Portrait © Sarah Putnam
Used with permission.
One of the United States' leading cultural critics, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is both an eloquent commentator and formidable intellectual force on multicultural and African American issues. Born and raised in Piedmont, West Virginia, Gates grew up during a period of racial transition in the 1950s and 1960s. This era, filled with dramatic history of both segregation and integration, influenced Mr. Gates deeply and is reflected in his writings. Gates held appointments at Yale, Cornell, and Duke, and is now the Chair of the Afro-American Studies Department and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Studies at Harvard University.
Gates is a prolific writer who has authored and co-authored several books, edited or co-edited many more, and written numerous articles for such magazines as The New Yorker, Time, and The New Republic. He incorporated much of his upbringing and experiences of living in Europe, Africa, and the United States into his academic and popular writings. Early on, Gates realized the need for established common African American roots. By publishing bibliographies of such noted writers as Nigeria's Wole Soyinka and republishing historical texts like Harriet Wilson's Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1854), Mr. Gates has sought to reify an African American literary and cultural tradition. Edited works such as The Oxford-Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers and the Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature demonstrate the vigor of African American contributions.
Gates' own writings also emphasize the continuity in the African American collective past. In Figures in Black: Works, Signs, and the "Racial" Self (1987), and The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988), he stresses text-specific and tradition-specific (historical) criticism as necessary methods to define traditions in African American letters. In a binding African American tradition the book must speak for itself, or as Gates points out in "Writing, 'Race,' and the Difference It Makes" (Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars , 1992), one has to detach African literature and culture from European and colonial contexts.
While Gates is an efficacious champion of the importance of an African American literary canon and of a defined historical footing, he also champions tolerance toward other cultures. Society, Gates claims in Loose Canons , "simply won't survive without the values of tolerance. And cultural tolerance comes to nothing without cultural understanding." Schooled in the writings of enlightened philosophers such as Hume, Kant, and Hegel, and versed in the works of such fellow critics as Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida, and Kwame Appiah, Gates is drawn toward the larger aspects of multicultural issues. Time spent in Africa and in Europe adds depth and breadth to the understanding of cultural values and multicultural merits.
In Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997), as well as in magazine articles, often through skillful interviews (e.g. Josephine Baker, Louis Farrakhan), Gates explores African American lives from expatriates in France to politicians at home. He tackles issues from arts and AIDS to religion and censorship. Most recently he assessed the changing political structure of loyalty and mores in the United States since the Cold War era. A keen observer of current events, he never neglects the importance of values and traditions in the cultural environment. Gates argues that it is critical to apply scholarly standards and principles in addressing these issues. He promotes the proliferation of rigorous methodologies and encourages inquiries into the African and African American impact in multicultural and multiethnic settings.
In Colored People: A Memoir (1994), where Piedmont is a microcosm of multicultural living, Gates emphasizes a resilient African American tradition with racial, class, and personal experiences that have shaped African American lives. True to his own experiences and philosophies, he develops perceptions of African Americans' lives in the United States that are full of suffering, but also fulfillment.
Not surprisingly, Gates has his detractors and critics. Some scholars and journalists, perhaps jealous of the attention Gates receives, are quick to find fault. He has been criticized for uncritical writing and for taking African American works out of the context of the cultural environment that produced them. He has been faulted for not being more Afrocentric and for not using his considerable influence for the good of African Americans. In academe he is admonished for his high-profile testimony in the First Amendment case against 2 Live Crew and for his flamboyant lifestyle.
This criticism notwithstanding, the fact remains that Gates addresses cultural, historical, and literary discourses in an accessible manner that appeals to a broad audience. His writing is a good deal more readable than the works of many of his colleagues. In one of his earlier works, he even apologizes should he have failed again to write a book that his parents could understand. As such, some of the critics fail to understand the little-analyzed role of a public intellectual in an academic environment (or, an academic intellectual in the public limelight). In his role as a public intellectual who promotes the serious studies of African American culture, his eloquent and lucid writings successfully revive missing and long-neglected aspects to the American experience. His work has widened the acceptance of African American Studies and has given it more recognition and respectability as a serious field of study. It should not come as a surprise that along with Gates' visibility, national interest in African American Studies has increased noticeably. Gates hopes that increased enrollments will replenish W.E.B. Du Bois' dream of the "Talented Tenth," leading the African Americans' avant-garde, as he infers in The Future of the Race (1996), to advance "social and ethical obligations to the larger group."
By Tomas Jaehn
(c)1998, Stanford University
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. pages edited by: Tomas Jaehn, Curator for American and British History, Stanford University, email@example.com
Editor's Note: Special thanks go to John McDonald for helping to assemble material for this site.