Literary and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., thrives on controversy. “I began my career fighting for what we call cultural pluralism,” he once said in a television interview. The battle that began in the English literature department at Cambridge University in England in the 1970s is clearly triumphing: In high schools and colleges across the nation Shakespeare is taught alongside Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright is required reading as well as Plato. Gates remembers when this wasn’t always the case.
“There was no African or African American studies at the University of Cambridge. I mean, I was told in no uncertain terms that I could write about Milton or Shakespeare, maybe even Pound and Eliot, who had just recently been introduced to the canon, but certainly not anything African or African American,” Gates said.
Gates now stands in the spotlight of African American culture and literary scholarship. He got there through research (uncovering the earliest African American novel Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson), an instinct for attention-getting topics (such as when he defended the First Amendment rights of the rap group 2 Live Crew), and a driving vision of what African American studies should become. Since coming to Harvard in 1991 to head its then-faltering African American studies program, he has brought together an academic “dream team” -- drawing upon some of the best minds in the world to work towards his vision.
“What we’re trying to do at Harvard is to create what I hope will be the greatest center of intellection concerning persons of African descent in the Old World and the New World,” he explained. Crucial to the strength of the discipline is acquiring a base of knowledge so each generation does not have to “reinvent the wheel.” To this end, Gates advised the NEH-funded Black Periodical Literature Project that has collected and annotated all the short stories, poems, and literary criticism that appeared in African American periodicals from 1827 until 1940. He also is working on the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which will detail information on twenty-five thousand voyages of the Middle Passage from 1650 through 1867. The first Norton Anthology of African American Literature, which he edited with Nellie McKay, was published in 1996.
But it has never been said that “Skip” Gates, as he is known, is stuck in the past. Although he understands the need for African American studies to be well grounded in history, he doesn’t shy away from analyzing contemporary racial subjects. In the introduction to his 1992 book Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars, Gates writes, “Ours is a late-twentieth-century world profoundly fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender. And the only way to transcend those divisions -- to forge, for once, a civic culture that respects both differences and commonalities -- is through education that seeks to comprehend the diversity of human culture.”
Gates’s trust in education was instilled in him by his parents and a community of adults who nourished the seed of brilliance they saw in young Skip. He grew up in the 1950s in the small mill town of Piedmont, West Virginia, which he wrote about in his 1994 book Colored People. Although he was urged to enter medicine (his brother did become a doctor), Skip’s destiny was transformed during the summer of the Watts riots when his minister gave him a copy of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. “I fell in love with James Baldwin’s use of language. I fell in love with the idea of being a writer,” Gates recalled.
A distinguished academic career followed. After graduating summa cum laude from Yale, Gates studied at Clare College, Cambridge University in England on a Mellon fellowship. It was there that he met his mentor Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian dramatist and Nobel Prize winner who sparked Gate’s interest in West African mythology. In 1979, Gates became the first black American to receive a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. He returned to Yale as assistant professor of English and director of the undergraduate program in Afro-American Studies.
Since then, Gates’s talents have been sought after. First lured from Yale to Cornell, and then to Duke, he was finally swept up by Harvard to become the W. E. B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities, chair of Afro-American Studies, and director of W. E. B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research.
Some of his top honors include receiving a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant at the age of thirty-three, and a George Polk Award for Social Commentary in 1993. His book The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism won the American Book Award in 1989. He ranked among Time magazine’s twenty-five most influential Americans of 1997.
Ultimately, Gates sees a link between academic and societal inclusion. “I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups,” he writes in his introduction to Colored People. “Bach and James Brown. Sushi and fried catfish.” Nathaniel Hawthorne and Toni Morrison. In an essay noting the twentieth anniversary of African American studies, Gates wrote, “If we have taken black studies for granted as a tool for integrating higher education, we may have only begun to glimpse its potential for integrating the American mind.”
By Amy Lifson