Magazine article Humanities

Editor's Note

Magazine article Humanities

Editor's Note

Article excerpt

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.

"I've always thought of myself as both a literary historian and a literary critic," says Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "someone who loves archives and someone who is dedicated to resurrecting texts that have dropped out of sight."

Gates, this year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, has been untiring in his quest. He has unearthed old periodicals, edited dictionaries and anthologies, and written a dozen books. For twenty years he and his colleagues have gathered fragments of a culture, amassing more than forty thousand texts for the Black Periodical Literature Project and enough material for fifty-two volumes on African American Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century for the Schomburg Center in New York. Gates's latest effort is a multimedia digital encyclopedia of African culture, Encarta Africana.

His projects travel with him in many instances. They are the corollary of a teaching career that has taken him from Yale to Cornell to Duke to Harvard. Through all the work runs a concern with the ambivalence of race.

"I rebel at the notion that I can't be part of other groups, that I can't construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me," he once wrote in an open letter to his daughters. "Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American?

So I'm divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time-but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color."

It has been a remarkable journey from the mill town of Piedmont, West Virginia, where Gates grew up. After attending junior college in Piedmont, he studied at Yale and spent a year overseas working at a hospital in Africa. He was graduated summa cum laude in history in 1973 and went to Clare College at Cambridge University on a Mellon Fellowship. …

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