Henry Louis Gates (1950-) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Henry Louis Gates (1950-)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Henry Louis Gates was born in Keyser, West Virginia, and attended Yale University and Cambridge University. He completed his doctoral degree in 1979, the first black person ever to receive one from Cambridge. While at Cambridge, Gates became friends with the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, who tutored him in the cultural traditions and language of the Yoruba tribe. After teaching at Cornell University and Yale, he joined the faculty at Harvard University, where he currently serves as the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities.

Gates studied widely in African American, African and Caribbean cultures and literatures. He made his reputation with the republication of Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig, the first novel published in the US by an African American. His reputation was confirmed with the publication of two studies in black literary theory: Figures in Black (1987), a reconsideration of the nativist strand of influence in African American literature, and The Signifying Monkey (1988), an in-depth study of a native black rhetorical tradition of “Signifyin(g)” rooted in the mythologies and story-telling practices of West Africa. These works established Gates as a major figure in African American studies. His other major work at this time, an edited volume of essays, “Race,” Writing, and Difference (1986), brought together a number of established theorists, including Jacques Derrida, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Many of the essays explored the intersection of Poststructuralism and historicist theories of race and racial difference.

In the 1990s, Gates edited an important anthology of black feminist writings and wrote or edited many volumes on African American autobiography, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. He was co-editor, with Nellie Y. McKay, of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997). An important work in this period was Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, a series of interviews with prominent black men who reflect on their experiences with race and racism. In 1999, Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah published, in conjunction with Microsoft, Encarta Africana 2000, an electronic resource on all things African. Also at this time, Gates wrote Wonders of the African World (1999), the companion to a BBC/PBS series. Gates continues to make significant contributions to African American studies.


Gates, Henry Louis. Figures in Black: Words, Signs and the “Racial” Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

---- . The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

---- . Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man. New York: Random House, 1997.

---- , ed. “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

---- and Kwame Anthony Appiah, eds. Microsoft Encarta Africana 2000. Electronic Resource. Redmond, WA: Microsoft, 1999.