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Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

1950—

Scholar, critic, writer

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is one of the most powerful academic voices in America. He is most recognized for his extensive research of African-American history and literature, and for developing and expanding the African-American studies program at Harvard University. The first black to have received a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, Gates is the author of many books, articles, essays, and reviews, and has received numerous awards and honorary degrees. Gates, who has displayed an endless dedication to bringing African-American culture to the public, has coauthored, coedited, and produced some of the most comprehensive African-American reference materials ever created. In naming Gates one of the twenty-five most influential Americans in 1997, Time magazine described him as a combination of "the braininess of the legendary black scholar W. E. B. Du Bois and the chutzpah of P. T. Barnum…. The chairman of Harvard's Afro-American-studies department has emerged as a prolific author, a whirlwind academic impresario and the de facto leader of a movement to transform black studies from a politically correct, academic backwater into a respected discipline on campuses across the U.S."

Gates was born on September 16, 1950, in Keyser, West Virginia, a city surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains. Gates's father, Henry Louis Sr. worked at the local paper mill during the day and as a janitor for the local telephone company at night. His mother, Pauline Coleman Gates, cleaned houses in addition to caring for Gates and his only sibling, a brother. Gates described his father as being an extraordinary storyteller and credited his mother with instilling a great deal of self-confidence in her children. She was fascinated by the teachings of Malcolm X but also wanted her sons to be able to work and live within an integrated society. Pauline Gates was active in her children's education and was the first black PTA member in their community. As Gates entered his teenage years his mother began a long struggle with depression and was hospitalized. Profoundly affected, the young Gates made a deal with God: If his mother came home from the hospital, he would devote his life to Christ. His mother did come home, and Gates became heavily involved with his church, but as the 1960s unfolded with race riots, assassinations, and anti-war protests, he turned his focus outward.

Educated at Yale and Cambridge Universities

In 1964, when Gates was fourteen years old, he suffered a hairline fracture of the ball-and-socket joint of the hip while playing touch football. He did not realize the severity of the injury until a few weeks later when the joint sheared apart while he was walking. The white doctor who examined Gates shortly afterward questioned the boy about his injury as well as his career plans. When the young Gates replied that he wanted to be a doctor and then correctly answered many questions about science, the doctor made his diagnosis. He told Gates to stand and walk, and the young boy fell to the floor in intense pain. The doctor then turned to Gates's mother and explained that her son's problem was psychosomatic—a black boy from Appalachia who wanted to be a doctor in the mid-1960s was an overachiever. Years later Gates wrote in the New York Times that "‘overachiever’ designated a sort of pathology: the overstraining of your natural capacity." As a result of the misdiagnosis, Gates's right leg is more than two inches shorter than his left. As a result of that injury, Gates walks with the aid of a cane.

Since that time Gates has been trying to overcome not only his personal physical handicap but the handicap of racism as well. "The most subtle and pernicious form of racism against blacks [is] doubt about our intellectual capacities," he explained to Maurice Berger in Art in America. Gates dispelled such doubts, having earned some of the highest scholastic achievements and placing himself in a position to argue logically and eloquently for a multicultural approach to education.

To appreciate the contributions of African Americans to the cultural history of United States, for example, Gates believed one must understand the indigenous culture out of which those achievements arose. Since Gates maintained that "culture is always a conversation among different voices," as he wrote in the New York Times, it is the history of the black voice in black literature, with its "repetition and revision of shared themes, topoi and tropes, the call and response of voices, their music and cacophony," that must be studied.

After having graduated summa cum laude from Yale University with a degree in history, Gates won fellowships to study at Clare College of Cambridge University in England. It was there that he met the Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who became a mentor for Gates. Instructing him in the mythology and writings of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Soyinka convinced Gates to study literature, specifically African-American literature and its lineage from and similarities to the literary traditions of Africa and the Caribbean.

Rediscovered First African-American Novel

Almost immediately after his completion of a doctoral degree in English language and literature in 1979, Gates won acclaim for his critical essays on black literature. In 1981 the MacArthur Foundation recognized him as one of twenty-one gifted individuals, giving him a five-year "genius" grant totaling $150,000. It was his rediscovery and republication in 1983 of Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig, the first novel published in the United States by a black person, however, that placed Gates at the forefront of African-American scholarship. The novel was originally published in 1859 but was ignored and later labeled the work of a white man. Gates's almost archeological approach in verifying the original author helped extend the African-American literary tradition by more than thirty years.

At a Glance …

Born on September 16, 1950, in Keyser, WV; son of Henry Louis and Pauline Augusta Gates; married Sharon Lynn Adams, 1979; children: Maude, Elizabeth. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Episcopalian. Education: Yale University, BA, 1973; Clare College, Cambridge University, MA, 1974, PhD, 1979.

Career: Time, staff correspondent, 1973-75; Yale University, lecturer, 1976-79, assistant professor of English, 1979-84, director of department of undergraduate Afro-American studies, 1979-85, associate professor of English, 1984-85; Cornell University professor of English and African Studies, 1985-90, W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature, 1988-90; Duke University, John Spenser Bassett Professor of English, 1990-91; Harvard University, W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, 1991—, department chair, African-American Studies, 1991-2006; Alfonse Fletcher University Professor, 2006—.

Memberships: Modern Language Association; Zora Neale Hurston Society; ACLU National Advisory Council; National Coalition against Censorship; Sons of the American Revolution.

Awards: MacArthur Prize fellowship, MacArthur Foundation, 1981; American Book Award and Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Race Relations, both for The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, 1989; elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1993; named one of Time magazine's 25 Most Influential Americans, 1997; National Humanities Medal, 1998; NAACP Image Award, Outstanding Literary Work, Nonfiction, for Wonders of the African World, 2000.

Addresses: Office—W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Studies, Harvard University, 104 Mt. Auburn St., 3R, Cambridge, MA 02138. Agent—Carl Brandt, Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc., 1501 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.

Gates's Black Periodical Literature Project, begun in 1980, also benefited from the acclaim brought by the republication of Our Nig. More money was consequently infused into the project, which exhumed nineteenth-century black literary works buried in periodicals. Spurred on by the belief of black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers that it is "the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood—the power of ‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within," as Gates quoted Spillers in the New York Times Book Review, he focused on the literary accomplishments of black women from that period, culminating in his editing the thirty-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, published in 1988. Eric J. Sundquist, critiquing the publication in the New York Times Book Review, believed it would alter the landscape of American cultural thought, demonstrating "that black men and black women have never hesitated to grasp the pen and write their own powerful story of freedom."

It has been Gates's critical approach, the definition of a black literary theory, that has attracted the most attention, both favorable and unfavorable. In Black Literature and Literary Theory, published in 1984 and edited by Gates, he attacked the notion of the traditional, Eurocentric literary canon by proposing the establishment of a black literary canon. Terry Eagleton, writing in the New York Times Book Review, maintained that the essays included in the book discourage such a notion; while enriching the perception of black literary works, the essays, in his opinion, also "implicitly question the authoritarianism of a literary ‘canon.’" Yet Gates remained resolute. "Long after white American literature has been anthologized and canonized, and recanonized," he stated in the New York Times Book Review, "our efforts to define a black American canon are often decried as racist, separatist, nationalist, or ‘essentialist.’"

