What do you give one of the most celebrated professors of African-American studies for a 60th birthday present? For philanthropists Daniel ’51 and Joanna Rose, the answer was simple: create a lectureship at Yale in the name of their friend, Yale alumnus Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. ’73.
The Henry Louis Gates Jr. Lectures will provide a forum for “cutting-edge thinking” in a flourishing field that looks broadly at the history and culture of people of African origin dispersed throughout the world, noted Elizabeth Alexander, chair of the Department of African American Studies, who describes the annual lectureship as an “extraordinary opportunity” for the department, for Yale and for the greater New Haven community.
“Each year we will bring a powerful, world-class thinker in the large sphere of African diaspora studies to the University and New Haven communities to share their new ideas,” said Alexander.
The inaugural Henry Louis Gates Jr. lecture, “Being DuBois: Lessons in the Management of Identities,” was delivered on Oct. 16 at the Whitney Humanities Center by Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton, and a life-long friend of the honoree.
In addition to the lecture — which explored how the great thinker and social reformer W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963) formulated an understanding of racial identity for Africans in diaspora — the inaugural event included reflections by Alexander on the pioneering work Gates has done in the field of African American studies and his contributions, even from his position as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor of Harvard, to the development of the department at Yale and beyond.
“Because of his generosity and example, we are living in an intellectual community that strives to understand more deeply the history, culture, social movements, and philosophical thought of black people all over the globe,” said Alexander in her comments following the lecture.
Personally too, she remarked, Gates had been a great inspiration. “Once your teacher, always your teacher,” said Alexander, recalling how a seminar he taught at Yale when she was a student on “Black Women and Their Fictions” had affected her profoundly. “My world was changed evermore,” noted Alexander, who, like her mentor, has garnered critical acclaim outside of her distinguished career as a teacher — appearing on the national stage when she read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s first inauguration.
“Skip Gates is the teacher who brought me in—called me in—to the work I do. His own committed and prodigious work is ever animated by a true, deep, and abiding love for the creative beauty, brilliance, foibles, and all else of black people,” said Alexander.
“It is difficult for me to think of a greater honor in the life of a Yale alumnus than to have one’s alma mater create a lecture in one’s name,” said Gates at the inaugural event.
He thanked the people who had made the event possible, singling out Yale President Richard C. Levin, Anthony Appiah ("whose example inspired me to become a professor, rather than a physician," he noted), Alexander, and the benefactor of the lectureship, Dan Rose.
He described Rose, founder and chair of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund and founding board member of FC Harlem/HarlemYouth Soccer, as a “tsadik.” According to Jewish belief, a tsadik is one of the 36 righteous men in every generation who, known neither to themselves nor others, save the world from annihilation by their good deeds. Though anonymous, it is the highest honor a mortal can attain, Gates explained.
Gates — a prodigious writer, critic, teacher, cultural historian, and host of his own PBS documentary series — is the author or editor of over two dozen books. He is the recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees, as well as a MacArthur Foundation award, often referred to as the “genius grant.” A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Gates was a winner in 1998 of the National Humanities Medal. In 2002, he was invited by the National Endowment of the Humanities to give the prestigious Jefferson Lecture.
Among his best-known books are “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man” (1997); “In Search of Our Roots: How Nineteen Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past” (2009), which won a NAACP Image Award in 2010; “Tradition and the Black Atlantic: Criticism in the African Diaspora” (2010); "Colored People: A Memoir" (1994); and “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism” (1988). In 2013, Oxford University Press will publish a 25th-anniversary edition of that groundbreaking work, which was the winner of the 1989 American Book Award.
Two recent books, “Black in Latin America” (2011) and “Faces of America” (2010), expand on his critically acclaimed four-hour documentary, “Black in Latin America,” aired on PBS.
He is co-editor (with Appiah) of “Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience,” and (with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham) of the eight-volume “African American National Biography” (2008). He is a regular contributor to the New Yorker and other literary and general interest publications.
At Yale, Gates was Scholar of the House in History and a member of Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year. He graduated summa cum laude. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in English at Clare College, University of Cambridge.