Black History Month: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. is an American literary critic, teacher, historian, filmmaker and public intellectual.  He discovered what are considered the first books by African American writers, both of men and women, and has published extensively on appreciating African American literature as part of the Western canon.  Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is one of the premier U.S. scholars of African American literature and African Diasporic studies in general.

Professor and educator Henry Louis Gates Jr. was born on September 16, 1950, in Keyser, West Virginia. Gates excelled as a student, graduating from Yale University in 1973 with a degree in history. He continued his education at Clare College, which is part of the University of Cambridge in England. He finished his doctorate degree in 1979, making him the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from the university.

In the 1980s, Gates became known as a leading scholar of African American literature, history, and culture. He built his reputation in part on his talents as a researcher. At the start of the decade, he began working on the Black Periodical Literature Project, which uncovered lost literary works published in 1800s. Gates received a grant from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation in 1981, which helped support his scholarship in African American literature. He had rediscovered what is believed to be the first novel published by an African American in the United States. Gates republished the 1859 work by Harriet E. Wilson, entitled Our Nig, in 1983.

Gates served an editor on several anthologies and collections of African-American literature and contributed to the field of literary theory with such works as Black Literature and Literary Theory (1984) and The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988). In 1991, Gates became the head of the African American studies department at Harvard University. He is credited with transforming the school’s African American studies program. Gates is now the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at the university.

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or co-authored twenty-one books and created fifteen documentary films, including Wonders of the African World, African American Lives, Faces of America, Black in Latin America, and Finding Your Roots, his groundbreaking genealogy series now in its third season on PBS. His six-part PBS documentary series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (2013), which he wrote, executive produced, and hosted, earned the Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Program—Long Form, as well as the Peabody Award, Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, and NAACP Image Award. Having written for such leading publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Time, Professor Gates now serves as chairman of TheRoot.com, a daily online magazine he co-founded in 2008, while overseeing the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field. He has also received grant funding to develop a Finding Your Roots curriculum to teach students science through genetics and genealogy. In 2012, The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader, a collection of his writings edited by Abby Wolf, was published. His next film is the four-hour documentary series, And Still I Rise: Black America since MLK, airing on PBS in April 2016; a companion book, which he co-authored with Kevin M. Burke, was published by Ecco/HarperCollins in 2015.

The recipient of fifty-five honorary degrees and numerous prizes, Professor Gates was a member of the first class awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation in 1981, and in 1998, he became the first African American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal. He was named to Time’s 25 Most Influential Americans list in 1997, to Ebony’s Power 150 list in 2009, and to Ebony’s Power 100 list in 2010 and 2012. He earned his B.A. in English Language and Literature, summa cum laude, from Yale University in 1973, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature from Clare College at the University of Cambridge in 1979. Professor Gates has directed the W. E. B. Institute for African and African American Research—now the Hutchins Center—since arriving at Harvard in 1991, and during his first fifteen years on campus, he chaired the Department of Afro-American Studies as it expanded into the Department of African and African American Studies with a full-fledged doctoral program. He also is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and serves on a wide array of boards, including the New York Public Library, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Aspen Institute, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Library of America, and the Brookings Institution. Sources: Harvard University Department of African and African American Studies, biography.com

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