Gates further insisted that the reason black works are excluded from the American literary canon is because the traditional canon is based on Western or European culture. He argued that most systems used to judge art are culturally specific, and black work cannot be appreciated or criticized on the basis of a Western cultural aesthetic. He told Berger in Art in America that there must be "systems that account for the full complexity of American art, music, and literature—in all their multicolored strains…. To say that black art is a thing apart, separate from the whole, is a racist fiction. We have to conceive a new aesthetic status for American art in all of its facets."

In addition to editing The Norton Anthology of African American Literature in 1996, Gates coedited many other works, including The Civitas Anthology of African American Slave Narratives (1999), a collection of ten stories. Work on one of his most notable literary works was conducted during a long period of convalescence following surgery. His childhood hip condition eventually required that the joint be replaced, and in 2001 he found himself bedridden after a complication from the surgery. While recuperating at home, Gates received an auction notice for a mid-nineteenth-century manuscript relating the story of an escaped female slave, known in the manuscript as Hannah Crafts. Suspecting that it might, if authenticated, prove to be the only novel ever written by a slave, and the first novel ever written by an African-American woman, Gates quietly moved to purchase the manuscript. From his bedside, he coordinated a historical manhunt for evidence that would show that Crafts's narrative was written by a female slave in the mid-1850s. "The evidence was overwhelming that [Crafts] was who she said she was," Gates told Salon. "Just the thing about introducing characters as human beings and then telling you they were black. Nobody did that. No white writer did that." Crafts's novel, and the account of Gates's efforts to authenticate the manuscript, became the bestselling Bondswoman's Narrative (2002).

Defined Critical Approach to Black Literature

Gates tried to provide the basis on which to judge African-American literary works, defining a black cultural aesthetic in his seminal work The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988). According to Andrew Delbanco in the New Republic, Gates proposed the theory that black writers "throw off the oppressive weight of their predecessors by first incorporating, then transforming, them." Gates labels this parodic technique "Signifyin(g)"—indicating the omission of the final "g" as is often done in the black vernacular. And it is in the black vernacular tradition that Gates locates the true black literary criticism.

Africans transported to America before slavery was outlawed refused to learn the white slave owners' language, thereby preventing assimilation into the fabricated caste system. They instead created their own version of that language to safeguard themselves. "Signifying is verbal play—serious play that serves as instruction, entertainment, mental exercise, preparation for interacting with friend or foe in the social arena," John Wideman pointed out in the New York Times Book Review. "In black vernacular, Signifying is a sign that words cannot be trusted, that even the most literal utterance allows room for interpretation, that language is both carnival and minefield."

Parody and allusion, prevalent in African myths and African-American folktales, are intimate forms of this black vernacular verbal play, and the interpretive act is endless. "Gates means that repetition, revision, and usurpation are as integral to black street talk as they are to Western poetry," Delbanco wrote. Therefore, to understand black literary works, Gates argues, one must understand the purposes behind the black vernacular tradition of endlessly playing against itself— varying, revising, extending. An example of signifying that Gates cites is a line from a monologue by H. Rap Brown: "Ain't nothing bad 'bout you but your breath." Delbanco noted that the word "bad" in this instance "is simultaneously an endorsement and a reversal of the conventional meaning of the word in white usage. Both meanings, white and black, are present. The word is thereby enriched."

Gates called on this tradition of language as a game in helping to defend the rap group 2 Live Crew against obscenity charges in Florida in 1990. He wrote in the New York Times that 2 Live Crew's "exuberant use of hyperbole (phantasmagoric sexual organs, for example) undermines—for anyone fluent in black cultural codes—a too literal-minded hearing of the lyrics. This is the street tradition called ‘signifying’ or ‘playing the dozens,’ which has generally been risque." Gates further noted connections between the group's approach and the black mythic tradition, explaining to a reporter from Jet that in 2 Live Crew's music "what you hear is great humor, great joy, and great boisterousness. It's a joke. It's a parody and parody is one of the most venerated forms of art."

It is the lack of understanding in American society of the function and value of this black tradition, Gates believes, that has fostered intellectual racism—a deafness to the black cultural voice. Gates does not call for the precedence of black culture over its Western counterpart. "I wouldn't want to get rid of anything in [the Western] tradition," he told Breena Clarke and Susan Tifft in Time. "I think the Western tradition has been a marvelous, wonderful tradition. But it's not the only tradition full of great ideas." Gates argues instead for an understanding and appreciation of the logical interconnection of cultural works, of their integrated diversity: "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," he commented in the New York Times Book Review. "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."

Criticized Media, Emphasized Education

The absence of black works in the artistic cultural milieu, according to Gates, is coupled with improper depictions in the media and overemphasis on sport and celebrity in popular culture. Specifically, Gates expressed disapproval of the way blacks are represented on television—"a very poor index to our social advancement or political progress," he wrote in the New York Times. In addition he criticized the attitudes of many blacks toward education and athletics. "Imbued with a belief that our principal avenue to fame and profit is through sport, and seduced by a win-at-any-cost system that corrupts even elementary school students, far too many black kids treat basketball courts and football fields as if they were classrooms in an alternative school system," Gates wrote in Sports Illustrated. Education is crucial, Gates explained to V. R. Peterson in Essence, to combat damaging racial stereotypes and beliefs: "I find the lack of knowledge about Black people that Black people have distressing. What I think of as intellectual racism—the idea that Blacks are innately inferior—will be countered if each of us is an authentic scholar."

However, Gates decries any type of education that focuses on only one culture. He believes that schools set up to teach only an Afrocentric curriculum merely perpetuate racist cultural attitudes. "Bogus theories of ‘sun’ and ‘ice’ people, and the individual scapegoating of other ethnic groups, only resurrects the worst of nineteenth-century racist pseudoscience—which too many of the pharaohs of ‘Afrocentrism’ have accepted without realizing," Gates explained in Newsweek. He also condemns the belief that only blacks can teach or write about black culture. "I think that's ridiculous," he told Clarke and Tifft. "It's as ridiculous as if someone said I couldn't appreciate [writer William] 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."

In Time magazine Robert Hughes once described America as "a place filled with diversity, unsettled histories, images impinging on one another and spawning unexpected shapes. Its polyphony of voices, its constant eddying of claims to identity, is one of the things that makes America America." For this to continue, Gates believes, it is imperative that there is tolerance and understanding across cultural lines: "The challenge facing America will be the shaping of a truly common public culture, one responsive to the long-silenced cultures of color," he declared in the New York Times. "If we relinquish the ideal of America as a plural nation, we've abandoned the very experiment America represents."

Elevated African-American Studies

In 1991 Gates became the chair of the Afro-American studies department at Harvard University. At the time the department consisted of one professor, who was white, and a handful of students. In a matter of a few years, Gates managed to bring some of the most prominent black intellectuals in the country to his department, including Cornel West, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and William Julius Wilson. Gates told Richard Newman, in Publishers Weekly, "This is all about redefining the very meaning of America. Anglo-American regional culture is simply not universal. We're helping to create a new cultural consciousness, one that's pluralistic and diverse."

