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Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers (30 volumes)

Oxford University Press

1989 Nonfiction

The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers (30 volumes)
As a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine and in frequent public appearances throughout the media, Henry Louis Gates Jr. emerged in the mid-1990s as a national spokesperson on racial issues. He particularly attempted to refocus the country's public policy debate by emphasizing that both the black middle class and the black underclass had grown considerably since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. "The class divide within our community is black America's most urgent social problem," he stated on "The Two Nations of Black America," the Frontline program he wrote and hosted for WGBH-TV in 1998.

Gates was born in Keyser, West Virginia, the son of Pauline Coleman and Henry Louis Gates Sr. He grew up in Piedmont, a small town of about 2,000 people, 10 percent of whom were black. Gates's father worked as a laborer in the local paper mill and as a part-time janitor; his mother was a housewife. Gates describes his youth and coming of age in the storytelling memoir Colored People (1994), in which he recalls a vibrant black community about to be weakened by the onset of racial desegregation. Colored People was Gates's major crossover from writing for an academic audience to addressing a broad cultural readership.

Gates attended Yale University, graduating summa cum laude in 1973. He then earned a master's degree and doctorate in literature from Clare College at Cambridge University in England. His supervisor was Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer who became the first African to receive a Nobel Prize in literature. Gates first came to national attention in 1981 while still a junior faculty member at Yale when he was in the first group of recipients of the MacArthur Foundation "genius" awards. Also, he identified the author of the novel Our Nig as Harriet E. Wilson, an African American, and so pushed back to 1859 the date of the first fiction published by a black woman.

Gates taught at Yale, Cornell, and Duke universities before going to Harvard in 1991 as W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies, and director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, the country's oldest think tank in black studies. Inheriting a marginalized department with only one professor, Gates constructed a nationally recognized faculty by recruiting philosophers Kwame Anthony Appiah and Cornel West, sociologists Lawrence Bobo and William Julius Wilson, art historian Suzanne Blier, historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and anthropologist J. Lorand Matory. At the Du Bois Institute, where he has raised over $8 million in endowment, Gates is involved in sponsoring colloquia, conferences, and working groups, along with a publication series at Oxford University Press.

Gates's major scholarly work is The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988), which connects scholarly analysis with vernacular black expression. It won an American Book Award and was called "the Rosetta Stone of the American multicultural Renaissance" by writer and critic Ishmael Reed. An outspoken advocate of diversity, pluralism, and affirmative action, Gates has said, "Anglo-American regional culture is simply not universal." He has been a central figure in opening the canon of American literature to include work of the highest quality not only by African Americans, but also by women, gays and lesbians, and other traditionally excluded writers.

A major contribution toward establishing the legitimacy of African American writing is The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1996), which Gates coedited with Nellie Y. McKay. Ten years in the making, the Norton Anthology is a massive 2,665-page compilation with an accompanying compact disc of vernacular material. The book includes the work of 120 black authors dating from 1746 to the present in all literary genres: poetry, fiction, drama, autobiography, journals, and letters.

A prolific author and editor, Gates has produced literary criticism in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self (1987) and Loose Canons: Notes of the Culture Wars (1992); editions of Frederick Douglass's autobiography and other black classics; the 40-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers (1988 and 1991); and, with Cornel West, The Future of the Race (1996). In 1996 he and his family traveled in Africa from Zimbabwe to Dar es Salaam for the British Broadcasting Corporation/Public Broadcasting Service (BBC/PBS) television series Great Train Journeys. Gates was also the program's screenwriter and narrator, as he was in 1999 for Wonders of the African World, also for BBC/PBS, which was accompanied by a major book under the same title. He has his own publishing line, Civitas, a division of Perseus Books, and serves as coeditor, with Kwame Anthony Appiah, of Encarta Africana.

Contributed By: Richard Newman

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Blog Posts about Henry Louis Gates Jr.

What Henry Louis Gates Thinks About The "Beer Summit" Incident, 11 Years Later

Henry Louis Gates Jr. rarely speaks about one of his most publicized moments — the July 2009 arrest by Sgt. James Crowley at his Cambridge home, leading to the infamous "beer summit" at the Obama White House. Now the multi-hyphenate — historian, TV host, executive producer, editor, Harvard professor and Anisfield-Wolf jury chair — reflects on that incident, some 11 years later, in a new interview with New York Times magazine. "President Obama made an innocent comment that the arrest was stupid, which it was," he told the publication.... Read More →

Watch Henry Louis Gates' New Series, "Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise"

What if Martin Luther King Jr woke up and asked, "What happened since I've been gone?" The answer is the premise of "Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise" – the latest documentary series from Henry Louis Gates Jr.The two-parter premieres on PBS November 15 at 8 p.m., with Gates serving as host, executive producer and writer. There is also a companion book, "And Still I Rise," published in 2015. In the 50 years since King was assassinated, progress in Black America has been complex. African Americans have dominated sports, music and pop... Read More →

