Ceremonial Events - Commencement
Honorary Degree Recipient
HENRY GATES JR.
Doctor of Letters
Henry Louis Gates Jr., a world-renowned scholar, teacher, literary critic, and author has been innovative and prolific, a disabuser of the prejudicial status quo for all things African and African American, and an eloquent educator in all media.
Gates’s titles and projects hint at the complexity of his interests: He is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, all at Harvard; he is editor-in-chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in this field; he has been a MacArthur Foundation Scholar (1981); he has written, produced, and hosted documentaries on PBS and the BBC, including the critically acclaimed “African-American Lives”; his 13th and most recent book is Finding Oprah’s Roots; and last year, he was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution. When Time magazine chose Gates as one of the “Twenty-Five Most Influential Americans” in 1997, it wrote: “Combine the braininess of the legendary black scholar W.E. B. Du Bois and the chutzpah of P.T. Barnum, and the result is Henry Louis Gates Jr.”
Gates, who was born in West Virginia, graduated with a B.A. summa cum laude in history from Yale University in 1973. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in English literature from Clare College at the University of Cambridge, where mentor and Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka persuaded Gates to study literature. In 1989, he won the American Book Award for The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. In 2000, he and Cornel West wrote the widely acclaimed The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, a collaboration with K. Anthony Appiah, was published also on a CD-ROM as Encarta Africana by Microsoft.
Gates’s catalog of honors includes the National Humanities Award, presented by President Bill Clinton in 1998. His induction last year into the Sons of the American Revolution was perhaps one the more surprising events in his honor-studded life. He learned of his Revolutionary War lineage while filming his PBS documentary, “African American Lives,” an investigation of the ancestry of eight notable African Americans using DNA and genealogical research. “You could have knocked me over with a feather,” Gates said of his personal discovery.
Gates is best known, however, for proposing a Black literary canon. “We have to conceive a new aesthetic status for American art in all of its facets,” he’s said. In The New York Times Book Review, he wrote, “There can be no doubt that white texts inform and influence black texts (and vice versa), so that a thoroughly integrated canon of American literature is not only politically sound, it is intellectually sound…”