Education and familiarity provide the means to achieve a more tolerant perspective. With this in mind, Gates has used cutting-edge technology and some of the most popular media and corporate resources available to educate the public. For example, when the McDonald's Corporation dedicated the year 2000 to promoting African-American heritage, Gates wrote a two-volume booklet set, Little Known Black History Facts, that was offered for sale with a meal purchase. In the early 1970s Gates, along with some colleagues, made a pact to fulfill a dream of the late W. E. B. Du Bois: to publish the black equivalent of the Encyclopedia Britannica. After almost twenty-five years, and after much trial and tribulation, the project was finished. Microsoft produced a CD-ROM version of the encyclopedia, Encarta Africana and Perseus published the print version, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience.

In 1999 Gates launched Africana.com, a Web site created to provide corrections and revisions to Encarta Africana but the site became so popular, that Gates expanded the site. The following year, Africana.com was purchased by AOL Time Warner. He also joined the advisory board of Digital Learning Interactive, an interactive, online learning resource, and developed a comprehensive course on the Harlem Renaissance. Another impressive educational project was his six-part miniseries for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), The Wonders of the African World. Gates assembled a team of intellectuals who traveled through twelve African countries over a period of one year, gathering and examining evidence of past African cultures. Gates explained in Jet, "As a black American, I know what it's like to have your history stolen from you. I wanted to bring this lost African world into the consciousness of the larger public, Black and White."

Pursued Genealogical Research Projects

Gates's historical detective work continued with the African American Lives series of television specials and books. The project, which Gates described in an interview with Mother Jones magazine as "Roots for the twenty-first century, Roots in a white coat" used genealogical research and genetic mapping to track down the family trees of prominent African Americans. The inspiration came from Gates's own desire to track down his ancestors, and to have the very best people and technology at his disposal for that purpose. Gates enlisted some of the same celebrities he interviewed for the 2004 television/book project America beyond the Color Line to allow him to explore their genealogies and genetics in order to teach them more about their heritage. For Gates, the project led to a number of discoveries about his own ancestry, including the discovery that about 50 percent of his DNA was of European origin, that much of his genetic profile matched people in Ireland, and that one of his ancestors was a free Negro who fought in the American Revolutionary War. As a result of this last discovery, Gates was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution in 2006.

The American Lives series spawned multiple books and three television specials, including 2007's Oprah's Roots, in which Gates examined the genealogy of perhaps his most famous subject, Oprah Winfrey. It also resulted in diverse projects for Gates, such as editing the African American National Biography, containing many of the stories gathered as part of his genealogical research, and Gates's cofounding AfricanDNA, a service that enables private citizens to get the same genetic testing, matching, and genealogical research that was done for his African American Lives subjects. AfricanDNA's genealogy services are also incorporated in The Root, an online magazine which aims to be "Slate for black readers," and on which Gates serves as editor-in-chief.

"Understanding how you got to where you are as a human being through your ancestors is the most important element in shaping your sense of self and your self-esteem," Gates told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2008. It's one thing to put pictures of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman on the wall of a classroom. It's another thing to know that your family survived the middle passage, survived the evil of slavery, survived Jim Crow racism, and that they made it—that they made it and that you can make it too."

Selected writings

Author

(With James Gibbs and Ketu H. Katrak) Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, Greenwood Press, 1986.

Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self, Oxford University Press, 1987.

The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Colored People: A Memoir, Knopf, 1994.

(With Cornel West) The Future of the Race, Knopf, 1996.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, Random House, 1997.

Wonders of the African World, Knopf, 1999.

Little Known Black History Facts, McDonald's, 2000.

(With Cornel West) The African-American Century, Free Press, 2000.

The Trials of Phyllis Wheatley: America's First Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, Basic Civitas Books, 2003.

America behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans, Warner Books, 2004.

Finding Oprah's Roots, Finding Your Own, Crown, 2007.

Editor

Black Is the Color of the Cosmos: Charles T. Davis's Essays on Black Literature and Culture, 1942-1981, Garland Publishing, 1982.

Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black, Random House, 1983.

Black Literature and Literary Theory, Methuen, 1984.

(With Charles T. Davis) The Slave's Narrative: Texts and Contexts, Oxford University Press, 1985.

"Race," Writing, and Difference, University of Chicago Press, 1986.

The Classic Slave Narratives, New American Library, 1987.

The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, 30 vols., Oxford University Press, 1988.

In the House of Osubgo: Critical Essays on Wole Soyinka, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Literary Critical Anthology, New American Library, 1990.

Three Classic African-American Novels, Random, 1990.

Bearing Witness: Selections from 150 Years of African-American Autobiography, Pantheon, 1991.

(With George H. Bass) Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, HarperCollins, 1991.

(With Nellie Y. McKay) The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Norton, 1996, 2nd ed., 2004.

(With Kwame Anthony Appiah) Dictionary of Global Culture, Knopf, 1997.

(With William L. Andrews) The Civitas Anthology of African American Slave Narratives, Counterpoint Civitas, 1999.

(With Carl Pederson) Black Imagination and the Middle Passage, Oxford, 1999.

(With others) Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, Perseus, 1999.

Hannah Crafts, The Bondswoman's Narrative, Warner Books, 2002.

(With Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham) African American Lives, Oxford University Press, 2006.

(With Hollis Robbins) The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin, W.W. Norton, 2006.

(With Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham) African American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Also editor-in-chief of The Root online magazine; member of board of editors of American Quarterly, Black American Literature Forum, Cultural Critique, Proteus, and Studies in American Fiction; member of board of directors of Critical Inquiry and Diacritics; advisory editor to Contributions to African and Afro-American Studies and Studies on Black Life and Culture.

Contributor

Herbert Sacks, editor, The Book of Hurdles, Atheneum, 1978.

Robert Stepto and Dexter Fisher, editors, Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, Modern Language Association of America, 1979.

William H. Robinson, editor, Critical Essays on Phyllis Wheatley, G. K. Hall, 1982.

Guy C. McElroy, Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940, Bedford Arts, 1991.

Also contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals and journals, including Antioch Review, Black American Literature Forum, Black World, Critical Inquiry, The New Yorker, New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Southern Review, and Yale Review.

Television

The Image of the Black in the Western Imagination, PBS, 1982.

Wonders of the African World, PBS, 1999.

America beyond the Color Line, PBS, 2004.

African American Lives, PBS, 2006.

Oprah's Roots, PBS, 2007.

African American Lives 2, PBS, 2008.

Sources

Periodicals

America, May 31, 1997.

Art in America, September 1990.

Black Issues in Higher Education, November 12, 1998; February 4, 1999; November 25, 1999; March 1, 2001; February 28, 2002.

Book, November-December, 2002.

Booklist, February 15, 1997; May 1, 1997; February 15, 1999; February 15, 2001.

Business Wire, May 1, 2001; November 15, 2007.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 5, 2008.

Critical Inquiry, Summer, 1999.

