Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., (born September 16, 1950) is an American 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”.
Gates has hosted several PBS television miniseries, including the history and travel program Wonders of the African World and the biographical African American Lives and Faces of America. Gates sits on the boards of many notable arts, cultural, and research institutions. He serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, where he is director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
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 College in Keyser, West Virginia. He went on to complete his undergraduate B.A. degree at Yale University, summa cum laude, in History. 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 Cambridge. There he studied English literature at Clare College.
Marriage and family
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 University in 1985, where he taught until 1989. After a two-year stay at Duke University, he was recruited to Harvard University in 1991. At Harvard, Gates teaches undergraduate and graduate courses as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, an endowed chair he was appointed to 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(g)” 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:
|“||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…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.||”|
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.”
Supporters of Afrocentrics such as Molefi Asante and others say that they assert not that the study of Africa should be exclusively Black, but that the approach of Afrocentricity is critical for setting up black people as agents of their own history.
As a mediator between those advocating separatism and those who believe in a fixed Western canon, Gates has been criticized by both. Some critics suggest that adding 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. Gates is occasionally criticized as non-representative, and a detractor, of Black people by such African-American spokesmen as John Henrik Clarke, Molefi Asante and Maulana Karenga.
As a literary historian committed to the 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, Texas.
As a result of 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 acquired and authenticated 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. It would have precedence as the first known novel written by a black person in the United States. (Note: Clotel, or the President’s Daughter (1853) is recognized as the first novel published by an African American, but William Wells Brown wrote and published it in London.) The Bondwoman’s Narrative was first published in 2002 and became a bestseller.
As a prominent black intellectual, Gates has concentrated 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 has led to his being called as a witness on behalf of the controversial Florida 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.” After his 2003 NEH lecture, Gates published his 2003 book, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley.
In 1995 Gates presented a programme in the BBC series Great Railway Journeys (produced in association with PBS). The programme documents a 3000-mile journey Gates took through Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, with his then wife Sharon Adams and daughters Liza and Meggie Gates (born 1994). This trip came 25 years after Gates worked at a hospital in Kilimatinde near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania as a 19-year-old pre-medical student at Yale University.
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 that he had more than 50 percent European ancestry, and was descended from the mulatto John Redman. In addition, he discussed findings with guests about their complex ancestries.
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 Irish king, Niall of the Nine Hostages. He also learned that his ancestors included the Yoruba people of Nigeria. The two series demonstrated the many strands of heritage and history among African Americans.
Gates hosted Faces of America, a four-part series presented by PBS in 2010. This program examined the genealogy of 12 North Americans of diverse ancestry: Elizabeth Alexander, Mario Batali, Stephen Colbert, Louise Erdrich, Malcolm Gladwell, Eva Longoria, Yo-Yo Ma, Mike Nichols, Queen Noor, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Meryl Streep, and Kristi Yamaguchi
Since 1995, Gates has served as the jury chair for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which honor written works that contribute to society’s understanding of racism and the diversity of human culture. Gates was an Anisfield-Wolf prize winner in 1989 for The Schomburg Library of Women Writers.
“Ending the Slavery Blame-Game” editorial
In 2010, Gates wrote an editorial in The New York Times which discussed the role played by Africans in the slave trade. In an article for Newsweek, journalist Lisa Miller reported on the reaction to the editorial:
The enemy of individuality is groupthink, Gates says, and here he holds everyone accountable. Recently, he has enraged many of his colleagues in the African-American studies field–especially those campaigning for government reparations for slavery–by insistently reminding them, as he did in a New York Times op-ed last year, that the folks who captured and sold blacks into slavery in the first place were also Africans, working for profit. “People wanted to kill me, man,” Gates says of the reaction to that op-ed. “Black people were so angry at me. But we need to get some distance from the binary opposition we were raised in: evil white people and good black people. The world just isn’t like that.”
Gates’s critics say he’s a provocateur and publicity hound, stretched too thin and puffed up by his celebrity friends. Lolita Buckner Inniss, a professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, wrote a letter to The New York Times in response to the Gates piece in which she pointed out the obvious. No matter who did the capturing, it was white people who created the market for African slaves and perpetuated the practice even after the import trade was banned. “My first thought was, he’s kidding, right?” she told me. “Up until that recent piece, people would have thought of him as someone who took a cautious and nuanced approach to questions like reparations.” Gates has such an eminent reputation, she said, and “so much gravitas. Many of us were troubled.”
The editorial begins and ends with the observation that it is very difficult to decide whether or not to give reparations to the descendants of American slaves, in other words whether they should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage. Gates also points out that it is equally difficult to decide who should get these reparations and who should pay them.
On July 16, 2009, Gates returned home from a trip to China 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 after seeing windows being broken. 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 after U.S. President Barack Obama declared that the police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates, a comment which drew criticism from Massachusetts residents and from many law enforcement communities. The President eventually extended an invitation to both Gates and the officer involved to share a beer with him at the White House.
 Awards and honors
- Gates has been the recipient of 51 honorary degrees and numerous academic and social action awards.
- Gates was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1981.
- He was listed in Time among its “25 Most Influential Americans” in 1997. Ebony Magazine listed him among its “100 Most Influential Black Americans” in 2005, and in 2009, Ebony included him on its “Power 150” list.
- In 2002 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Gates for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Gates’s lecture was entitled “Mister Jefferson and the Trials of Phillis Wheatley.” It was the basis of his later book The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (2003).
- Gates received the National Humanities Medal in 1998 and the 2008 Ralph Lowell Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the highest honor in the field of public television, in 2009. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999.
- On October 23, 2006, Gates was appointed the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor at Harvard University. He has been the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research since arriving at Harvard in 1991.
- In January 2008, he co-founded The Root, a website dedicated to African-American perspectives and published by The Washington Post Company.
- Gates serves as the Chair for the Selection Committee for the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr., Fellowship Program, sponsored by the Fletcher Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Fletcher Asset Management.
- He is on the boards of many notable institutions including the New York Public Library, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, HEAF (the Harlem Educational Activities Fund), and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, located in Stanford, California. He is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations.
- In 2006, Gates was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution after tracing his lineage back to John Redman, a free African American who fought in the Revolutionary War.
- In 2010, Gates became the first African American to have his genome fully sequenced. He is also half of the first father-son pair to have their genomes fully sequenced. Knome performed the analysis as part of the “Faces of America” project.