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Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (born September 16, 1950) is an Americanmarker literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, editor and public intellectual. He was the first African American to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship. He has received numerous honorary degrees and awards for his teaching, research, and development of academic institutions to study black culture. In 2002, Gates was selected to give the Jefferson Lecture, in recognition of his "distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." The lecture resulted in his 2003 book, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley.

As the host of the 2006 and 2008 PBS television miniseries African American Lives, Gates explored the genealogy of prominent African Americans. Gates sits on the boards of many notable arts, cultural, and research institutions. He serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard Universitymarker, where he is Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Michael Kinsley referred to him as "the nation's most famous black scholar."


Early years

Gates was born in Keyser, West Virginiamarker, to Pauline Augusta Coleman and Henry Louis Gates, Sr. He grew up in neighboring Piedmontmarker, the inspiration for his best selling memoir Colored People. At the age of 14, Gates was injured while playing touch football, fracturing the ball and socket joint of his hip, resulting in a slipped epiphysis. The injury was misdiagnosed by a physician who told Gates's mother that his problem was "psychosomatic." When the physical damage finally healed, Gates' right leg was two inches shorter than his left. Because of the injury, Gates uses a cane to help him walk.

Gates graduated from Piedmont High School in 1968 and attended Potomac State Collegemarker in Keyser, West Virginia before earning his undergraduate degree at Yale Universitymarker, gaining a B.A. summa cum laude in History. To his eventual embarrassment, he wrote in his Yale application, "As always, whitey now sits in judgment of me, preparing to cast my fate. It is your decision either to let me blow with the wind as a nonentity or to encourage the development of self. Allow me to prove myself."

The first African-American to be awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship, the day after his undergraduate commencement, Gates set sail on the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 for England and the University of Cambridgemarker. There he studied English literature at Clare Collegemarker. With the assistance of a Ford Foundation Fellowship, he worked toward his Ph.D. in English. While his work in history at Yalemarker had trained him in archival work, Gates' studies at Clare introduced him to English literature and literary theory.

At Cambridge, Gates was also able to work with Wole Soyinka, a Nigerianmarker writer denied an appointment in the department because, as Gates later recalled, African literature was then deemed "at best, sociology or socio-anthropology, but it was not real literature." Soyinka would later become the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; he remained an influential mentor for Gates. His novels were the subject of numerous works by Gates. Finding mentors in those with whom he shared a "common sensibility" rather than an ethnicity, Gates also counted Raymond Williams, George Steiner, and John Holloway among the European scholars who influenced him.

Gates married Sharon Lynn Adams in 1979. They had two daughters. They later 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 dissertation. Jointly appointed to assistant professorships in English and Afro-American Studies in 1979, Gates was promoted to Associate Professor in 1984.

After being denied tenure at Yale, Gates accepted a position at Cornell Universitymarker in 1985, where he taught until 1989. After a two-year stay at Duke Universitymarker, he was recruited to Harvard Universitymarker in 1991. At Harvard, Gates teaches undergraduate and graduate courses as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, an endowed chair to which he was appointed in 2006, and as Professor of English. Additionally, he serves as the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and 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 textual analysis and 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 thus 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:

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 who believe in a fixed Western canon, Gates has faced criticisms from both sides. Some critics suggest that the additional 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.

As a literary historian committed to preservation and study of historical texts, Gates has been integral to the Black Periodical Literature Project, an 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, Texasmarker. Earlier, as a result of his research as a MacArthur Fellow, Gates discovered Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson, written in 1859 and thus the first novel in the United States written by a black person. He followed this discovery by acquiring and authenticating 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, which would give it precedence as the first novel by a black person. It was first published in 2002 and became a bestseller.

As a prominent black intellectual, Gates has focused throughout his career 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's prominence in this field led to his being called as a witness on behalf of the controversial Floridamarker 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 speech, games, and literary traditions, and should be protected.

Asked by NEH 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."

Other activities

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 DNA testing. In the first series, Gates learned of his high percentage of European ancestry due to his descent from the mulatto John Redman. In addition, he discussed findings about ancestry of his guests.

In the second series of episodes, Gates learned that he is part of a genetic subgroup possibly descended from or related to the 4th-century Irishmarker king, Niall of the Nine Hostages. He also learned that his ancestors included the Yoruba people of Nigeriamarker. The two programs demonstrated the many strands of heritage and history among African Americans.

Cambridge arrest

On July 16, 2009, Gates returned home from a trip to Chinamarker to find the door to his house jammed. His driver attempted to help him gain entrance. A passer-by called police reporting a possible break-in and a Cambridge police officer was dispatched. The resulting 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 garnered national attention which eventually led to an invitation to the White House by President Barack Obama for a beer to discuss race relations.

Awards and honors


Books (author)

Books (editor)



  • 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-TVmarker, February 11, 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)
  • 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
  • (CD-Rom)


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