The Economist, August 7, 1999; January 15, 2000.

Entertainment Weekly, December 21, 2007.

Essence, November 1990.

Jet, November 5, 1990; October 25, 1999; August 27, 2000; September 25, 2000; January 21, 2002.

Library Journal, November 1, 1990; February 1, 1991; July 1991; July, 2002.

Mother Jones, March 14, 2007.

National Post, June 29, 2002.

National Review, May 27, 1991; March 10, 1997.

Nation's Restaurant News, September 4, 2000.

New Republic, January 9, 1989; January 16, 1989.

Newsweek, September 23, 1991; February 19, 1997; November 1, 1999.

New York Times, November 12, 1989; June 19, 1990; February 10, 1991; May 4, 1991; June 23, 1991, October 18, 2006, November 25, 2007, January 28, 2008; February 1, 2008.

New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1984; July 7, 1985; July 3, 1988; August 14, 1988; February 26, 1989; March 25, 1990; May 12, 2002.

New York Times Magazine, April 1, 1990; December 9, 1990.

Publishers Weekly, January 18, 1991; June 20, 1994; September 27, 1999.

Sports Illustrated, August 19, 1991.

Time, April 22, 1991; February 3, 1992; February 26, 1999; April 21, 1997.

Washington Post, January 28, 2008.

Online

Davis, Timothy, "Who Was Hannah Crafts?," Salon, April 24, 2002, http://dir.salon.com/story/books/feature/2002/04/24/bondwoman/index.html (accessed April 14, 2008).

Silver, Mary, "African American National Biography Provides Intellectual Feast," Epoch Times, February 27, 2008, http://en.epochtimes.com/news/8-2-27/66654.html (accessed April 14, 2008).

Other

Ifill, Gwen, "Conversation: The Bondswoman's Narrative," Newshour, July 23, 2002, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/conversation/july-dec02/gates_7-23.html (accessed April 14, 2008).

—Rob Nagel, Christine Miner Minderovic,
and Derek Jacques

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Gates, Henry Louis Jr. 1950–

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 1950

Literary scholar, professor, critic

Found His Path

Rediscovered First African American Novel

Providing Literary History

Defined Black Literary Critical Approach

Defended 2 Live Crew

Attacked Black Representation and Separatism

Mainstream ed Africana

Selected writings

Sources

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Skip, is one of the most powerful academic voices in America. In 1997 Gates was voted one of Time Magazines 25 Most Influential Americans. An article in Time asserted, Combine the braininess of the legendary black scholar W.E.B. DuBois and the chutzpah of P.T. Bar-num, and the result is Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He is most recognized for his extensive research of African American history and literature, and for developing and expanding the African American Studies program at Harvard University. The first black to have received a Ph.D. from Cambridge, Gates is the author of many books, articles, essays, and reviews, and has received numerous a-wards and honorary degrees. Gates, who has displayed an endless dedication to bringing African-American culture to the public, has co-authored, co-edited, and produced some of the most comprehensive African-American reference materials in the country. Booklist declared that Gates is doing for African Americans in the U.S. what Tocqueville did for Europeans.

Gates was born on September 16, 1950, in Keyser, West Virginia, a city surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains. Gatess father, Henry Louis, Sr. worked at the local paper mill during the day, and worked at the telephone company as a janitor at night. His mother, Pauline Coleman Gates, cleaned houses in addition to caring for her two children. Gates described his father as being an extraordinary storyteller and credited his mother with instilling a great deal of self-confidence in both him and his brother. She was fascinated by the teachings of Malcolm X but also wanted her children to be able to work and live within an integrated society. Pauline was involved with her childrens education and was the first black PTA member in their community. As Louis entered his teenage years his mother began a long struggle with depression and was hospitalized. Profoundly affected, the young Gates made a deal with God: If his mother came home from the hospital, he would devote his life to Christ. His mother did come home and Gates became heavily involved with his church, but as the 1960s unfolded with race riots, assassinations, and anti-war movements, he turned his focus outward.

Found His Path

In 1964, when Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was 14 years old, he suffered a hairline fracture of the ball-and-socket

At a Glance

Born on September 16, 1950, in Keyser, WV; son of Henry Louis and Pauline Augusta Gates; married Sharon Lynn Adams, 1979; children: Maude, Elizabeth. Education: Yale University, BA, 1973; Clare Coll, Cambridge University (England), MA, 1974, PhD, 1979. Politics: Democrat Religion: Episcopalian.

Career: Time, London Bureau, staff correspondent, 1973-75; American Cyanamid Co., public relations, 1975; Yale, lecturer, 1976-79, assistant prof of English, 1979-84, director of dept of undergraduate Afro-American studies, 1979-85, assoc prof of English, 1984-85; Cornell Univ, prof of English and African Studies, 1985-90, W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Literature, 1988-90; Duke, John Spenser Bassett Professor of English, 1990-91; Harvard, W. E. B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities, 1991-, dept chair, African-American Studies, 1991. Created television series The Image of the Black in the Western Imagination, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 1982. Consultant to Menil Foundation.

Selected memberships: Union of Writers of the African Peoples; Afro-American Academy; Trans Africa Forum Scholars Council; Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and College Language Association (life); Modern Language Association; Zora Neale Hurston Society; ACLU National Advisory Council; Phi Beta Kappa.

Selected awards: Carnegie Foundation fellowship for Africa, 1970-71; National Endowment for the Humanities, 1980-86; A. Whitney Griswold fellowship, 1980; Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, 1981 and 1990; Yale Afro-American teaching prize, 1983; Amer Book Award and Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Race Relations, 1989; Best New Journal the Year award (in the humanities and the social sciences), Assn of Publishers, 1992; elected to the Amer Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1993; Heartland Prize for Nonfiction 1994; Humanities Award, WV Humanities Council, 1995; Distinguished Editorial Achievement, Critical inquiry, 1996; W.D. Weatherford Award; honorary degrees from Dartmouth Coll, 1989; Univ of WV, 1990; Univ of NH, 1991; Bryant Coll, 1992; George Washington Univ, 1993; Emory Univ, 1995.

Addresses: Office African-American Studies Department, Harvard University Cambridge, MA 02138. Agent Carl Brandt, Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, inc., 1501 Broadway New York, NY 10036.

joint of the hip while playing touch football in his hometown. He didnt realize the severity of the injury until a few weeks later when the joint sheared apart while he was walking. The white doctor who examined Gates shortly afterward questioned the boy about his injury as well as his career plans. When the young Gates replied that he wanted to be a doctor and then correctly answered many questions about science, the doctor made his diagnosis. He told Gates to stand and walk, and the young boy fell to the floor in intense pain. The doctor then turned to Gatess mother and explained that her sons problem was psychosomatica black boy from Appalachia who wanted to be a doctor in the mid-1960s was an overachiever. Years later Gates wrote in an article for the New York Times that overachiever designated a sort of pathology: the overstraining of your natural capacity. As a result of the misdiagnosis, Gatess right leg is more than two inches shorter than his left.

