Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Henry Louis Gates 2014 (cropped).jpg
Gates with his Peabody Award for his documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
Born September 16, 1950 (age 65)
Keyser, West Virginia, US
Occupation Author, documentary filmmaker, essayist, literary critic, professor
Alma mater Yale University (BA)
Clare College, Cambridge (PhD)
Genre Essay, history, literature
Subject African American Studies
Spouse Sharon Lynn Adams (1979–?)
Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. (born September 16, 1950 in Keyser, West Virginia) is an American historian, literary critic, filmmaker and public intellectual who currently serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He has discovered what are considered the first books by African-American writers, both of them women, and has published extensively on appreciating African-American literature as part of the Western canon.
In addition to producing and hosting previous series on the history and genealogy of prominent American figures, since 2012 Gates has been host for three seasons of the series Finding Your Roots on PBS. It combines the work of expert researchers in genealogy, history, and genetics historic research to tell guests about their ancestors' lives and histories.
1 Early life and education
2 Personal life
4 Other activities
5 "Ending the Slavery Blame-Game" op-ed
6 Cambridge arrest
7 Awards and honors
Early life and education
Gates was born in Keyser, West Virginia, to Henry Louis Gates, Sr. and his wife Pauline Augusta (Coleman) Gates. He grew up in neighboring Piedmont. His father worked in a paper mill and moonlighted as a janitor, while his mother cleaned houses, as described in his memoir Colored People (1994).
He has learned through contemporary research that his family is descended in part from the Yoruba people in the present-day country of Benin. He also has European ancestry, and is connected to the distinctive multiracial West Virginia community of the Chestnut Ridge people.
At the age of 14 Gates was injured playing touch football, fracturing the ball and socket joint of his hip, resulting in a slipped capital femoral epiphysis. The injury was misdiagnosed by a physician, who told Gates' mother that his problem was psychosomatic. When the physical damage finally healed, his right leg was two inches shorter than his left. Because of the injury, Gates now uses a cane to help him walk.
Gates graduated from Piedmont High School in 1968 and attended Potomac State College of West Virginia University. He completed his BA degree in History at Yale University, summa cum laude. The first African American to be awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship, Gates sailed on the Queen Elizabeth 2 for England and University of Cambridge, where he studied English literature at Clare College, Cambridge and earned his PhD.
Gates married Sharon Lynn Adams in 1979. They had two daughters together before they divorced.
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 his doctoral dissertation. Jointly appointed to assistant professorships in English and Afro-American Studies in 1979, Gates was promoted to Associate Professor in 1984.
In 1984, Gates was recruited by Cornell University with an offer of tenure; Gates asked Yale if they would match Cornell's offer, but they declined. Gates moved to Cornell in 1985, where he taught until 1989. Following a two-year stay at Duke University, he was recruited to Harvard University in 1991. At Harvard, Gates teaches undergraduate and graduate courses as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, an endowed chair he was appointed to in 2006, and as Professor of English. Additionally, he is the Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research.
As a literary theorist and critic, Gates has combined literary techniques of deconstruction with native African literary traditions; he draws on structuralism, post-structuralism, and semiotics to analyze texts and assess matters of identity politics. As a black intellectual and public figure, Gates has been an outspoken critic of the Eurocentric literary canon. He has insisted that black literature must be evaluated by the aesthetic criteria of its culture of origin, not criteria imported from Western or European cultural traditions that express a "tone deafness to the black cultural voice" and result in "intellectual racism". In his major scholarly work, The Signifying Monkey, a 1989 American Book Award winner, Gates expressed what might constitute a black cultural aesthetic. The work extended application of the concept of "signifyin'" to analysis of African-American works; it rooted African-American literary criticism in the African-American vernacular tradition.
While Gates has stressed the need for greater recognition of black literature and black culture, he does not advocate a "separatist" black canon. Rather, he works for greater recognition of black works and their integration into a larger, pluralistic canon. He has affirmed the value of the Western tradition, but has envisioned a more inclusive canon of diverse works sharing common cultural connections: "Every black American text must confess to a complex ancestry, one high and low (that is, literary and vernacular) but also one white and black...there can be no doubt that white texts inform and influence black texts (and vice versa), so that a thoroughly integrated canon of American literature is not only politically sound, it is intellectually sound as well."
Gates has argued that a separatist, Afrocentric education perpetuates racist stereotypes. He maintains that it is "ridiculous" to think that only blacks should be scholars of African and African-American literature. He argues, "It can't be real as a subject if you have to look like the subject to be an expert in the subject, adding, "It's as ridiculous as if someone said I couldn't appreciate Shakespeare because I'm not Anglo-Saxon. I think it's vulgar and racist whether it comes out of a black mouth or a white mouth."
