Voices Against Indifference Initiative

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: W.E.B. DuBois and the Encyclopedia Africana

November 10 – 11, 2003




Henry Louis Gates Jr. is one of the most prominent and well-known academics in the United States today. As an educator, scholar, literary critic, and writer, he has drawn the world’s attention to Harvard’s Afro-American Studies program since he took over as its chair, and his reputation has been solidly built on several fronts as well. As a critic and editor, Gates contributed to broadening the discourse on African American literature with books like Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self (1987) and The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988), which offer refreshing critical approaches that consider cultural traditions in African American literature. Gates has been instrumental in changing the literary canon in U.S. education and bringing literary history to light through the numerous critical texts and republished works he has edited, as well as lost manuscripts he has discovered. In addition, Gates has narrated a major PBS documentary on Africa and co-edited a huge Pan-African encyclopedia on CD-ROM for Microsoft.

Flashy, entrepreneurial, self-promoting, and outspoken, Gates sometimes comes across more celebrity figure than academic, for which he is frequently criticized by his colleagues in academia. He is wealthy, powerful, and elitist, and has been seen by some black activists as having abandoned efforts to help the less fortunate. Tomas Jaehn of Stanford University observes about Gates’s position: “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.”


Growing up in West Virginia

Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates Jr. was born in Keyser, West Virginia, on September 16, 1950. Keyser is located in the Piedmont area of Mineral County, a valley surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains and their foothills. The town’s principal employer was Westvaco Paper Mill. Gates’s father, Henry Louis Sr. (who Gates remembers as “a brilliant storyteller”), was a loader at the mill. To make ends meet Henry Sr. also worked nights as a janitor at the local telephone company. Gates’s mother, Pauline Coleman Gates, cleaned houses and was the first African American to serve on the Piedmont PTA. Gates has one brother, who is now a prominent oral surgeon. Gates says that his mother gave the gift of self-confidence to his brother and him. “She reinforced it over and 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.”

The few blacks who lived in West Virginia formed close-knit and stable communities. In 1954 integration occurred there smoothly — without the hatred and violence that plagued other parts of the United States. But this is not to suggest that Gates did not encounter racism. While at a doctor’s office with a hip injury when he was 14 years old, Gates mentioned that he intended to become a physician. The doctor then diagnosed Gates’s broken bone as a psychosomatic illness, telling Gates’s mother that the boy was an overachiever. “Over-achiever designated a sort of pathology: the overstraining of your natural capacity,” Gates explained in the New York Times many years later. Pauline Gates did not accept the doctor’s diagnosis.



Piedmont’s schools were desegregated just one year before Gates began the first grade — a focal point of much of his personal writing. Gates excelled in school. At a very young age, the idea of Africa captivated him, as he reminisced many years later in an Africana.com article: “I was ten years old in 1960, that great year of African independence, and for reasons even I do not understand, I busied myself memorizing the names of each African country, its capital, and its leader, pronouncing their names as closely as I could to the way our evening news commentator did on the nightly news.” But, as the 1960s ushered in its dramatic changes, Gates was temporarily blinded to the outside world because of a trauma in his own life — his mother’s illness.

By his own account, Gates was a “mama’s boy.” He was fascinated with the complexity of the woman who was enraptured with the radical anti-white oratory of Malcolm X but at the same time wanted her sons to live and excel in an integrated world. In 1962, at the age of 46, Pauline Gates went through a severe menopause that threw off her hormonal balance. In Gates’s words, “she became another person.” She was diagnosed with clinical depression and hospitalized. Gates recounts in a Booknotes interview with Brian Lamb:

Before they took her off she hugged me and she said, ‘Look, I’m going to die, and I want you to love your father and be good,’ you know, all that stuff. And I cried, of course, hysterically. Then I went upstairs and I prayed that God would bring my mama back, and if he did, I would give my life to Christ.”

Pauline Gates did come home from the hospital, but she did not recover from the deep depression. Gates devoted himself to a fundamentalist church for a time and then realized that its literal approach was exactly the opposite of his interpretive nature. The 1960s proceeded; race riots, assassinations, and anti-war marches happened in places that seemed another world to Gates. In his home town he participated in the movements of the times mostly through the books of African American writers such as James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, and Ralph Ellison, and through African American music, although he did help organize a boycott of his school on the day of Martin Luther King’s funeral.