Since that time Gates has been trying to overcome not only his personal physical handicap but his races general metaphysical handicap as well. The most subtle and pernicious form of racism against blacks [is] doubt about our intellectual capacities, he explained to Maurice Berger in Art in America. Gates has easily dispelled such doubts, having earned some of the highest scholastic achievements and placing himself in a position to argue logically and eloquently for a multicultural approach to education.

To appreciate the contributions of African-Americans to the cultural history of America, for example, Gates believed one must understand the indigenous culture out of which those achievements arose. Since Gates felt that culture is always a conversation among different voices, as he wrote in the New York Times, it is the history of the black voice in black literature, with its repetition and revision of shared themes, topoi and tropes, the call and response of voices, their music and cacophony, that must be studied.

After having graduated summa cum laude from Yale University with a degree in history, Gates won fellowships to study at the Clare College of Cambridge University in England. It was there that he met the Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who became a mentor for Gates. Instructing him in the mythology and writings of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Soyinka convinced Gates to study literature, specifically African American literature and its lineage from and similarities to the literary traditions of Africa and the Caribbean.

Rediscovered First African American Novel

Almost immediately after his completion of a doctorate degree in English language and literature in 1979, Gates won acclaim for his critical essays on black literature. In 1981 the MacArthur Foundation recognized him as one of 21 gifted individuals, giving him a five-year grant totaling $150,000. It was his rediscovery and republication in 1983 of Harriet E. Wilsons Our Nig, the first novel published in the United States by a black person, however, that placed Gates at the forefront of black scholars. The novel was originally published in 1859 but was immediately ignored, only to later be labeled the work of a white man. Gatess almost archeological approach in verifying the original author helped extend the African-American literary tradition by more than 30 years.

Gatess Black Periodical Literature Project, begun in 1980, also benefited from the acclaim of Our Nig s republication. More money was consequently infused into the project, which exhumed nineteenth-century black literary works buried in periodicals. Spurred on by the belief of black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers that it is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhoodthe power of yes to the female within, as Gates quoted Spillers in the New York Times Book Review, he focused on the literary accomplishments of black women from that period, culminating in his editing the thirty-volume Schomburg Librari; of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, published in 1988. Eric J. Sundquist, critiquing the publication for the New York Times Book Review, believed it would alter the landscape of American cultural thought, demonstrating that black men and black women have never hesitated to grasp the pen and write their own powerful story of freedom.

But it has been Gatess critical approach, the definition of a black literary theory, that has attracted the most attention, including critics skepticism. In Black Literature and Literary Theory, published in 1984 and edited by Gates, he attacked the notion of the traditional, Eurocentric literary canon by proposing the establishment of a black literary canon. But Terry Eagleton, writing in the New York Times Book Review, maintained that the essays included in the book discourage such a notion; while enriching our perception of black literary works, he found they also implicitly question the authoritarianism of a literary canon.

Gates, however, has remained resolute in his belief. Long after white American literature has been anthologized and canonized, and recanonized, he stated in the New York Times Book Review, our efforts to define a black American canon are often decried as racist, separatist, nationalist, or essentialist. Gates further insists that the reason black works are not included is because the traditional canon is based on Western or European culture. He argues that most systems used to judge art are culturally specific. Black work cannot be appreciated or criticized on the basis of a Western cultural aesthetic. He told Art in Americas Berger there must be systems that account for the full complexity of American art, music, and literaturein all there multicolored strains. To say that black art is a thing apart, separate from the whole, is a racist fiction. We have to conceive a new aesthetic status for American art in all of its facets.

Providing Literary History

In addition to editing The Norton Anthology of African American Literature in 1998, Gates, an endless researcher, co-edited The Civitas Anthonology of African American Slave Narratives, a collection of ten stories, in 1999. Early in 2001, Gates, somewhat of a literary sleuth, purchased a manuscript at an auction from the private collection of the librarian at Howard University, Dorothy Porter Wesley. The handwritten manuscript, whose title page read, The Bondswomans Narrative, by Hannah Crafts, A Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped From North Carolina, fell into the right hands. At the time he purchased the manuscript, Gates, who was recovering from a series of hip surgeries and was confined to his home, had nothing but time to pour into this project. After many months of research to further authenticate the manuscript, Gates published the book. Gates declared to Book, that the book might be the first novel written by a black woman and definitely the first novel written by a woman who had been a slave.

Defined Black Literary Critical Approach

Gates tried to provide the basis on which to judge black literary works, defining their own cultural aesthetic, in his seminal work The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, a 1989 American Book Award winner. Gates proposed the theory that black writers, as Andrew Delbanco explained in the New Republic, throw off the oppressive weight of their predecessors by first incorporating, then transforming, them. Gates labels this parodie technique Signifyin(g)indicating the omission of the final g as is often done in the black vernacular. And it is in the black vernacular tradition that Gates locates the true black literary criticism.

Africans transported to America before the outlaw of slavery refused to learn the white slave owners language, thereby preventing assimilation into the fabricated caste system. They instead created their own version of that language to safeguard themselves. Signifying is verbal playserious play that serves as instruction, entertainment, mental exercise, preparation for interacting with friend or foe in the social arena, John Wideman pointed out in the New York Times Book Review. In black vernacular, Signifying is a sign that words cannot be trusted, that even the most literal utterance allows room for interpretation, that language is both carnival and minefield.

Parody and allusion, prevalent in African myths and African-American folktales, are intimate forms of this black vernacular verbal play, and the interpretive act is endless. Gates means that repetition, revision, and usurpation are as integral to black street talk as they are to Western poetry, Delbanco wrote. Therefore, to understand black literary works, Gates argues, one must understand the purposes behind the black vernacular tradition of endlessly playing against itselfvarying, revising, extending. An example of signifying that Gates cites is a line from a monologue by H. Rap Brown: Aint nothing bad bout you but your breath. Delbanco noted that the word bad in this instance is simultaneously an endorsement and a reversal of the conventional meaning of the word in white usage. Both meanings, white and black, are present. The word is thereby enriched.

Defended 2 Live Crew

Gates called on this tradition of language as a game in helping to defend the rap group 2 Live Crew against obscenity charges in Florida in 1990. He wrote in the New York Times that 2 Live Crews exuberant use of hyperbole (phantasmagoric sexual organs, for example) underminesfor anyone fluent in black cultural codesa too literal-minded hearing of the lyrics. This is the street tradition called signifying or playing the dozens, which has generally been risque. Gates further tied the groups approach to the black mythic tradition, explaining to a reporter from Jet that in 2 Live Crews music what you hear is great humor, great joy, and great boisterousness. Its a joke. Its a parody and parody is one of the most venerated forms of art.

It is the lack of understanding in American society of the function and value of this black tradition, Gates believes, that has fostered intellectual racisma tone deafness to the black cultural voice. Gates does not call for the precedence of black culture over its Western counterpart. I wouldnt want to get rid of anything in [the Western] tradition, he told Breena Clarke and Susan Tifft of Time. I think the Western tradition has been a marvelous, wonderful tradition. But its not the only tradition full of great ideas. Gates argues instead for an understanding and appreciation of the logical interconnection of cultural works, of their integrated diversity: 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, he commented in the New York Times Book Review. 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.

