Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

(b. 1950)

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Americanliterary critic and historian specializing in African-American studies. Born in Virginia, Gates completed his undergraduate degree at Yale, during which time he spent a year volunteering at a mission hospital in Tanzania. He was then awarded a Mellon Foundation scholarship (the first African-American ever to be awarded it) to study for his PhD at Cambridge University. There he met Nigerian writer and scholar Wole Soyinka (the first African to win the Nobel Prize for literature), who would become his mentor. He also worked with Raymond Williams and George Steiner. He returned to the US before completing his dissertation and has since held appointments at Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard, where he is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African-American Research. Gates's career can be viewed as having a singular purpose pursued by dual means: his purpose is to modify the western canon so as to accommodate African and African-American voices; his means of doing this are theoretical and historical. On the one hand, through works like The Signifying Monkey (1989), he has endeavoured to offer an aesthetic of black writing that articulates its distinctiveness without at the same time universalizing black experience (as negritude is criticized for doing); on the other hand, he has undertaken a vast rehabilitation programme (for the want of a better term), whereby he has unearthed rare published and unpublished works by African-American writers, such as our Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson, which was the first novel written by a black person in the US, and brought these into the public sphere. This has been accompanied by the compilation of encyclopaedias of black lives and writings. Gates is a high-profile intellectual who has done a lot of work on television and written for the mainstream press. He is routinely identified as one of the most influential African-Americans.

Subjects: Literature.

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