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Sat, 09.16.1950

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Educator born

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

*Henry Louis Gates Jr. was born on this date in 1950. He is a Black educator, author, literary critic, and historian.

From Keyser, W.Va., he grew up in neighboring Piedmont. At 14, Gates was injured while playing touch football, fracturing his hip's ball and socket joint, resulting in a slipped epiphysis. The injury was misdiagnosed, and 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.

He graduated from Piedmont High School in 1968 and attended Potomac State College before earning his undergraduate B.A. degree at Yale University in History.  The first black to be awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship, the day after his undergraduate commencement Gates left for the University of Cambridge.  There he studied English literature at Clare College. He visited Africa on a fellowship in 1970 and 1971, staying on to work as a hospital anesthetist in Tanzania, then traveling through 15 African nations.

In 1973 he entered Yale University and earned an M.A. (1974) and a Ph.D. (1979) in English. He then undertook advanced studies at Clare College, Cambridge, where his tutor was the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. Persuaded by Soyinka to study literature rather than history, Gates also learned much from him about Yoruba culture. Gates married Sharon Lynn Adams in 1979. They had two daughters and later divorced. He later taught at several American universities, including Yale, Cornell, and Harvard, where he was appointed W.E.B. Du Bois professor of humanities in 1991.

Gates is known for his pioneering theories of Black literature. He used the term "signifyin' " to represent African and African American literary history as a continuing reflection and reinterpretation of what had gone before. Gates was at the forefront of the discovery and restoration of many lost works By Black writers--such as Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859), the earliest known novel by a black American and he argued in Loose Canons (1992), and elsewhere for the inclusion of African American literature in the Western canon. Gates’s theory of signifyin' traced the Black Caribbean and American culture back through the "talking book," the central method for recording slave narratives, and the early "signifying monkey" storyteller to Esu, the trickster figure of the West African Yoruba.

Black culture, Gates maintained, showed an ongoing dialogue, often humorous, insulting, or provocative, with what had preceded it, and all works of Black writers had to be seen in that context. Gates's fullest exposition of signifyin' was found in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self (1987) and The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988), in which he elaborated how signifyin' informed the interconnected work of Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Ishmael Reed, and Alice Walker. He applied his theory to many texts, including those of Wole Soyinka, the slave narratives, Frederick Douglass, other Black periodical fiction, and the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley. 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 a 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 Black intellectual, Gates has focused throughout his career on building academic institutions to study Black culture. He works to bring 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 was called a witness on behalf of the Florida rap group 2 Live Crew. He argued that the material the government charged was profane, had important roots in African American vernacular speech, games, and literary traditions, and should be protected.

He has moved his work into mainstream media too. In 1995 Gates presented a program in the BBC series Great Railway Journeys (produced in association with PBS). The program documents a 3000-mile journey Gates took through Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania with his then-wife Sharron 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 and 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 programs demonstrated the many strands of heritage and history among African Americans. Gates hosted Faces of America, a four-part PBS presentation in 2010. This ongoing program examined the genealogy of 12 North Americans: 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, and more.

In 2003 Gates published The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, one of his many writings.  Gates has received 51 honorary degrees and numerous academic and social action awards. Gates wrote an editorial entitled "Ending the Slavery Blame-Game" in the New York Times on April 22, 2010, which analyzes and highlights the important role played by Africans in the slave trade.   In 2011, the image and the issues surrounding South America’s slave history were challenged in Black in Latin America, the four-part PBS series hosted by Gates, Jr. He is married to Sharon Lynn Adams, and they have two daughters.

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