Attacked Black Representation and Separatism

The absence of black works in the artistic cultural milieu, according to Gates, is coupled with an improper depiction in the popular cultural environment. Gates is disturbed not only by the representation of blacks on televisiona very poor index to our social advancement or political progress, he wrote in the New York Times but also by blacks attitude toward education and athletics. Imbued with a belief that our principal avenue to fame and profit is through sport, and seduced by a win-at-any-cost system that corrupts even elementary school students, far too many black kids treat basketball courts and football fields as if they were classrooms in an alternative school system, Gates wrote in Sports Illustrated. Education is crucial, Gates explained to V. R. Peterson in Essence, to combat damaging racial stereotypes and beliefs: I find the lack of knowledge about Black people that Black people have distressing. What I think of as intellectual racismthe idea that Blacks are innately inferiorwill be countered if each of us is an authentic scholar.

But Gates decries any type of education that focuses on only one culture. He believes that schools set up to teach only an Afrocentric curriculum merely perpetuate racist cultural attitudes. Bogus theories of sun and ice people, and the individual scapegoating of other ethnic groups, only resurrects the worst of 19th-century racist pseudosciencewhich too many of the pharaohs of Afrocentrism have accepted without realizing, Gates explained in Newsweek. He also condemns the belief that only blacks can teach or write about black culture. I think thats ridiculous, he told Times Clarke and Tifft. Its as ridiculous as if someone said I couldnt appreciate [writer William] Shakespeare because Im not Anglo-Saxon. I think its vulgar and racist whether it comes out of a black mouth or a white mouth.

In Time magazine Robert Hughes once described America as a place filled with diversity, unsettled histories, images impinging on one another and spawning unexpected shapes. Its polyphony of voices, its constant eddying of claims to identity, is one of the things that makes America America. For this to continue, Gates believes, it is imperative that there is tolerance and understanding across cultural lines: The challenge facing America will be the shaping of a truly common public culture, one responsive to the long-silenced cultures of color, he declared in the New York Times. If we relinquish the ideal of America as a plural nation, weve abandoned the very experiment America represents.

Mainstream ed Africana

In 1991, Gates became the chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University. At the time the department was an academic wasteland: One professor, who was white, and a handful of students. In a matter of a few years, Gates managed to bring some of the most prominent black intellectuals in the country to his department including, Cornel West, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and William Julius Wilson. Gates told Richard Newman, writing for Publishers Weekly,This is all about redefining the very meaning of America. Anglo-American regional culture is simply not universal. Were helping to create a new cultural consciousness, one thats pluralistic and diverse.

Education and familiarity provide the means to achieve a more tolerant perspective. With this in mind, Gates has used cutting-edge technology and some of the most popular media and corporate resources available to educate the public. For example, when the McDonalds corporation dedicated the year 2000 to promote African-American heritage, Gates wrote a two volume booklet set, Little Known Black History Facts, that was offered for sale with a meal purchase. In the early 1970s, Gates, along with some colleagues, made a pact to fulfil a dream of the late W.E.B. DuBois: to publish the black equivalent to the Encyclopedia Britannica. After almost 25 years, and after much trial and tribulation, the project was finished. Microsoft produced a CD-ROM version of the encyclopedia, Encarta Africana and Perseus published the print version, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience.

In 1999 Gates launched Africana.com, a web site created to provide corrections and revisions to Encarta Africana but the site became so popular, that Gates expanded the site. The following year, Africana.com was purchased by AOL Time Warner. He also joined the advisory board of Digital Learning Interactive, an interactive online learning resource, and developed a comprehensive course on the Harlem Renaissance. Another impressive educational project was his six-part mini series for PBS, The Wonders of the African World. Gates assembled a team of dedicated intellectuals who traveled through 12 African countries over a period of one year, gathering and examining evidence of past African cultures. Gates explained to Jet, As a black American, I know what its like to have your history stolen from you. I wanted to bring this lost African world into the consciousness of the larger public, Black and White. Time quoted Gerald Early, the director of African and Afro-American studies at Washington University in St, Louis, Skip Gates has legitimized black studies in the mainstream.

Selected writings

Author

(With James Gibbs and Ketu H. Katrak) Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, Greenwood Press, 1986.

Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self, Oxford University Press, 1987.

The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Editor

Black Is the Color of the Cosmos: Charles T. Daviss Essays on Black Literature and Culture, 1942-1981, Garland Publishing, 1982.

Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black, Random House, 1983.

Black Literature and Literary Theory, Methuen, 1984.

(With Charles T. Davis) The Slaves Narrative: Texts and Contexts, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Race, Writing, and Difference, University of Chicago Press, 1986.

The Classic Slave Narratives, New American Library, 1987.

The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, thirty volumes, Oxford University Press, 1988.

In the House of Osubgo: Critical Essays on Wole Soyinka, Oxford University Press, 1989.

(With others) The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature, Norton, 1990, 1999.

Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Literary Critical Anthology, New American Library, 1990.

Three Classic African-American Novels, Random, 1990.

(With George H. Bass) Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, HarperCollins, 1991.

Bearing Witness: Selections from 150 Years of African-American Autobiography, Pantheon, 1991.

(With Kwame Anthony Appiah) Dictionary of Global Culture, Knopf, 1997.

(With William L. Andrews) The Civitas Anthology of African American Slave Narratives, Counterpoint Civitas, 1999.

(With Carl Pederson) Black Imagination and the Middle Passage, Oxford, 1999.

(With others) Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, Perseus, 1999.

Contributor

Herbert Sacks, editor, The Book of Hurdles, Ath-eneum, 1978.

Robert Stepto and Dexter Fisher, editors, Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, Modern Language Association of America, 1979.

William H. Robinson, editor, Critical Essays on Phyllis Wheatley, G. K. Hall, 1982.

Guy C. McElroy, Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940, Bedford Arts, 1991.

Also contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals and journals, including Antioch Review, Black American Literature Forum, Black World, Critical Inquiry, The New Yorker, New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Southern Review, and Yale Review. Member of board of editors of American Quarterly, Black American Literature Forum, Cultural Critique, Proteus, and Studies in American Fiction; member of board of directors of Critical Inquiry and Diacritics; advisory editor to Contributions to African and Afro-American Studies and Studies on Black Life and Culture.

Sources

America, May 31, 1997.

Art in America, September 1990.

Black Issues in Higher Education, November 12, 1998; February 4, 1999; November 25, 1999; March 1, 2001; February 28, 2002.

Book, November-December, 2002.

Booklist, February 15, 1997; May 1, 1997; February 15, 1999; February 15, 2001. Business Wire, May 1, 2001.

The Economist, August 7, 1999; January 15, 2000.

Essence, November 1990.

Critical Inquiry, Summer, 1999.

Jet, November 5, 1990; October 25, 1999; August 27, 2000; September 25, 2000; January 21, 2002.

Library Journal, November 1, 1990; February 1, 1991; July 1991; July, 2002.

National Post, June 29, 2002.

Nations Restaurant News, September 4, 2000.