Higher Education

In 1968 Gates graduated at the top of his class and, as valedictorian, he delivered a militant commencement address. In the fall he entered nearby Potomac State College of West Virginia University, planning to go from there to medical school. Meeting professor Duke Anthony Whitmore there changed the course of his career. Taking English and American literature from the professor opened Gates up to new possibilities. Whitmore, glimpsing the spark of genius in Gates, encouraged him to apply to the Ivy League schools.

Gates was accepted at Yale University along with 95 other black students in 1973. While he was at Yale, Gates’s interest in Africa became strong, and he took his junior year abroad in Africa, working in a hospital in Tanzania and then hitchhiking across the equator. One of the things the young Gates learned from this experience was that “I was of African descent, but not from Africa. I remember writing to somebody, ‘Well, if America is Babylon, then I’m a Babylonian because this is where my home is.'” In his senior year at Yale, Gates worked on the gubernatorial campaign of Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia. There he met his future wife, Sharon Adams, a white campaign worker. She moved back to New Haven with Gates and they married seven years later.

Graduating summa cum laude from Yale with a B.A. in history in 1973, Gates won a fellowship to England to study at Clare College, Cambridge University, where he received a master of arts degree in 1974. At Clare College, Gates met Nigerian dramatist and writer Wole Soyinka, now a Nobel laureate in literature, who became a valued mentor and friend for years to come. He also met a young Ghanaian student, Kwame Anthony Appiah, who would later work with him at Harvard and co-edit some of his major projects. In his Africana.com essay, Gates says: “Much of my passion for African Studies was generated by Soyinka’s sublime example, and it is clear to me today that had it not been for our chance encounter, and my deep friendship with a fellow African student, Kwame Anthony Appiah, I would have ended up neither as a professor nor as a scholar of African or African American Studies.”

Despite his commitment to his studies and willingness to learn Western tradition, Gates found the atmosphere at Cambridge limited. There, only the old British masters were studied, he told Brian Lamb. “Even Wole Soyinka, who later got the Nobel Prize — even he, who was a professor there, was not given an appointment in the English department because the English department said that African literature was anthropological or sociological, but it was not belletristic and it was not properly housed in the English department. Well, that’s important because I began my career sort of fighting for what we call cultural pluralism or multiculturalism within the traditional disciplines.” Importantly, he added that “the advantage of winning a battle like that … is that you speak with more authority from the inside.”

From 1973 until 1975 he worked as a London Bureau staff correspondent for Time magazine. Gates returned to the United States in 1975 and became a public relations representative for the American Cyanamid Company. From 1976 until he completed his Ph.D. in English language and literature in 1979, Gates held the position of lecturer at Yale University. On September 1, 1979, Gates married Sharon.


Du Bois’s Vision Revisited — “The Talented Tenth”

Gates, always known as something of an elitist, began as early as graduate school collecting a group of elite intellectual African Americans within in his circle. It was natural for him to find inspiration in the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois, the black intellectual who envisioned cultivating the “Talented Tenth.” By focusing on the development of the intellectual powers of the best and brightest African Americans, Du Bois’s theory goes, you will create a leadership that will advance the interests of the all black Americans. In making the decision to pursue a Ph.D. in English rather than a law degree, as he had briefly intended, Gates was opting to cultivate Du Bois’s vision: “I loved Yale,” he is quoted as saying in Cheryl Bentsen’s article on him in Boston Magazine. “I wanted to commit my life to building Afro-American studies at Yale.”

In 1979 Gates joined the faculty of Yale as an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the English department and in African American studies. There he worked on the Black Periodical Literature Project, collecting and annotating black periodicals with his mentor Charles T. Davis (who died before the project was completed). In 1981 Gates discovered a copy of the book Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet E. Wilson. The book was the first novel by an African American ever to be published in the United States, but was lost and forgotten until Gates brought it to public attention. In continuing on in the Black Periodical Literature Project, he found more lost African American literature.

In the 1980s Gates edited Black Is the Color of the Cosmos: Charles T. Davis’s Essays on Afro-American Literature and Culture, 1942-1981 (1982) and published his own book, Black Literature and Literary Theory (1984). The latter explored applying various contemporary critical approaches to works by African American authors. Gates was promoted to associate professor of English and undergraduate director for the Department of Afro-American Studies at Yale in 1984.


Leaving Yale 

Gates was passed over for tenure at Yale after his first four years. Devastated, he resigned and went to a full professorship in English and Africana Studies at Cornell University. His friend and colleague Kwame Appiah, who had joined him at Yale, soon joined him at Cornell as well. Over the next few years, through the anguish of losing his mother in 1987, Gates’s writing career prospered. In 1988 Gates was named the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Literature, becoming the first African American male to hold an endowed chair in the history of Cornell University.


