Noted scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. continues to break ground exploring the evolution of African-American society in America. His new book America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans(Warner) compiles 30 thought-provoking essays on the Black experience in this country and is a companion piece to a four-part PBS documentary.
A prolific contributor to African American scholarship, Gates looks at two distinct communities in his book, the privileged and the disenfranchised. He paints a portrait through essays, drawn from interviews with such notable names as Colin Powell, Morgan Freeman, Maya Angelou, Vernon Jordan, Alicia Keys, Bernie Mac, and Quincy Jones. From the perspectives of Black Hollywood, the Black Elite, the Ghetto and the New South, he examines the legacy of the civil rights movement and the fate of black people since the death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gates commands great stature as an influential cultural observer. Graduated from Yale with highest honors, he visited 15 countries and became familiar with various aspects of African culture as both a Carnegie Foundation and Phelps fellow. His knowledge of Africa deepened when the celebrated African writer Wole Soyinka became his tutor at the University of Cambridge, where he received master‘s and doctoral degrees in English language and literature. The MacArthur Foundation honored him with a “genius” grant in 1981.
Gates joined the Harvard University faculty in 1991 after teaching at Yale and serving as a full professor at Cornell and an endowed chair at Duke. He serves as the W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the humanities, chair of the Department of African and African American Studies, and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard.
Other honors and grants include the George Polk Award for Social Commentary, the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award, the Golden Place Achievement Award, Time magazine‘s 1997 “25 Most Influential Americans” list, National Humanities Medal, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and many other honors and honorary degrees.
In his approach to literary criticism, Gates is avowedly eclectic, defining himself as a centrist who rejects extreme positions. He believes that we need to transcend “ethnic absolutism” of all kinds, drawing criticism from those who fault him for being insufficiently Afro-centric. Others find issue with his showmanship and high-profile activities.
He is the author of many books and articles contributing to the study of black literature and addressing multiculturalism, the tension between the racially segregated past and the integrated modernity, and gender roles. One of best-known works is Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Roles where he argues for greater diversity in American arts and letters. In this book he disagrees with both “intellectual protectionism” and positions that demand change solely on the basis of shifting views on gender and ethnicity. “The society we have made,” he argues in the book, “simply won‘t survive without the values of tolerance. And cultural tolerance comes to nothing without cultural understanding…if we relinquish the ideal of America as a plural nation, we‘ve abandoned the very experiment that America represents.”
Gates will be interviewed by Karen Grigsby Bates, a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR‘s latest news show “Day to Day.” A reporter and a columnist, she has recently authored a mystery: Plain Brown Wrapper. A graduate of Wellesley, Bates has spent time at the University of Ghana and completed Yale‘s management program.