Guide to Resources for the Study of West Virginia Authors and Appalachian Literary Traditions

Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library

map of the appalachians

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

photo of Henry Louis Gates Jr. taken from the web

Biographical Information

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was raised in Piedmont, WV, a small town (population in 1950, the year of Gates' birth - 2,566) in Mineral County. His father, Henry Louis Sr., like most of the town, worked at the local Westvaco paper mill. To support his small family, Henry Gates, Sr. also worked nights as a janitor for a local telephone company. Gates' mother, Pauline Coleman Gates, cleaned houses. She worked hard to raise her sons to live in an integrated world, to give them the self-confidence they would need to live and excel in an integrated world. In his memoir Colored People,Gates recalls that his mother "reinforced it over and over again, that in her opinion, we were beautiful and brilliant and whatever else. And I don't know if any of those things were true, but if someone says it to you every day like a mantra, you become hypnotized by that. . .My mother bred a tremendous amount of intellectual self-confidence in my brother and me, and we always knew that we would be loved no matter what."

Henry Louis Gates attended the local Piedmont schools, schools that had been desegregated only a year before he began the first day. From the beginning, he excelled academically, graduating at the top of his high school class in 1968. That fall, Henry Gates entered Potomac State College, a branch of West Virginia University, with plans to go from there to medical school. Those plans changed when Gates took courses in American and English literature from Professor Duke Anthony Whitmore, who opened Gates' eyes to other possibilities and encouraged the young man to apply to the Ivy League schools. Gates was accepted to Yale University, where he studied history and continued his interest in the study of Africa. He spent his junior year in Africa, working at a Tanzanian hospital and hitchhiking across the equator. Gates graduated summa cum laude from Yale in 1973 with a B. A. in history. He then studied at Clare College, Cambridge University, earning a M.A. in 1974. While at Clare, Gates met Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who became an important mentor and friend, one whom Gates credits with helping find the path to his future career as a professor and scholar of African studies. During this time, Gates also worked as a London Bureau staff correspondent for Time magazine. He returned to the United States in 1976, serving as a lecturer at Yale University until he completed his Ph.D. in 1979. It was also in 1979 that Gates married potter Sharon Adams, with whom he had been involved for seven years.

He accepted a position as an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Yale in 1979. He worked as part of the Black Periodical Literature Project with Charles T. Davis, collecting and editing black periodicals. In 1981, Gates discovered a copy of Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. The novel by Harriet E. Wilson was the first by an African American to be published in the United States, but it had been lost to the public until Gates recovered it. In the 1980s, Gates continued to publish, editing a collection of Charles E. Davis's essays (Black is the Color of the Cosmos, 1982) and writing his own book, Black Literature and Literary Theory (1984). Also in 1984, Yale promoted Gates to associate professor of English and undergraduate director for the Department of Afro-American Studies.

Denied tenure at Yale after his first four years, Henry Louis Gates resigned from the Yale faculty and accepted a position as a full professor of English and Africana Studies at Cornell University. He continued to write, publishing Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self in 1987 and The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism in 1989. In 1988, he was named the W. E. B. DuBois Professor of Literature, becoming the first African-American male to hold an endowed chair in the history of Cornell University.

In 1990, Gates left Cornell to accept a professorship at Duke University. Also that year, Gates become involved in the First Amendment trial of hip-hop band 2 Live Crew, who were on trial for obscenity. Although his involvement in the trial was moderate, Gates still became a target for conservative attacks at Duke. Finding little support from the African-American faculty at Duke, and uncomfortable living as part of an inter-racial couple in the South, in 1991 Gates accepted an offer to become the head of Harvard University's struggling Afro-American Studies program. His new titles - W.E.B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities, Chair of the Afro-American Studies Department, and Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Studies.
Since then, Gates has remained at Harvard, working to create "the center of intellection concerning persons of African descent in the Old World and the New World."

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Critical Responses

With success comes fame and with fame comes criticism. Such could be a summary of the critical and public opinion responses to the life and work of Henry Louis Gates. Gates is one of the most prominent and well-known academics in the United States today. Yet he is not without his critics. He has been accused of being an elitist, of not being sufficiently Afro-centric, and of being more celebrity figure than academic. Yet his work has brought new public and academic attention to the field of African-American studies, helped to gain it acceptance and respectability as an academic discipline. Tomas Jaehn of Stanford University has commented "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). . .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."

The collected essays in Black Literature and Literary Theory have been praised as an important contribution to the study of black literature and to the general field of African-American studies. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Terry Eagleton commented that "the most thought-provoking contributions to [this] collection are those that not only enrich our understanding of black literary works but in doing so implicitly question the authoritarianism of a literary 'canon.'"

On the whole, Gates' other works have also been well received by critics. Commenting on Loose Cannons: Notes on the Culture Wars, Jonathan Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times said that it is "the work of a man who has mastered the arcane politics and encoded language of the canon makers; it's an arsenal of ideas in the cultural wars. But it is also the outpouring of a humane, witty, and truly civilized mind." Writing for the London Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates called Colored People, Gates' memoir about his childhood in Piedmont, "an eloquent document to set beside the grittier contemporary testimonies of black male urban memoirists; in essence a work of filial gratitude, paying homage to such virtues courage, loyalty, integrity, kindness; a pleasure to read and, in the best sense, inspiring." And Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, Gates' commentary on the position of black men in American society was called a "riveting commentary on race in America" by Library Journal.

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Works Published

Wole Soyinka: a bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources
Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self
The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism
Loose Cannons: Notes on the Culture Wars
The Amistad Chronology of African-American History, 1445-1990
Colored People: A Memoir
Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights, and
Civil Liberties
The Future of the Race
13 Ways to Look at a Black Man

Edited by:

Black is the Color of the Cosmos: Charles T. Davis's Essays on Afro-American Literature and Culture, 1942-1981
Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In a Two Story White House, North by Harriet E. Wilson
Black Literature and Literary Theory
The Slave's Narrative
"Race," Writing, and Difference
In the House of Osugbo: Critical Essays on Wole Soyinka
The Classic Slave Narratives
Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology
Bearing Witness: Selections from African-American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century
The Norton Anthology of African American Literature
The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crofts

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Selected Bibliography

Jeyifo, Biodun. Greatness and Cruelty: "Wonders of the African World" and the Reconfiguration of Senghorian Negritude. The Black Scholar, Spring 2000. 30(1), 39.

Johnson, Thomas C. Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Worcester Review, 1998. 19 (1-2), 61-67.

Kilson, Martin. Black Intellectual as Establishmentarian: Henry Louis Gates' Odyssey.The Black Scholar, Spring 2001. 31(1), 14.

Mazrui, Ali A. Black Orientalism? Further Reflections on "Wonders of the African World." The Black Scholar, Spring 2000. 30(1), 15.

Phillips, Jerry. The Slave Narratives (review). The Hudson Review, Summer 2001. 54(2), 335.

Osinubi, Victor. African American Authors and the Use of Dialect in Literature: The Foregrounding of Ethnicity. Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies, Fall 1996. 4(1), 65-77.

Rowell, Charles H. An Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Callaloo: A Journal of African American and African Arts and Letters, Spring 1991. 14(2), 444-63.

Slaughter, Jane. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Interview). The Progressive, January 1998. 62(1), 30.

Ward, Jerry W., Jr. An Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation, Autumn 1991. 22(4), 927-35.

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Author Website

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West Virginia Wesleyan College

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