As a mediator between those advocating separatism and those believing in a Western canon, Gates has been criticized by both. Some critics suggest that adding black literature will diminish the value of the Western canon, while separatists say that Gates is too accommodating to the dominant white culture in his advocacy of integration of the canon. Gates has been criticized by John Henrik Clarke, Molefi Asante and the controversial Maulana Karenga, each of whom has been questioned by others in academia.
As a literary historian committed to the preservation and study of historical texts, Gates has been integral to the Black Periodical Literature Project, a digital archive of black newspapers and magazines created with financial assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities. To build Harvard's visual, documentary, and literary archives of African-American texts, Gates arranged for the purchase of The Image of the Black in Western Art, a collection assembled by Dominique de Ménil in Houston.
As a result of research as a MacArthur Fellow, Gates discovered Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson, written in 1859 and now considered the first novel in the United States written by a black person. He acquired and authenticated the manuscript of The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts, a novel from the same period that scholars believe may have been written as early as 1853. It would have precedence as the first-known novel written by a black person in the United States. (Note: Clotel (1853) is recognized as the first novel published by an African American but William Wells Brown wrote and published it in London.) The Bondwoman's Narrative was first published in 2002 and became a bestseller.
As a prominent black intellectual, Gates has concentrated on building academic institutions to study black culture. Additionally, he has worked to bring about social, educational, and intellectual equality for black Americans. His writing includes pieces in The New York Times that defend rap music, and an article in Sports Illustrated that criticizes black youth culture for glorifying basketball over education. In 1992, he received a George Polk Award for his social commentary in The New York Times. Gates' prominence has led to his being called as a witness on behalf of the controversial Florida rap group 2 Live Crew in an obscenity case. He argued that the material, which the government charged was profane, had important roots in African American Vernacular English, games, and literary traditions, and should be protected.
Asked by National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Bruce Cole to describe his work, Gates responded: "I would say I'm a literary critic. That's the first descriptor that comes to mind. After that I would say I was a teacher. Both would be just as important." After his 2003 NEH lecture, Gates published his 2003 book, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley.
In 1995 Gates presented a program in the BBC series Great Railway Journeys (produced in association with PBS). The program documents a 3000-mile journey Gates took through Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, with his then-wife Sharon Adams and daughters Liza and Meggie Gates. This trip came 25 years after Gates worked at a hospital in Kilimatinde near Dodoma, Tanzania, as a 19-year-old pre-medical student at Yale University.
In September 1995, Gates read a five-part abridgement (by Margaret Busby) of his memoir Colored People on BBC Radio 4.
Gates was the host and co-producer of African American Lives (2006) and African American Lives 2 (2008) in which the lineage of more than a dozen notable African Americans is traced using genealogical and historic resources, as well as genealogical DNA testing. In the first series, Gates learned that he has 50% European ancestry and 50% African ancestry, He had known of some European ancestry but was surprised to learn the high proportion; he also learned that he was descended from John Redman, a mulatto veteran in New England of the American Revolutionary War. Gates has joined the Sons of the American Revolution. In the series, he discussed findings with guests about their complex ancestries.
In the second season, Gates learned that he is part of a genetic subgroup possibly descended from or related to the fourth-century Irish king, Niall of the Nine Hostages. He also learned that his African ancestors included the Yoruba people of Nigeria. The two series 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 of diverse ancestry: Elizabeth Alexander, Mario Batali, Stephen Colbert, Louise Erdrich, Malcolm Gladwell, Eva Longoria, Yo-Yo Ma, Mike Nichols, Queen Noor of Jordan, Mehmet Oz, Meryl Streep, and Kristi Yamaguchi.
Since 1995, Gates has been the jury chair for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, which honors written works that contribute to society's understanding of racism and the diversity of human culture. Gates was an Anisfield-Wolf prize winner in 1989 for The Schomburg Library of Women Writers.
Since 2012 he has hosted a PBS TV series, called Finding Your Roots – with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. The second season of the series, featuring 30 prominent guests across 10 episodes, with Gates as the narrator, interviewer, and genealogical investigator, aired on PBS in Fall 2014. The show's third season was postponed after it was discovered that actor Ben Affleck had persuaded Gates to omit information about his slave-owning ancestors. Finding Your Roots resumed in January 2016.
