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A Week to Remember: Happy Birthday, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was born on September 16, 1950. Gates is a literary critic, professor, and filmmaker whose work centers on genealogy and African-American history and literature.

Gates spent time as a professor at Yale, Cornell, and Duke before settling at Harvard, where he has been a professor of English since 1991. His best-known work of literary criticism, The Signifying Monkey (print), received the American Book Award in 1989; it examines the relationships among the works of several major African-American authors, and traces their literary and storytelling style to traditions of African literature and folklore.

Gates argues that African-American literature cannot necessarily be judged by the same criteria as literature of European cultures; it should be judged against the aesthetic traditions in which it is rooted. In doing so, he says, we can more fairly evaluate its quality and better understand whether it has achieved its goals.

That is not to say that Gates advocates the creation of a separate canon of important black literature; he is a strong advocate for the integration of the canon. More controversially, at least to some of his colleagues, he argues against critical separatism and believes that it should not be only black scholars who are encouraged to think and write about black literature.

In his research into African-American literature, Gates discovered what are believed to be the two earliest novels written by black people in the United States. Harriet E. Wilson's autobiographical novel Our Nig (e-book | print) was written in 1859; Hannah Crafts' The Bondswoman's Narrative (e-book | print) comes from roughly the same period, and may predate Wilson's novel by a few years.

five books by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Gates was at the center of a national discussion about race and policing in 2009. He was returning home from a trip and found the lock on his door was jammed. As he tried to get into the house, someone called 9-1-1 to report that someone appeared to be breaking in. Gates' confrontation with the police officer who responded to that call led to his arrest for disorderly conduct. The incident drew national attention after President Obama commented that he thought the police had "acted stupidly." Obama eventually invited Gates and the officer to join him and Vice President Biden at the White House for a "beer summit." Charles J. Ogletree examines what the incident tells us about race, class, and policing in The Presumption of Guilt (print).

For the last twenty years, Gates has appeared frequently on PBS as the host and producer of several films and series. His 2013 6-hour documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (streaming | DVD) traced the 500-year history of Africans and African-Americans in what is now the United States, from the conquistador Juan Garrido, who accompanied Ponce de Leon to present-day Florida in 1513, to Barack Obama.

His interest in genealogy led to the series Finding Your Roots; in each episode, Gates helps two or three celebrities explore their family history. The show has aired four seasons, with a fifth due in 2019. The first three seasons are available on streaming video; the first four seasons are available on DVD.

Gates' other films include the series Black in Latin America (streaming | DVD), Black America Since MLK (streaming | DVD), and Africa's Great Civilizations (streaming | DVD); and the film Looking for Lincoln (streaming). The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader (print) offers a sampling of Gates' critical and cultural writing.

Also This Week

September 13, 1501

Michelangelo began work on David, a 17-foot marble statue of a nude male. It was planned as part of a set of sculptures to be placed atop the Florence Cathedral. Two previous sculptors had already started work on the block of marble, carving it into a crudely outlined body. Michelangelo spent more than two years refining their work into David. The statue never made it to the roof—it weighs six tons—and was instead placed in the Piazza della Signoria. To prevent damage, David was moved to a gallery in 1873; a replica was placed in the Piazza in 1910. Miles J. Unger's Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces (e-book | print) tells the story of the artist's life through David and five other works.

September 13, 1857

Milton Hershey was born. Hershey had been making candy, mostly caramels, for twenty years when he founded the Hershey Chocolate Company. At the time, milk chocolate was a luxury product, and Hershey developed ways to manufacture it cheaply enough that it could be marketed nationally. Much of Hershey's profit went to philanthropic endeavors, including a boarding school for orphans. Michael D'Antonio's biography, Hershey (e-book | print), looks at Hershey's life, business, and charities.

September 13, 1916

Roald Dahl was born. Dahl is best known for his children's books, which usually feature kind-hearted children who triumph over the sinister plots of cruel adults. He also wrote fiction for adults, mostly short stories focused on macabre crimes and surprising twist endings. Dahl won three Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, two for short stories and one for an episode of a TV anthology series based on his stories. Much of Dahl's fiction, both for children and adults, is available in e-book format at OverDrive.

September 10, 1958

Siobhan Fahey was born. In the 1980s, Fahey was a founding member of the British girl group Bananarama, who had success with such hits as "Cruel Summer," "Venus," and "I Heard a Rumor." In the 1990s, Fahey returned to the charts with a new group, the duo Shakespear's Sister. That group was more successful in the UK than in the US, but they did have one top ten record, Stay. Greatest hits collections for both Bananarama and Shakespear's Sister are available for streaming at Hoopla.