Listen To The Exclusive Interview With Dr. Henry Louis Gate Jr.
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, Timemagazine 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.”
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. Gates’s father, Henry Louis, Sr. worked at the local paper mill during the day and as a janitor at the 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 children to be able to work and live within an integrated society. Pauline was involved with her children’s 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.
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Found His Path
In 1964, when Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was fourteen years old, he suffered a hairline fracture of the ball-and-socket joint of the hip while playing touch football in his hometown. He didn’t 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 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, 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 his race’s 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 twenty-one gifted individuals, giving him a five-year 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 black scholars. The novel was originally published in 1859 but was immediately ignored, only to later be 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 30 years.
Gates’s 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 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 30-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.”
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 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 Berger in Art in America that there must be “systems that account for the full complexity of American art, music, and literature — in 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.”
In addition to editing The Norton Anthology of African American Literature in 1998, Gates coedited many other works, including The Civitas Anthology of African American Slave Narratives, a collection of ten stories, in 1999. 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 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. 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.”
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 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 tied the group’s approach to 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 of 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 an improper depiction in the popular cultural environment. Gates is disturbed not only by the representation of blacks on television — “a 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 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 19th-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 Time‘s 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 African and African American Studies Department at Harvard University, serving in that post until 2006. 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 Publisher’s 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 promote African-American heritage, Gates wrote a two volume booklet set,Little Known Black History Facts, which 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. DuBois: 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 content. The following year, Africana.com was purchased by then 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 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 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.” 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.”
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.”
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.