Gates's critically acclaimed six-part PBS documentary series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, traced 500 years of African-American history to the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. Gates wrote, executive produced, and hosted the series, which earned the 2013 Peabody Award and NAACP Image Award.
"Ending the Slavery Blame-Game" op-ed
In 2010, Gates wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that discussed the role played by Africans in the slave trade. In an article for Newsweek, journalist Lisa Miller reported on the reaction to Gates' article:
The enemy of individuality is groupthink, Gates says, and here he holds everyone accountable. Recently, he has enraged many of his colleagues in the African-American studies field—especially those campaigning for government reparations for slavery—by insistently reminding them, as he did in a New York Times op-ed last year, that the folks who captured and sold blacks into slavery in the first place were also Africans, working for profit. "People wanted to kill me, man", Gates says of the reaction to that op-ed. "Black people were so angry at me. But we need to get some distance from the binary opposition we were raised in: evil white people and good black people. The world just isn't like that."
Lolita Buckner Inniss, a professor at the Cleveland–Marshall College of Law, wrote a letter to The New York Times in response to the Gates' piece. She argued that regardless of who did the capturing, it was white people who created the market for African slaves and perpetuated the practice even after the import trade was banned. "Up until that recent piece, people would have thought of him as someone who took a cautious and nuanced approach to questions like reparations." Gates has such an eminent reputation, she said, and "so much gravitas. Many of us were troubled."
Gates' op-ed begins and ends with the observation that it is very difficult to decide whether or not to give reparations to the descendants of American slaves, whether they should receive compensation for their ancestors' unpaid labor and lack of rights. Gates also notes that it is equally difficult to decide who should get such reparations and who should pay them, as slavery was legal under the laws of the colonies and the United States.
Main article: Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy
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 passerby called police reporting a possible break-in after reporting to 911 "an individual" forcing the front door open. A Cambridge police officer was dispatched. The confrontation resulted in Gates being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Prosecutors later dropped the charges. The incident spurred a politically charged exchange of views about race relations and law enforcement throughout the United States. The arrest attracted national attention after U.S. President Barack Obama declared that the police "acted stupidly" in arresting the 59-year-old Gates. The President eventually extended an invitation to both Gates and the officer involved to share a beer with him at the White House.
On March 9, 2010, Gates claimed on The Oprah Winfrey Show that he, Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer in the Cambridge incident; and Jonathan Johnson (Deputy Comptroller) all share a common ancestor, an ancient Irish king, Niall of the Nine Hostages.
Awards and honors
Gates has received 53 honorary degrees and numerous academic and social action awards.
Gates was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1981.
In 1989, Gates won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for editing the 30 volumes of "The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers."
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. Gates' lecture was entitled "Mister Jefferson and the Trials of Phillis Wheatley." 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).
Gates received the National Humanities Medal in 1998.
He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999.
He received the 2008 Ralph Lowell Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the highest honor in the field of public television.
On October 23, 2006, Gates was appointed the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor at Harvard University.
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 Library, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, HEAF (the Harlem Educational Activities Fund), and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, located in Stanford, California. 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 to John Redman, a free African American who fought in the Revolutionary War.
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. Knome performed the analysis as part of the "Faces of America" project.
Gates's six-part PBS documentary series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, which he wrote, executive produced, and hosted, earned the 2013 Peabody Award and NAACP Image Award.
In December 2014, Gates was announced as one of 14 recipients of a 2015 Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award for his documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.
Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self (First ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. 1987. ISBN 0-19-503564-X.
The Signifying Monkey (First ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. 1988. ISBN 0-19-503463-5. American Book Award
Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (First ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. 1992. ISBN 0-19-507519-6.
Colored People: A Memoir (First ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1994. ISBN 0-679-42179-3.
with Cornel West, The Future of the Race, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. ISBN 0-679-44405-X
with Nellie Y. McKay, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. W. W. Norton, 1996. ISBN 0-393-04001-1
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (First ed.). New York: Random House. 1997. ISBN 0-679-45713-5.
Wonders of the African World (First ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1999. ISBN 0-375-40235-7.
The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century (First ed.). New York: Free Press. 2000. ISBN 0-684-86414-2.
The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's first Black poet and her encounters with the founding fathers. New York: Basic Civitas Books. 2003. ISBN 0-465-02729-6.
Finding Oprah's Roots: Finding Your Own (First ed.). New York: Crown. 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-38238-2.
In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past. Crown. 2009. ISBN 978-0-307-38240-5.
Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary Americans Reclaimed Their Pasts. New York University Press. 2010. ISBN 978-0-8147-3264-9.