The Signifyin(g) Monkey

Gates’s 1989 book of critical theory, The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, earned him the American Book Award and the attention of the nation. This book culminated a decade-long development of ideas he presented in seminars and essays. Those ideas inform his other work: as editor of Black Literature and Literary Theory, a collection of essays in which various contemporary methodologies of literary criticism, including structuralism and post-structuralism, are applied to literary works by African Americans; and as the writer of Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self, his semiotic approach to literature.

The Signifying Monkey elaborates Gates’s concept of “Signifyin(g)”; the “g” enclosed in parentheses represents the choice between pronouncing the hard “g” or dropping it, as in vernacular speech. This denotes a conscious and active approach to using language. In Afro-American discourse, according to Gates, signifying is an open-ended process that relies on and plays off of previous expression — that is, what is said in words will be understood in terms of context and other factors, rather than in and of itself alone. This means that reading is an interpretive, and perhaps even a creative, act rather than an absorption of something defined by someone else. In Western traditions, in contrast, to signify usually means to precisely define something, and when such a practice is applied to literature, Gates argues, it fails to engage in the very approach practiced by the writer. “Signifying,” as John Wideman wrote in reviewing Gates’ work, “is verbal play tm serious play that serves as instruction, entertainment, mental exercise, preparation for interacting with friend and foe in the social arena. In black vernacular, Signifying is a sign that words cannot be trusted, that even the most literal utterance allows room for interpretation, that language is both carnival and minefield.” “Signifyin(g) is my metaphor for literary history,” wrote Gates, and as a critic he participates in the same form of play — he is an active participant in a tradition in process, while at the same time helping to define that tradition.

The “monkey” of the title comes from African mythology, in particular the trickster figure in Yoruba mythology who mediates between the worlds of gods and people. In Yoruba the figure is a trickster-god, but in other community stories he takes the form of a monkey. These monkeys serve in their respective traditions, according to Gates, as points of conscious articulation of language traditions, complete with a history, patterns of development and revision, and internal principles of patterning and organization, — a heritage sustained in the vernacular of African American culture.

The vitality and openness of Gates’s way of approaching black literature is apparent in his collection of essays Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992), where such topics as gender and multiculturalism are examined within the context of what Gates calls the cultural wars — with extremes on the right staunchly defending Western tradition and those on the left seeking radical cultural shifts. Gates takes a central view, embracing many of the tenets of Western thought (indeed, his writing retains a strong sense of formal, academic style) while arguing for the necessity of diverse and multicultural approaches. This is the important role Gates himself plays: forsaking nothing that promises active and lively engagement in culture and impatient with any form of absolutism.



In 1990 Gates took a professorship at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Living in the South proved to be quite difficult for an interracial couple; Gates and his wife found themselves subjected to racism on all fronts. That year, Gates testified in a First Amendments trial of the hip-hop band 2 Live Crew, who faced obscenity charges. Gates’s involvement in the case, although moderate, made him the target of conservative attacks at Duke. Even the student newspaper attacked him, and he found little support among the African American staff. In 1991 he accepted a generous offer from Harvard to head up the then-failing Afro-American Studies department. His titles there are: the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, Chair of the Afro-American Studies Department, and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Studies.

At Harvard, Gates found the opportunity to carry out the Du Bois vision. “What we’re trying to do at Harvard is to create, well, quite frankly, what I hope will be the greatest center of intellection concerning persons of African descent in the Old World and the New World,” he told Brian Lamb. Gates lost no time in hiring a “dream team” of well-known African American scholars for his department. With all eyes on him, Gates has not only brought Harvard’s Afro-American program into the front line, with large injections of money, energy, talent, and respect. He has, by many scholars’ accounts, taken African American studies beyond the ideological bent of the 1970s and 1980s black power movement and brought it into a scholarly sphere that is equivalent to all other disciplines. Largely because of this, Gates was included among Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans in 1998 and in Newsweek’s 100 Americans to watch for in the next century.


More Notoriety and Big Projects

It is unusual for an academic to be in the limelight and equally unusual for the work of academics to be well known to the American public. Throughout his career at Harvard, Gates has been involved in huge, attention-getting projects. In 1990 he co-edited the Norton Anthology of African American Literature with Nellie Y. McKay, a professor of Afro-American literature at University of Wisonsin. The project took 10 years and resulted in a 2,265-page compendium of black writing, covering a 200-year period. Gates talked about the importance of the anthology in an interview at Harvard:

There have been perhaps as many as 160 anthologies of African-American literature published since 1845, but none has been comprehensive enough or large enough to contain the sweep, the range or the depth to encompass a full canon of 250 years of writings in English…. What this anthology represents is a first attempt to draw a line between Phyllis Wheatley and Toni Morrison. No matter how meandering that line may seem, our hope is to explain how the two are connected formally, internally, and by language, not by ideology, gender or region, and to show how all the texts in between speak to each other.

