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Henry Louis Gates

      . . . literary critic. Chair of the Harvard University Afro-American Studies Department, Dr. Gates has been instrumental in changing America’s literary “canon,” broadening the definitions both of American and African-American literature.  With degrees from Yale and Cambridge, he is author and/or editor of a series of books now considered standards. Dr. Gates’ discovery and edit of The Bondwoman’s Narrative resurrects a remarkable woman slave’s long-lost novel.

Excerpts3:12 secs

 America’s public face at home and abroad has been Black culture for a very long time, according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It’s the “lingua franca” of America, says this literary critic who has been instrumental in broadening America’s literary canon. Twice now, Dr. Gates has brought to light pre-Civil War women writers who were African-American as well as having unmasked the “signifying monkey” for the world to behold.

While his projects are many and diverse, they feel seamless to Dr. Gates. He sees no contraction in going from literary theory to archival history to the pages of “The New Yorker” magazine or the “Sunday Times Book Review.” These are simply different manifestations of one consciousness, he says, for which he unconsciously flips a switch.  Besides, he says, it keeps boredom at bay.

Dr. Gates’ “Christopher Columbus complex” has twice spurred him on to private voyages of discovery.  Finding The Bondwoman’s Narrative and resurrecting the genius of its author, Hanna Crafts, was, he remembers, a high point in his career. And this is no ordinary career, it is distinguished by Dr. Gates’ own significant contributions to broadening an understanding American literature of all ethnicities.

A living defiance of stereotypes, Dr. Gates does not restrict his range to his academic endeavors. His life gives him plenty of ammunition -- a poor boy from Piedmont, West Virginia, who goes to Yale (with time out for work in a Tanzanian mission hospital) and ends up Chair of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department. He sees the rugged individualism instilled in him as a youngster reflected in his work as well. His simply put his love of African-American culture and his love of being a scholar together so that he could live surrounded by books.

Dr. Gates clearly loves a good mystery, especially when it involves ferreting out who wrote what. It was the result of his scholarship that Harriet Wilson’s ethnic identity was authenticated.  At the time, her 1859 novel Our Nig was thought to be the first written by a Black woman. Unlike Ms. Wilson, who was free and a Bostonian, The Bondswoman’s Hanna Crafts was a slave writing in the 1850s.  

But fulfilling dreams does not stop with fiction for Dr. Gates. He also brought W.E.B. DuBois’ dream of a pan-African encyclopedia to light, leading 400 scholars in the creation of what Dr. Gates calls the Black Encyclopedia Britannica: Encarta Africana and The Africana Encyclopedia.

The leitmotif of all of Dr. Gates’ many foundational projects? No one will ever again have to wonder, “Did Black women write books?” or “Where can I get them?” or “Can I teach a course in African-American literature if I’m in Boise, Idaho?” Now, long neglected works can be available in any library or on-line.

What were once fantasies for Dr. Gates are now realities. The result?  A scholar who is deliriously happy, both when doing his work and when those works are published.

[This Program was recorded April 25, 2002 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how he shifts his focus among a great many general audience and academic venues. He gives examples of stereotypes that don't work.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:54 secs

Conversation 2

Dr. Gates describes his "Christopher Columbus complex," having authenticated the works of two antebellum African-American women writers. He describes fulfilling W.E.B. DuBois' dream of a pan-African encyclopedia as well as playing a central role in the creation of other concordances, annotated bibliographies, anthologies and series. He quotes a number of individuals and sources from whom he has taken inspiration, revisiting how today's academic "canon" took shape.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:08 secs

Conversation 3

Black readers can now put Black authors on best-seller lists, Dr. Gates notes, comparing this new reality to experiences of earlier writers. He assigns Toni Morrison a permanent place in "the canon." Comparing expectations in the 1960s to realities at the beginning of the 21st century, Dr. Gates argues for government programs to give hope to poor people and to supplement their hard work and individual initiative. He compares the Black culture of his youth to today's Hip-Hop culture. He expands, eager to significantly address social ills with a combination of structure and agency, individual will and federal intervention.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:55 secs

Conversation 4

Describing how the heroine of The Bondwoman's Narrative transcends slavery, Dr. Gates details why this is a story of hope carried by a fiction. He gives vivid examples of the book's adherence to fact as well as noting the mysteries it contains. He cites 100 other self-taught early brilliant writers, up to and including Frederick Douglass, with echoes from other great writers who also focused attention on economic exploitation. Dr. Gates describes how W.E.B. DuBois wrote himself into a position of leadership. The signifying monkey makes his first appearance.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:01 secs

Conversation 5

Dr. Gates describes the enormous cultural significance of and long-term implications attached to the story of the signifying monkey. He gives examples of this language game invented by slaves in the American context, but brought from Africa. He compares the word play to jazz, expands the comparison to rap and tells the only way to lose. He puts this verbal game into its cultural context, noting the universality of trickster stories. The inability to distinguish the literal from the figurative is explored, with a nod toward the role slavery played in this evolving story. He gives examples of how Black culture is America's "lingua franca."

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:24 secs

Conversation 6

Uniting the notion of signifying with the autobiographical elements of The Bondwoman's Narrative, Dr. Gates describes bringing the author's genius back to life as one of the high points of his career. He recounts the story of how it happened.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:07 secs


It was our pleasure to welcome Dr. Gates, who graced us with his presence when it was a challenge.

We are always grateful to the extraordinary Esther Levine of "Book Atlanta" who makes escorting people look easy -- which it most certainly is not!

Related Links:
The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hanna Crafts, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a Warner Book.
Henry Louis Gates' definitive The Signifying Monkey is published by Oxford University Press.
And among Dr. Gates' many other books are The Future of the Race, a Vintage Book, and The African-American Century, published by The Free Press, both of which Dr. Gates co-authored with Dr. Cornel West.

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