By Mary Lou Beatty
“I’ve always thought of myself as both a literary historian and a literary critic,” says Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “someone who loves archives and someone who is dedicated to resurrecting texts that have dropped out of sight.”
Gates, this year’s Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, has been untiring in his quest. He has unearthed old periodicals, edited dictionaries and anthologies, and written a dozen books. For twenty years he and his colleagues have gathered fragments of a culture, amassing more than forty thousand texts for the Black Periodical Literature Project and enough material for fifty-two volumes on African American Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century for the Schomburg Center in New York. Gates’s latest effort is a multimedia digital encyclopedia of African culture, Encarta Africana.
His projects travel with him in many instances. They are the corollary of a teaching career that has taken him from Yale to Cornell to Duke to Harvard. Through all the work runs a concern with the ambivalence of race.
“I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups, that I can’t construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me,” he once wrote in an open letter to his daughters. “Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American?
So I’m divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time--but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color.”
It has been a remarkable journey from the mill town of Piedmont, West Virginia, where Gates grew up. After attending junior college in Piedmont, he studied at Yale and spent a year overseas working at a hospital in Africa. He was graduated summa cum laude in history in 1973 and went to Clare College at Cambridge University on a Mellon Fellowship. Gates earned a Ph.D. in English from Cambridge and became an assistant professor at Yale with a joint appointment in the English department and Afro-American studies. He is now the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research.
In 1981, when the MacArthur Foundation gave its first fellowships, Gates was among the recipients. He capped that achievement a year later with the rediscovery of the first novel in the United States written by a black person, Harriet E. Wilson’s 1859 book Our Nig. He has recently acquired another long-lost manuscript from that period, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, which will be published this spring.
In Gates’s view, until stories like these are part of the American fabric, the country’s literary heritage is not whole. “It is clear that every black American text must confess to a complex ancestry, one high and one low (literary and vernacular), but also one white and one black,” he writes in Loose Canons. “There can be no doubt that white texts inform and influence black texts (and vice versa), so that a thoroughly integrated canon of American literature is not only politically sound, it is intellectually sound as well.”
He sees the challenge in broad terms: “Our generation must record, codify, and disseminate the assembled data about African and African American culture, thereby institutionalizing the received knowledge about African Americans that has been gathered for the past century, and that we continue to gather, as we chart heretofore unexplored continents of ignorance. For our generation of scholars in African-American studies, to map the splendid diversity of human life in culture is the charge of the scholar of African-American Studies.”