National Review, May 27, 1991; March 10, 1997.

New Republic, January 9, 1989; January 16, 1989.

Newsweek, September 23, 1991; February 19, 1997; November 1, 1999.

New York Times, November 12, 1989; June 19, 1990; February 10, 1991; May 4, 1991; June 23, 1991.

New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1984; July 7, 1985; July 3, 1988; August 14, 1988; February 26, 1989; March 25, 1990.

New York Times Magazine, April 1, 1990; December 9, 1990.

Publishers Weekly, January 18, 1991; June 20, 1994; September 27, 1999.

Sports Illustrated, August 19, 1991.

Time, April 22, 1991; February 3, 1992; February 26, 1999; April 21, 1997.

Rob Nagel and Christine Miner Minderovic

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Gates, Henry Louis Jr. 1950–

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 1950

Literary scholar, professor, critic

At a Glance

Defined Black Literary Critical Approach

Defended 2 Live Crew

Attacked Black Representation and Separatism

Selected writings

Sources

In 1964, when Henry Louis Gates Jr. was 14 years old, he suffered a hairline fracture of the ball-and-socket joint of the hip while playing touch football in his hometown of Piedmont, West Virginia. He didnt realize the severity of the injury until a few weeks later when the joint sheared apart while he was walking.

The white doctor who examined Gates shortly afterward questioned the boy about his injury as well as his career plans. When the young Gates replied that he wanted to be a doctor and then correctly answered many questions about science, the doctor made his diagnosis. He told Gates to stand and walk, and the young boy fell to the floor in intense pain. The doctor then turned to Gatess mother and explained that her sons problem was psychosomatica black boy from Appalachia who wanted to be a doctor in the mid-1960s was an overachiever. Years later Gates wrote in an article for the New York Times that overachiever designated a sort of pathology: the overstraining of your natural capacity. As a result of the misdiagnosis, Gatess right leg is more than two inches shorter than his left.

Since that time Gates has been trying to overcome not only his personal physical handicap but the societal handicap of racism as well. The most subtle and pernicious form of racism against blacks [is] doubt about our intellectual capacities, he explained to Maurice Berger in Art in America. Gates has easily dispelled such doubts, having earned some of the highest scholastic achievements and placing himself in a position to argue logically and eloquently for a multicultural approach to education.

To appreciate the contributions of African-Americans to the cultural history of America, for example, Gates believes one must understand the indigenous culture out of which those achievements arose. Since Gates feels that culture is always a conversation among different voices, as he wrote in the New York Times, it is the history of the black voice in black literature, with its recurring themes, figurative expressions, lyricism, and dissonance, that must be studied.

After having graduated summa cum laude from Yale University with a degree in history, Gates won fellowships to study at the Clare College of Cambridge University in England. It was there that he met the Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who became a mentor for Gates. Instructing him in the mythology and writings of

At a Glance

Born September 16, 1950, in Keyser, WV; son of Henry Louis (a paper loader) and Pauline Augusta (Coleman) Gates; married Sharon Lynn Adams, September 1, 1979; children: Maude, Elizabeth. Education : Yale University, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1973; Clare College, Cambridge University (England), M.A., 1974, Ph.D., 1979. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Episcopalian.

Time, London Bureau, staff correspondent, 1973-75; American Cyanamid Co., public relations representative, 1975; Yale University, New Haven, CT, lecturer, 1976-79, assistant professor of English, 1979-84, director of department of undergraduate Afro-American studies, 1979-85, associate professor of English, 1984-85; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, professor of English and African Studies, 1985-90, W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature, 1988-90; Duke University, Durham, NC, John Spenser Bassett Professor of English, 1990-91; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, W.E.B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities, 1991, chair of department of African-American Studies, 1991.Created television series The Image of the Black in the Western Imagination, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 1982. Consultant to Menil Foundation.

Member: International PEN, Afro-American Academy (president), Modern Language Association.

Awards: Grants from National Endowment for the Humanities, 1980-84, and MacArthur Foundation, 1981-86; Rockefeller Foundation fellow, 1981; American Book Award, 1989, for The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism; Anisfield-Wolfe Book Award, 1989.

Addresses: Office African-American Studies Department, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138. AgentCarl Brandt, Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc., 1501 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.

the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Soyinka convinced Gates to study literature, specifically African-American literature and its lineage from and similarities to the literary traditions of Africa and the Caribbean.

Almost immediately after his completion of a doctorate degree in English language and literature in 1979, Gates won acclaim for his critical essays on black literature. In 1981 the MacArthur Foundation recognized him as one of 21 gifted individuals, giving him a five-year grant totaling $150,000. It was his rediscovery and republication in 1983 of Harriet E. Wilsons Our Nig, the first novel published in the United States by a black person, however, that placed Gates at the forefront of black scholars. The novel was originally published in 1859 but immediately ignored, only to later be labeled the work of a white man. Gatess almost archeological approach in verifying the original author helped extend the African-American literary tradition by more than 30 years.

Gatess Black Periodical Literature Project, begun in 1980, also benefitted from the acclaim of Our Nigs republication. More money was consequently infused into the project, which exhumed nineteenth-century black literary works buried in periodicals. Spurred on by the belief of black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers that it is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhoodthe power of yes to the female within, as Gates quoted Spillers in the New York Times Book Review, he focused on the literary accomplishments of black women from that period, culminating in his editing the thirty-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, published in 1988. Eric J. Sundquist, critiquing the publication for the New York Times Book Review, believed it would alter the landscape of American cultural thought, demonstrating that black men and black women have never hesitated to grasp the pen and write their own powerful story of freedom.

But it has been Gatess critical approach, the definition of a black literary theory, that has attracted the most attention, including critics skepticism. In Black Literature and Literary Theory, published in 1984 and edited by Gates, he attacked the notion of the traditional, Eurocentric literary canon by proposing the establishment of a black literary canon. But Terry Eagleton, writing in the New York Times Book Review, maintained that the essays included in the book discourage such a notion; while enriching our perception of black literary works, he found they also implicitly question the authoritarianism of a literary canon.

Gates, however, has remained resolute in his belief. Long after white American literature has been anthologized and canonized, and recanonized, he stated in the New York Times Book Review, our efforts to define a black American canon are often decried as racist, separatist, nationalist, or essentialist. Gates further insists that the reason black works are not included is because the traditional canon is based on Western or European culture. He argues that most systems used to judge art are culturally specific. Black work cannot be appreciated or criticized on the basis of a Western cultural aesthetic. He told Art in Americas Berger there must be systems that account for the full complexity of American art, music, and literaturein all their multicolored strains. To say that black art is a thing apart, separate from the whole, is a racist fiction. We have to conceive a new aesthetic status for American art in all of its facets.

Defined Black Literary Critical Approach

Gates tried to provide the basis on which to judge black literary works, defining their own cultural aesthetic, in his seminal work The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, a 1989 American Book Award winner. Gates proposed the theory that black writers, as Andrew Delbanco explained in the New Republic, throw off the oppressive weight of their predecessors by first incorporating, then transforming, them. Gates labels this parodic technique Signifyin(g)indicating the omission of the final g as is often done in the black vernacular. And it is in the black vernacular tradition that Gates locates the true black literary criticism.