Colored People: An Autobiography

In 1994 Gates published his memoirs, Colored People. The book came about unexpectedly, the author told Brian Lamb. When he woke up one morning while at a conference in Italy, the scene outside his hotel reminded him of his home in Piedmont. “And so by extension, I reimagined myself at home, and it was wonderful. And the girls [his two daughters] were back in Boston and so I wrote them a letter every day. So each chapter was called a date — the first was July 10th, the second was July 11th — and I wrote them 20 to 30 pages a day for two weeks.”

Colored People is an engaging account of growing up in Piedmont during the 1950s and 1960s, a time of desegregation. The author looks back on the difficulties encountered, observes the evidences of multicultural assimilation, and expresses his sense of nostalgia for the passing of some unique cultural gatherings. His memoir shows the confluence of varying traditions in the area while also singling out the distinctive African American practices within the community. Gates says he wanted to describe the concrete elements of the era so that his daughters, who have grown up in such different circumstances, could understand.

For several years Gates has appeared in the public eye conducting interviews of celebrities for New Yorker magazine. In 1997 he also published Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, a collection of interviews/essays of prominent black men like Louis Farrakhan, Bill T. Jones, James Baldwin, Colin Powell, and Harry Belafonte, to name a few. New York Times reviewer Karla Jay remarked, “Mr. Gates’ strong suit is finding the common man in uncommon figures, without losing sight of the ways in which race, class and personal experience have shaped each life.”


Africana and Africa

  1. E. B. Du Bois had more than one vision — along with the idea of developing a generation of leaders — the “Talented Tenth” — he also dreamed of creating an encyclopedia that would encompass the people, history, and cultures of blacks throughout the world. Du Bois’ effort in this direction was diverted by his move to Africa. In 1973, the 23-year-old Gates, Wole Soyinka, and Kwame Appiah agreed that they would one day create a Pan-African encyclopedia. After decades of seeking a backer, they came to an agreement with Microsoft to invest in the project — an interactive CD-ROM encyclopedia. Fifteen months later in 1998, Encarta Africana, was released, quickly garnering excellent reviews from all quarters. Gates and Appiah were the co-editors, with a staff of 17 writers. Gates’s detractors criticized the way he managed his employees for this product (according to some, he behaved in the manner expected of a ruthless corporation) and his lack of African Americans on the staff (only 4 of whom were black, and no blacks worked on the core team). But the encyclopedia itself has received rave reviews and brings the study of Africana to a new level in the United States.

Gates fulfilled another dream in 1999 with the completion of a six-hour PBS documentary Wonders of the African World with Henry Louis Gates Jr. The series follows Gates on his 12-month trip through 12 countries in Africa. Gates sets out on the project to uncover the history of Africa for Americans who have been subjected to the Western mythology of the “dark continent.”

Histories indeed are uncovered in this series, including a virtually on-the-air discovery of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu. The stories of ancient civilizations are told in every station along the way. Jay Tolson of U.S. News and World Report noted that Gates “also makes this a very personal journey, a particular African-American’s encounter with all kinds of Africans, from kings and griot bards to descendants of African slave traders.” Although Gates was once again criticized by a few (because he is not, academically speaking, an Africanist, and some African Americans questioned his inquiry into the slave trade among blacks), most reviewers felt that he accomplished his purpose splendidly. “How many of us really know about the truly great civilizations of Africa, in their days as glorious and resplendent as any on the face of the earth?” Gates asked. The series brought knowledge of Africana to the nation — not by way of the ivory tower, but through the most public of forums, the television.


Taking Care of Business

Asked in a Progressive magazine interview what impact he would like to have on American culture or politics, Gates responded: “First and last point of reference is the creation of a great center of African and African American Studies. That’s what I was trained to do. I have to take care of business so that 100 years from now, your great-granddaughter and my great-granddaughter are having this conversation. And that’s a lot of work. After that, if there’s anything left over, figuring out with [“dream team” recruits] Cornel West and William Julius Wilson and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and my other colleagues how race and class really work in America…. In none of these books is that figured out. We have to do it…. I want to create a place where really smart people can interact. It’s something I think I can do.”