Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., 1950–, American scholar and critic, b. Keyser, W.Va., B.A. Yale, 1973, Ph.D. Cambridge, 1979, where he studied with Wole Soyinka. Gates is an expert on African-American literature and culture. His rediscovery and reinterpretation of historic black literature began in 1981 with his finding, authenticating, and publishing of the first known novel by an African American, Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859). Since then Gates has been instrumental in bringing other lost or forgotten works to light. His many books of criticism include Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (1987) and The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988), in which he developed the notion of “signifyin(g),” a linguistic tradition running throughout black culture that describes things or people by the use of humor, paradox, indirection, boast, and insult. His nonacademic works include Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997) and Life upon These Shores (2011), and he coedited The Dictionary of Global Culture (1997) and The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin (2006). Among his many documentaries are the PBS series on the African American experience (2013), African civilizations (2017), and Reconstruction (2019), for which he also wrote companion books. He also created and hosts the PBS's Finding Your Roots (2012–), in which genealogy and genetics are used to explore the ancestries of prominent Americans. Gates has taught at several universities, including Yale (1979–85), Cornell (1985–90), and Harvard (1991–), where he heads the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

See his memoir, Colored People: Letters to My Daughters (1993); A. Wolf, ed., The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader (2012).

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