Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Clare ’79)

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is an American literary critic, professor, historian, filmmaker who has made waves in the field of academia. 

Gates Jr. attended Yale University for his undergraduate degree and graduated in 1973 with a Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude in history. He is the first African-American to be awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship and went on to study at the University of Cambridge where he studied English literature and obtained both his MA and PhD at Clare College. Gates is credited as being the first Black American to receive a PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1979. 

Gates Jr. has devoted his life to studying and promoting African-American studies and has fostered appreciation for African-American literature throughout his expansive career. While studying at Cambridge, Gates met his mentor Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian dramatist and Nobel Prize winner who sparked Gates’ interest in West African mythology. At Cambridge, Gates states “There was no African or African American studies at the University of Cambridge. I mean, I was told in no uncertain terms that I could write about Milton or Shakespeare, maybe even Pound and Eliot, who had just recently been introduced to the canon, but certainly not anything African or African American”. Gates highlights that during the summer of the Watts riots, a minister gave him a copy of James Baldwin’s  Notes of a Native Son. He recalls that “I fell in love with James Baldwin’s use of language. I fell in love with the idea of being a writer.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is also an extremely popular academic largely due to his focus on decentering the European gaze in African and African-American literature. This is important to highlight as it reflects a break from a Western-dominated tradition. He has also discovered some of the earliest and long forgotten African-American literary works which further reflects his dedication to contributing to a scholarship that has often been narrow and exclusionary. He has been given the title of “literary archaeologist” and has experienced much success.

“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).”

Some of his most notable works include Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (1987), The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988), and Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992). It is important to note that Gates has been the topic of controversy surrounding his views on reparations. In 2010, Gates wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that discussed the role played by Africans in the slave trade. He is frank about his beliefs, that African monarchs were beneficiaries of the slave trade and even calls on then President Barack Obama to end the country’s sense of obligation. This is important to raise because it  truly reflects the complex nature of our Black Cantabs. They are human beings at the end of the day and despite accomplishing certain feats they are capable of contradiction and controversy themselves, something very important to remember. 

With such an illustrious career, it is no surprise that he has had a host of incredible awards and recognitions. He received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant at the age of thirty-three and he ranked among Time magazine’s twenty-five most influential Americans of 1997. In 2021, Gates received the prestigious Gold Medal from The National Institute of Social Sciences and in 2022, the Boston Public Library honoured Gates with its Literary Lights Award. Henry Louis Gates Jr is truly a visionary and a Black Cantab who has cemented himself as an icon in the world of academia. A truly difficult achievement.