Tradition and the Black Atlantic: Critical Theory in the African Diaspora. Basic Civitas Books. 2010. ISBN 0-465-01410-0.
Black in Latin America. New York University Press. 2011. ISBN 978-0-8147-3298-4.
Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513–2008. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-59342-9.
The Henry Louis Gates Jr. Reader. Basic Civitas Books. 2012. ISBN 978-0465028313.
with Donald Yacavone, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, SmileyBooks, 2013. ISBN 978-1401935146
Finding Your Roots: The Official Companion to the PBS Series. The University of North Carolina Press. 2014. ISBN 978-0465028313.
with Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Dictionary of Global Culture. Vintage, 1998. ISBN 978-0-679-72985-3
Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (First ed.). New York: Basic Civitas Books. 1999. ISBN 0-465-00071-1.
Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman's Narrative. New York: Warner Books, 2002. ISBN 0-446-69029-5
with Hollis Robbins, Searching for Hannah Crafts: Essays in the Bondwoman's Narrative. New York: Basic/Civitas. 2004. ISBN 0-465-02714-8
with Hollis Robbins, The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin . New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. ISBN 978-0-393-05946-5
The African American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press. 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-516019-2.
with Donald Yacovone, Lincoln on Race and Slavery. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-691-14234-0
with Kwame Anthony Appiah, Encyclopedia of Africa: Two-Volume Set. Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN 0-19-533770-0
"Personal History: Family Matters". The New Yorker 84 (39): 34–38. December 1, 2008. Retrieved 2009-04-17.
Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., season two, writer, host, and executive producer. PBS, ten-part series, September–November 2014.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, writer, host, and executive producer. PBS, six-part series, October–November 2013.
Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., screenwriter, narrator, and co-producer. PBS, 10n-part series, March–May 2012.
Faces of America, screenwriter, narrator, and co-producer. Four-hour series, PBS, February 10 – March 3, 2010.
Looking for Lincoln, screenwriter, narrator, and co-producer. Two-hour program, PBS, February 11, 2009.
African American Lives 2, screenwriter, narrator, and co-producer. Four-hour series, PBS, February 6 and 13, 2008.
Oprah's Roots: An African American Lives Special, screenwriter, narrator, and co-producer. One-hour program, PBS, January 24, 2007.
African American Lives, screenwriter and narrator. Four-hour series, PBS, February 1 and 8, 2006.
America Beyond the Color Line, screenwriter and narrator. Four-hour series, BBC2./PBS, February 2 and 4, 2004.
Wonders of the African World, screenwriter and narrator. Six part-series, PBS, October 25–27, 1999 (shown as Into Africa on BBC-2 in the United Kingdom and South Africa, Summer 1999).
Leaving Cleaver: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Remembers Eldridge Cleaver, WGBH, 1999.
Wonders of the African World, screenwriter and narrator. Six-part series, BBC/PBS, 1998.
The Two Nations of Black America, screenwriter and host. In Frontline, WGBH-TV, February 11, 1998.
From Great Zimbabwe to Kilimatinde, screenwriter and narrator. In Great Rail Journeys, BBC/PBS, 1996.
From Great Zimbabwe to Kilimatinde, BBC/PBS, Great Railway Journeys, Narrator and Screenwriter, BBC/PBS, 1996.
The Two Nations of Black America, Host and Scriptwriter, Frontline, WGBH-TV, February 10, 1998.
Leaving Eldridge Cleaver, WGBH, 1999
Wonders of the African World, PBS, October 25–27, 1999 (six-part series)
Shown as Into Africa on BBC-2 in the United Kingdom and South Africa, Summer, 1999
Appiah, Anthony; Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (1999). Microsoft Encarta Africana Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Black History and Culture (First ed.). Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corp. ISBN 0-7356-0057-0. (CD-Rom)
Credited for his involvement in Unchained Memories (2003)
America Beyond the Color Line, Host and Scriptwriter (four-part series) PBS, 2004.
African American Lives, Host and Narrator, PBS, February 2006
African American Lives 2, Host and Narrator, PBS, February 2008
Looking For Lincoln, Host and Narrator, PBS, February 2009
Black in Latin America, PBS, Executive Producer, Writer and Presenter, PBS, April 19 – May 10, 2011
Finding Your Roots, PBS, Executive Producer, Writer and Host, PBS, 2012
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross mini series PBS, Executive Producer, Writer and Host, PBS, 2013
Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., season two, PBS, Executive Producer, Writer and Host, PBS, 2014.