Literary and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., thrives on controversy. "I began my career fighting for what we call cultural pluralism," he once said in a television interview. The battle that began in the English literature department at Cambridge University in England in the 1970s is clearly triumphing: In high schools and colleges across the nation Shakespeare is taught alongside Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright is required reading as well as Plato. Gates remembers when this wasn't always the case.
"There was no African or African American studies at the University of Cambridge. I mean, I was told in no uncertain terms that I could write about Milton or Shakespeare, maybe even Pound and Eliot, who had just recently been introduced to the canon, but certainly not anything African or African American," Gates says.
Gates now stands in the spotlight of African American culture and literary scholarship. He got there through research (uncovering the earliest African American novel, Our Nig, by Harriet E. Wilson), an instinct for attention-getting topics (defending the First Amendment rights of the rap group 2 Live Crew), and a driving vision of what African American studies should become. Since coming to Harvard in 1991 to head its then-faltering African American studies program, he has brought together an academic "dream team."
"What we're trying to do at Harvard is to create what I hope will be the greatest center of intellection concerning persons of African descent in the Old World and the New World," he explains. Crucial to the strength of the discipline is acquiring a base of knowledge so each generation does not have to "reinvent the wheel." To this end, Gates advised the NEH-funded Black Periodical Literature Project, which has collected and annotated all the short stories, poems, and literary criticism that appeared in African American periodicals from 1827 until 1940. He also is working on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which will detail information on twenty-five thousand voyages of the Middle Passage from 1650 through 1867. The first Norton Anthology of African American Literature, which he edited with Nellie McKay, was published in 1996.
But it has never been said that "Skip" Gates, as he is known, is stuck in the past. In Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992), Gates writes, "Ours is a late-twentiethcentury world profoundly fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender. …