1997

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Who, as distinguished scholar and teacher, in his writings and editorial direction
has explored with sensitivity and perception the literature of African-American writers
both past and present.


 Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.   

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

 

As one of the preeminent scholars of African American literature, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. advocates for a greater exploration of African and African American texts and the integration of them into the Western canon of literature as it is known today. He has also in recent years taken his interest in genealogy to the public, researching not only his own family roots but encouraging others to do the same, to find their place in the fabric of our nation’s history. 

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., grew up in Piedmont, West Virginia. He graduated from Yale with a degree in history, and with a Mellon Fellowship went on to Clare College at Cambridge, England, earning a Ph.D. in English. He taught English and African American Studies at Yale before moving on to teach at Cornell, Duke, and then Harvard, where he is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and where he leads the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research of which he is the overall director. He has authored numerous works of nonfiction and literary criticism, a memoir of his childhood, and co-edited two encyclopedias, African American National Biography and Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.

As a literary critic, Gates examines African American works from not only the African literary tradition, but also from the traditions that have evolved from the experiences of black people living in America. Gates believes that African American literature must be evaluated and analyzed according to the African culture from which it came, not from the European literary culture of which so much of the “definitive” Western canon of literature is comprised. 

Gates’s argument is for a greater inclusion of black texts into the canon to foster discussion and further understanding of black culture and literary style; only then can a truly American literary canon be produced that is separate from the Western European canon. He rejects the idea that there must be a separate African American canon of literature, believing that “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.” He has drawn criticism as well as praise for these beliefs, for he also rejects the idea that only a black person can truly appreciate black literature, saying, “It can’t be real as a subject if you have to look like the subject to be an expert in the subject. It’s as ridiculous as if someone said I couldn’t appreciate Shakespeare because I’m not Anglo-Saxon.” As part of his research, and with a MacArthur Fellowship, Gates was able to dig into black literature and discovered two then-unpublished manuscripts written by black women in the 1850s, which are the first known texts written by a black person in the U.S. 

Finds like this serve to enrich our country’s unique literary heritage, as does Gates’s interest in genealogy. He has been part of several television specials delving into his and others’ family lineage. People’s ancestry can generate the same kinds of discussion that, along with African American literature, make up the story of the United States. Such historical and literary discussions can perhaps someday lead to a better understanding of what it means to be an American. 

Gates is writing and co-editing with David Bindman a multi-volume work called The Image of the Black in Western Art, published by Harvard University Press. As well as new editions of the first few volumes of this longstanding project, they are working on several additional volumes to this important series.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is not only a distinguished academic scholar and teacher, but an activist, as well, fighting for equality and social justice for African Americans.