Africans transported to America before the outlaw of slavery refused to learn the white slave owners language, thereby preventing assimilation into the fabricated caste system. According to Gates, they instead created their own version of that language to safeguard themselves. Signifying is verbal playserious play that serves as instruction, entertainment, mental exercise, preparation for interacting with friend or foe in the social arena, John Wideman pointed out in the New York Times Book Review. In black vernacular, Signifying is a sign that words cannot be trusted, that even the most literal utterance allows room for interpretation, that language is both carnival and minefield.

Parody and allusion, prevalent in African myths and African-American folktales, are intimate forms of this black vernacular verbal play, and the interpretive act is endless. Gates means that repetition, revision, and usurpation are as integral to black street talk as they are to Western poetry, Delbanco wrote. Therefore, to understand black literary works, Gates argues, one must understand the purposes behind the black vernacular tradition of endlessly playing against itselfvarying, revising, extending. An example of signifying that Gates cites is a line from a monologue by H. Rap Brown: Aint nothing bad bout you but your breath. Delbanco noted that the word bad in this instance is simultaneously an endorsement and a reversal of the conventional meaning of the word in white usage. Both meanings, white and black, are present. The word is thereby enriched.

Defended 2 Live Crew

Gates called on this tradition of language as a game in helping to defend the rap group 2 Live Crew against obscenity charges in Florida in 1990. He wrote in the New York Times that 2 Live Crews exuberant use of hyperbole (phantasmagoric sexual organs, for example) underminesfor anyone fluent in black cultural codesa too literal-minded hearing of the lyrics. This is the street tradition called signifying or playing the dozens, which has generally been risque. Gates further tied the groups approach to the black mythic tradition, explaining to a reporter from Jet that in 2 Live Crews music what you hear is great humor, great joy, and great boisterousness. Its a joke. Its a parody and parody is one of the most venerated forms of art.

It is the lack of understanding in American society of the function and value of this black tradition, Gates believes, that has fostered intellectual racisma tone deafness to the black cultural voice. Gates does not call for the precedence of black culture over its Western counterpart. I wouldnt want to get rid of anything in [the Western] tradition, he told Breena Clarke and Susan Tifft of Time. I think the Western tradition has been a marvelous, wonderful tradition. But its not the only tradition full of great ideas. Gates argues instead for an understanding and appreciation of the logical interconnection of cultural works, of their integrated diversity: 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, he commented in the New York Times Book Review. 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.

Attacked Black Representation and Separatism

The absence of black works in the artistic cultural milieu, according to Gates, is coupled with an improper depiction in the popular cultural environment. Gates is disturbed not only by the representation of blacks on televisiona very poor index to our social advancement or political progress, he wrote in the New York Times but also by blacks attitudes toward education and athletics. Imbued with a belief that our principal avenue to fame and profit is through sport, and seduced by a win-at-any-cost system that corrupts even elementary school students, far too many black kids treat basketball courts and football fields as if they were classrooms in an alternative school system, Gates wrote in Sports Illustrated. Education is crucial, Gates explained to V. R. Peterson in Essence, to combat damaging racial stereotypes and beliefs: I find the lack of knowledge about Black people that Black people have distressing. What I think of as intellectual racismthe idea that Blacks are innately inferiorwill be countered if each of us is an authentic scholar.

But Gates decries any type of education that focuses on only one culture. He believes that schools set up to teach only an Afrocentric curriculum merely perpetuate racist cultural attitudes. Bogus theories of sun and ice people, and the individual scapegoating of other ethnic groups, only resurrects the worst of 19th-century racist pseudosciencewhich too many of the pharaohs of Afrocentrism have accepted without realizing, Gates explained in Newsweek. He also condemns the belief that only blacks can teach or write about black culture. I think thats ridiculous, he told Times Clarke and Tifft. Its as ridiculous as if someone said I couldnt appreciate [writer William] Shakespeare because Im not Anglo-Saxon. I think its vulgar and racist whether it comes out of a black mouth or a white mouth.

In Time magazine Robert Hughes once described America as a place filled with diversity, unsettled histories, images impinging on one another and spawning unexpected shapes. Its polyphony of voices, its constant eddying of claims to identity, is one of the things that makes America America. For this to continue, Gates believes, it is imperative that there is tolerance and understanding across cultural lines: The challenge facing America will be the shaping of a truly common public culture, one responsive to the long-silenced cultures of color, he declared in the New York Times. If we relinquish the ideal of America as a plural nation, weve abandoned the very experiment America represents.

Selected writings

Author

(With James Gibbs and Ketu H. Katrak) Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, Greenwood Press, 1986.

Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self, Oxford University Press, 1987.

The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Editor

Black Is the Color of the Cosmos: Charles T. Daviss Essays on Black Literature and Culture, 1942-1981, Garland Publishing, 1982.

Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black, Random House, 1983.

Black Literature and Literary Theory, Methuen, 1984.

(With Charles T. Davis) The Slaves Narrative: Texts and Contexts, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Race, Writing, and Difference, University of Chicago Press, 1986.

The Classic Slave Narratives, New American Library, 1987.

The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, thirty volumes, Oxford University Press, 1988.

(With others) The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature, Norton, 1990.

Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Literary Critical Anthology, New American Library, 1990.

Three Classic African-American Novels, Random, 1990.

(With George H. Bass) Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, HarperCollins, 1991.

Bearing Witness: Selections from 150 Years of African-American Autobiography, Pantheon, 1991.

Contributor

Herbert Sacks, editor, The Book of Hurdles, Atheneum, 1978.

Robert Stepto and Dexter Fisher, editors, Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, Modern Language Association of America, 1979.

William H. Robinson, editor, Critical Essays on Phyllis Wheatley, G. K. Hall, 1982.

Guy C. McElroy, Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940, Bedford Arts, 1991.

Also contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals and journals, including Antioch Review, Black American Literature Forum, Black World, Critical Inquiry, New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Southern Review, and Yale Review. Member of board of editors of American Quarterly, Black American Literature Forum, Cultural Critique, Proteus, and Studies in American Fiction; member of board of directors of Critical Inquiry and Diacritics; advisory editor to Contributions to African and Afro-American Studies and Studies on Black Life and Culture.

Sources

Art in America, September 1990.

Essence, November 1990.

Jet, November 5, 1990.

Library Journal, November 1, 1990; February 1, 1991; July 1991.

National Review, May 27, 1991.

New Republic, January 9 & 16, 1989.

Newsweek, September 23, 1991.

New York Times, November 12, 1989; June 19, 1990; February 10, 1991; May 4, 1991; June 23, 1991.

New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1984; July 7, 1985; July 3, 1988; August 14, 1988; February 26, 1989; March 25, 1990.

New York Times Magazine, April 1,1990; December 9, 1990.

Publishers Weekly, January 18, 1991.

Sports Illustrated, August 19, 1991.

Time, April 22, 1991; February 3, 1992.

Rob Nagel

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"Gates, Henry Louis Jr. 1950–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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