African American Studies Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
by
Kinohi Nishikawa
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0076

Introduction

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is an African American literary critic, cultural historian, television host and scriptwriter, and educator. He is currently the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, where he is also professor of African and African American studies, professor of English, and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. Gates is the most important critic, theorist, and editor of African American literature of his generation, and the central figure on whom the institutionalization of African American literary study rests. He was born on 16 September 1950, in Keyser, West Virginia, to a working-class family in a segregated part of town. A misdiagnosed hip injury in his teenage years left Gates with a disability that he was able to turn into an affectionate nickname, “Skip.” He received a degree in history from Yale University in 1973 and earned his PhD from Clare College, Cambridge, in 1979. One of his mentors at Cambridge was the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who helped Gates understand black literary expression as a diasporic phenomenon. Upon completion of his dissertation, Gates was appointed an assistant professor of English and Afro-American studies at Yale. He moved to Cornell University, which granted him tenure, in 1985, and then went on to Duke University in 1989, staying there for two years. Harvard University recruited him in 1991, and he has been at the institution ever since. While a faculty member at Harvard, Gates has expanded the reach of his work, writing general nonfiction for nationally circulating publications and hosting and producing documentaries for public-television broadcasting. Through that work, Gates has made African American studies recognizable as a robust intellectual project and an integral part of higher education to the broader public. Although he is best known today for his television appearances, Gates maintains his interest in African American literary study, continuing to edit key works from the tradition and writing criticism based on his findings.

Criticism

Gates’s criticism has had a tremendous influence on the way scholars read and conduct research on African American letters. Combining traditional formalist analysis with conceptual frameworks derived from literary theory and sociocultural anthropology, Gates, in the 1980s, advanced a wholly original program for studying African American literature. That body of work, he argued, was neither derivative of “white” creativity nor inherent to “black” identity, but rather a complex negotiation of the two. In addition to making that case in two breakout monographs, published in 1987 and 1988, Gates edited a handful of groundbreaking essay collections that gathered important, theoretically driven scholarship on race, ethnicity, and cultural difference, both in the United States and in a global frame. Whether supportive or critical (and every position in between), the reception of Gates’s monographs and edited collections is virtually synonymous with the institutionalization of African American literary theory in the late 1980s and 1990s.

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