] The main arguments of the condemnation were the following:

The African Holocaust or Maafa, as it is referred to by many, is a crime against humanity and is recognized as such by the United Nations, scholars, and historians who have documented the primary and overwhelming culpability of European nations for enslavement in Europe, in the Americas and elsewhere. In spite of this overwhelming documentation, Gates inexplicably shifts the burden of culpability to Africans who were and are its victims. The abundance of scholarly work also affirms that Europeans initiated the process, established the global infrastructure for enslavement, and imposed, financed and defended it, and were the primary beneficiaries of it in various ways through human trafficking itself, banking, insurance, manufacturing, farming, shipping and allied enterprises. No serious scholar of African history or reparations activist denies the collaboration of some African rulers, elites, merchants and middlemen. Indeed, collaboration accompanies oppression as a continuing fact of history. Historians have described collaborators in two other major Holocausts: the Jewish Holocaust and the Native American Holocaust. Yet Gates, ignoring the historical record, makes the morally unacceptable error of conflating three distinct groups involved in the Holocaust of enslavement: perpetrators, collaborators and victims.

Others feel that any assignment of partial blame to Africans only serves the purpose of reducing or covering up the responsibility of Europeans and North Americans.

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.[25] The incident spurred a politically charged exchange of views about race relations and law enforcement throughout the United States. The arrest garnered national attention after U.S. President Barack Obama declared that the police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates. The President eventually extended an invitation to both Gates and the officer involved to share a beer with him at the White House.[26]

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

On June 30, 2010, an independent panel with experts from across the nation published a report that states “Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates each missed opportunities to ‘ratchet down’ the situation and end it peacefully” and share responsibility for the controversial July 16 arrest. Crowley could have better explained how uncertain and potentially dangerous it is to respond to a serious crime-in-progress call and why this can result in a seemingly rude tone. Gates could have tried to understand Crowley’s view of the situation and could have spoken respectfully to Crowley. The report cites research that shows people’s feelings about a police encounter depend significantly on whether they feel the officer displays respect and courtesy.[27][28][29]

Awards and honors

  • Gates has been the recipient of 50 honorary degrees and numerous academic and social action awards.
  • Gates was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1981.
  • He was listed in Time among its “25 Most Influential Americans” in 1997. Ebony Magazine listed him among its “100 Most Influential Black Americans” in 2005, and in 2009, Ebony included him on its “Power 150” list.
  • In 2002 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Gates for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities.[30]Gates’s lecture was entitled “Mister Jefferson and the Trials of Phillis Wheatley.”[31] It was the basis of his later book The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (2003).[32]
  • Gates received the National Humanities Medal in 1998 and the 2008 Ralph Lowell Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the highest honor in the field of public television, in 2009. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999.
  • On October 23, 2006, Gates was appointed the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor at Harvard University. He has been the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research since arriving at Harvard in 1991.
  • In January 2008, he co-founded The Root, a website dedicated to African-American perspectives and published by The Washington Post Company.
  • Gates serves as the Chair for the Selection Committee for the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr., Fellowship Program, sponsored by the Fletcher Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Fletcher Asset Management.
  • He is on the boards of many notable institutions including the New York Public LibraryJazz at Lincoln Center, the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, HEAF (the Harlem Educational Activities Fund), and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, located in Stanford, California.[11] He is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations.
  • In 2006, Gates was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution after tracing his lineage back to John Redman, a free African American who fought in the Revolutionary War.[17]
  • In 2010, Gates became the first African American to have his genome fully sequenced. He is also half of the first father-son pair to have their genomes fully sequenced. Knomeperformed the analysis as part of the “Faces of America” project.