Henry Louis Gates Jr. Talks Education, Fundraising And Career Highlights At African-American Philanthropy Summit

Photo credit: Richard Durrah Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. spent a sunny April Saturday in Cleveland speaking frankly about money and race and aspiration. He brought a relaxed manner to a charged topic as keynote speaker before 350 participants in the biennial African American Philanthropic Summit, hosted by the Cleveland Foundation. “Black people have a long tradition of philanthropy,” said the long-time jury chair of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. “We just don’t know that. It is called the collection plate. We’ve been ponying up... Read More →

Henry Louis Gates Jr. Wins Peabody Award For "Many Rivers To Cross" Documentary

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.— who served as executive producer, host, and writer for "The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross" —learned this week that his six-part documentary won the highest honor in broadcasting: a Peabody Award. "This is a great victory of all of us that love African-American history and those of us that want to see it become an explicably intertwined part of American culture," Gates said in a statement on "This took five years and is a great victory for our ancestors and their sacrifices, and they... Read More →

New PBS Series, "Many Rivers To Cross," Explores The Depth Of African-American History

If you follow Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Twitter or Facebook, you are probably already privy to the bevy of heavy hitters he has recruited for his new PBS series, "The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross," premiering Oct 21. The six-part documentary features names as varied as the Black Panther Party's Kathleen Cleaver to Roots' drummer Questlove. Gates has mentioned that he is particularly proud of procuring the insights of General Colin Powell. The chair of the Anisfield-Wolf book awards serves executive producer, host and writer for the... Read More →

New PBS Series Spans 500 Years Of African-American History

Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Henry Louise Gates Jr. has been busy the past few months, filming episodes of his new PBS series, "The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross." The six-part documentary will cover more than four centuries of African-American history, starting with the origins of slavery in Africa and moving to the present day.  Gates (left) interviewed Gen. Colin Powell and other influential African-Americans for his new PBS series Leading up to the series premiere, Gates has written a weekly column for, "100 Amazing... Read More →

Harriet Tubman, American Hero

March 10th, 2013 was the 100th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman, a woman whose name is synonymous with bravery and freedom.  Growing up, I attended a small public school in East Cleveland, where each of the students was required to learn the following poem by Eloise Greenfield:    Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff Wasn't scared of nothing neither Didn't come in this world to be no slave And wasn't going to stay one either   "Farewell!" she sang to her friends one night She was mighty sad to leave 'em But she ran away... Read More →

Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. Has Portrait Unveiled At National Portrait Gallery

Source: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery We've long felt honored to have Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the nation's most preeminent African American scholars, as our jury chair. Having met him numerous times over the past few years, I'm always awed by his depth of knowledge and his ease in front of a crowd.  All of this makes him a wonderful human being and all the more deserving of his latest honor. Henry Louis Gates Jr is the one of the latest Americans to have his portrait displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington... Read More →

VIDEO: Edwidge Danticat Explains What It Means To Be An Immigrant Artist

"There's no one writing in the English language today who more precisely and passionately articulates the exile's experience than Edwidge Danticat." And so begins Henry Louis Gates' introduction of our 2005 winner. In this 2012 video, Danticat discusses her work and exile, what it means to be an immigrant artist, and responsibility to one's home country. This event was co-presented by Cambridge Forum, Harvard Bookstore, and Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. Read More →

Why We're Very Lucky To Have Henry Louis Gates Jr As Our Jury Chair

We know we highlighted him a few weeks ago, but is something to be said for a man who is so passionate, so prolific, so generous with his time, that he dedicates a significant portion of his time working with us here at Anisfield-Wolf as our jury chair. As he puts it, "Chairing the jury for the Anisfield Wolf Book Awards is one of the signal pleasures of my life. The thought that a poet—a white, female poet—had the foresight to endow a price to honor excellence and diversity, at the height of the Great Depression, is something of a miracle,... Read More →

Henry Louis Gates Jr On The Importance Of A Good Book

Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Henry Louis Gates has a resume a mile long. And in between his work at Harvard, his successful PBS specials, among his other numerous obligations, he found time to finish "Life On These Shores: Looking At African-American History 1513-2008," an expansive look at the experience of blacks in America from the time of arrival of the free black conquistador Juan Garrido with Ponce de León in 1513 to the election of President Obama in 2008. Gates covers subjects as diverse as NBA great Bill Russell to Malcolm X to former... Read More →

76th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize Winners Announced

CLEVELAND, Ohio (April 12, 2011) – The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of the 76th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards They are: Nicole Krauss, Great House, Fiction Mary Helen Stefaniak, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, Fiction David Eltis/David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Nonfiction Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Nonfiction John Edgar Wideman, Lifetime Achievement “The 2011 Anisfield-Wolf winners are notable for the unique way each author addresses the... Read More →
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr.

    Henry Louis Gates Jr.

    Born: 1950

    Other Works

    • The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988)
    • Colored People: A Memoir (1994)
    • Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (1999)
    • America Beyond the Color Line: Dialogues with African-Americans (2004)
    • In Search of Our Roots (2009)

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