Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Birthplace: Keyser, W.Va.
writer, critic, educator, activist
Gates has used his position as one of the country's preeminent black scholars to promote his theory of education reform, which calls for the expansion of black studies programs at universities nationwide and a broadening of the literature curriculum to include in-depth study of the works of authors from non-Western cultures. His direct, often acerbic approach has won praise from educators who share his ideology and offended others in more conservative circles.
He has discovered and restored thousands of works by African American writers, most notably Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859), which is widely believed to be the first novel by a black American. He outlined his theory of “signifyin'” in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (1987) and The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988).
Gates graduated from Yale in 1973. He took a year off as an undergraduate to travel to East Africa, where he worked in a hospital as an anesthetist. He earned a M.A. and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, where he studied under Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. Gates was the university's first black American to earn a Ph.D. He won a MacArthur Genius Award in 1981 and currently serves as the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University.