Inspiring students: Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Image credit: Peabody Awards

Earning a scholarship to study at Clare College in the 1970s, for first an MA and then a PhD, Professor Gates arrived at Cambridge with an already illustrious academic background. In America, he began his higher education as a pre-med student, but swapped to the arts at Yale University. He graduated with a BA in English Language and Literature, summa cum laude – the highest level of distinction for an academic degree.

His achievements did not stop there. Upon his return to the United States after graduating from Cambridge University in 1979, Professor Gates taught at various prestigious universities – including the likes of Yale and Cornell – before becoming Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the humanities and English (the W.E.B. Institute for African and African American Research, now known as the Hutchins Center) in 1991. The beginnings of Afro-American studies in universities in the States can be traced to the 1960s, with student sit-ins as part of the civil rights movement. Although these students did succeed in securing its place in academia, it was frequently not regarded as ‘respectable’ in comparison to other areas of study. Indeed, it was Professor Gates who oversaw the expansion of the department at Harvard to incorporate a doctoral program, transforming African and African American Studies at the university.

Born in a segregated town in West Virginia, in the 1950s, Professor Gates did not allow the open racism in the America of his childhood to prevent him from going on to have a remarkable career: he has earned over fifty honorary degrees, won an Emmy Award with the 2013 documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, was the first African American scholar to receive the National Humanities Medal (from President Clinton in 1998), and earned numerous other accolades – too many to list, in fact. But what makes Professor Gates incredible in addition to all this is the power of his work. Perhaps something of a family trend – his mother, Pauline, was the first black secretary of the parent teacher association in his hometown – Professor Gates has similarly created a path for others to follow in his footsteps. He has been a powerful force ensuring the continued growth of African American studies in the future.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest