Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.
▪ 1997

      A pioneering critic and scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., emerged as an influential spokesman for African-American culture and almost single-handedly revitalized and redefined African-American literature and literary theory. To many his name was synonymous with African-American studies itself.

      Gates was born on Sept. 16, 1950, in Keyser, W.Va. He visited Africa on a fellowship in 1970 and 1971, traveling through 15 nations. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in history from Yale University in 1973, he went on to earn master's (1974) and doctoral (1979) degrees from Clare College, Cambridge. There he worked with Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, whose interest in Yoruba culture influenced Gates's later work. Gates taught literature at Yale (1979-85), Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. (1985-90), and Duke University, Durham, N.C. (1990-91) before moving to Harvard University in 1991, where he held the positions of W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the humanities, professor of English, chair of Afro-American studies, and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research. At Harvard Gates began assembling a collection of prestigious African-American scholars, who were expected to influence public policy—and the wider culture—as well as scholarly discourse.

      A prolific essay writer on issues as diverse as the First Amendment, anti-Semitism, ethnic identity, and rap music, Gates first gained recognition as a "literary archaeologist," bringing to light lost writings of 19th-century African-Americans, particularly slave narratives by women. He rediscovered and restored many lost works by black writers, including Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859), the earliest-known novel by a black American and the first by a black woman. In literary theory Gates's concept of "signifyin(g)" linked African and African-American literature as a continuous dialogue—provocative, humorous, or insulting—with what preceded it and examined works of black writers in that context. He developed his influential theory in the article "The Blackness of Blackness," which appeared in the journal Critical Inquiry (June 1983), Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self (1987), and The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988). Gates edited a number of influential critical collections, such as Black Literature and Literary Theory (1984), "Race," Writing, and Difference (1986), Reading Black, Reading Feminist (1990), and the April 29/May 6, 1996, issue of The New Yorker entitled "Black in America."

      Known as "Skip," Gates frequently moved in circles outside the academy, publishing hip-hop album reviews in Entertainment Weekly and political commentary in The New Yorker. He took unconventional means to develop his department at Harvard, including inviting director Spike Lee to teach a course on contemporary black film. (ANN M. BELASKI)

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▪ American critic and scholar
born September 16, 1950, Keyser, West Virginia, U.S.
 
 American literary critic and scholar known for his pioneering theories of African literature and African American literature. He introduced the notion of signifyin' to represent African and African American literary and musical history as a continuing reflection and reinterpretation of what has come before.

      Gates's father, Henry Louis Gates, Sr., worked in a paper mill and moonlighted as a janitor; his mother, Pauline Coleman Gates, cleaned houses. Gates graduated as valedictorian of his high school class in 1968 and attended a local junior college before enrolling at Yale University, where he received a bachelor's degree in history in 1973. After receiving two fellowships in 1970, he took a leave of absence from Yale to visit Africa, working as an anesthetist in a hospital in Tanzania and then traveling through other African nations. In 1973 he entered Clare College at the University of Cambridge, where one of his tutors was the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka (Soyinka, Wole). Soyinka persuaded Gates to study literature instead of history; he also taught him much about the culture of the Yoruba, one of the largest Nigerian ethnic groups. After receiving his doctoral degree in English language and literature in 1979, Gates taught literature and African American studies at Yale University, Cornell University, Duke University, and Harvard University, where he was appointed W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities in 1991.

      In 1980 Gates became codirector of the Black Periodical Literature Project at Yale. In the years that followed he earned a reputation as a “literary archaeologist” by recovering and collecting thousands of lost literary works (short stories, poems, reviews, and notices) by African American authors (African American literature) dating from the early 19th to the mid-20th century. In the early 1980s Gates rediscovered the earliest novel by an African American, Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859), by proving that the work was in fact written by an African American woman and not, as had been widely assumed, by a white man from the North. From the 1980s Gates edited a number of critical anthologies of African American literature, including Black Literature and Literary Theory (1984), Bearing Witness: Selections from African American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century (1991), and (with Nellie Y. McKay) The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997).

      Gates developed the notion of signifyin' in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (1987) and The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988). Signifyin' is the practice of representing an idea indirectly, through a commentary that is often humourous, boastful, insulting, or provocative. Gates argued that the pervasiveness and centrality of signifyin' in African and African American literature and music means that all such expression is essentially a kind of dialogue with the literature and music of the past. Gates traced the practice of signifyin' to Esu, the trickster (trickster tale) figure of Yoruba mythology, and to the figure of the “signifying monkey,” with which Esu is closely associated. He applied the notion to the interpretation of slave narratives and showed how it informs the works of Phillis Wheatley (Wheatley, Phillis), Zora Neale Hurston (Hurston, Zora Neale), Frederick Douglass (Douglass, Frederick), the early African American writers of periodical fiction, Ralph Ellison (Ellison, Ralph), Ishmael Reed (Reed, Ishmael), Alice Walker (Walker, Alice), and Wole Soyinka.

      In Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992) and elsewhere Gates argued for the inclusion of African American literature in the Western canon. Other works by Gates include Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties (1994), Colored People: A Memoir (1994), The Future of the Race (1996; with Cornel West (West, Cornel)), and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997).

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Universalium. 2010.

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