Authors: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American critic and editor

Identity: African American

Author Works


Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial Self,” 1987

The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, 1988

Loose Canons: Notes on the Cultural Wars, 1992

The Amistad Chronology of African-American History, 1445-1990, 1993

Colored People: A Memoir, 1994

Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, 1994

The Future of the Race, 1996 (with Cornel West)

Thirteen Ways to Look at a Black Man, 1997

Wonders of the African World, 1999

The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country, 2000 (with West)

Edited Texts:

Black Is the Color of the Cosmos: Essays on Afro-American Literature and Culture, 1942-1981, 1982 (Charles T. Davis’s essays)

Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two Story White House, North, Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There, 1983 (by Harriet E. Wilson)

Black Literature and Literary Theory, 1984

The Slave’s Narrative, 1985 (with Davis)

“Race,” Writing, and Difference, 1986

Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, 1986 (with James Gibbs and Ketutto Katrak)

The Classic Slave Narratives, 1987

The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, 1987 (30 volumes)

Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, 1990

Bearing Witness: Selections from African-American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century, 1991

Black Biography, 1790-1950: A Cumulative Index, 1991 (3 volumes; with Randall K. Burkett and Nancy Hall Burkett)

Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, 1993

Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, 1993

Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, 1993

Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, 1993

Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, 1993

Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, 1993

Identities, 1995 (with Kwame Anthony Appiah)

The Dictionary of Global Culture, 1996 (with Appiah)

The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 1996 (with Nellie Y. McKay)

Pioneers of the Black Atlantic, 1998 (with William L. Andrews)

Black Imagination and the Middle Passage, 1999 (with Maria Diedrich and Carl Pedersen)

The Civitas Anthology of African-American Slave Narratives, 1999 (with Andrews)

The Souls of Black Folk, 1999 (with Terri Hume Oliver)

The Bondwoman’s Narrative, 2002 (by Hannah Crafts)


Considered one of the most provocative and influential scholars in the United States, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was born in a small West Virginia town to Henry Louis and Pauline Augusta Gates. As a child, Gates read voraciously, carefully recording his ideas in a commonplace book. When he was fifteen years old, an Episcopalian priest gave him a copy of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (1955), which catalyzed his interest in African American literature. Gates has recalled that reading this book “fueled a love of literature like nothing [he] had ever experienced before,” and that he began concentrating on works by black authors.{$I[AN]9810001873}{$I[A]Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.}{$I[tim]1950;Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.}

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

(©Jerry Bauer)

Gates was admitted to Yale University, where in 1973 he earned his B.A. degree with high honors. Charles Davis, Gates’s mentor at Yale, encouraged his study of African American literature. Gates paid tribute to his mentor with the 1982 publication of Black Is the Color of the Cosmos, a collection of essays by Davis and by others commemorating Davis’s work. During his time at Yale, Gates received fellowship funds that enabled him to travel extensively in Africa.

Gates was awarded grants for graduate study from the Ford and Mellon foundations and entered Clare College of Cambridge University, the first black graduate student to study English there. The Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka, then a visiting professor at Cambridge, became Gates’s tutor. This association was critical to the direction of Gates’s thought, for Soyinka introduced him to the culture of the West African ethnic group the Yoruba, whose mythology and language patterns Gates later used in the development of his critical approach. Gates earned his M.A. from Cambridge in 1974 and his Ph.D. in 1979. He was thereupon appointed director for the African American Studies Program at Yale and assistant professor of English.

In his introduction to the 1983 edition of Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, Gates established himself as an authority on early texts by African Americans. Also in 1983, Gates published his theories on the connections between the mythology and language of the Yoruba and African and African American writings in the essay “On ‘The Blackness of Blackness’: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey.” This seminal essay was later expanded and published in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism.

At the time Gates began his work, scholars of African American literature were focusing almost exclusively on content and on individual works as a reflection of “the black experience.” Gates argued that the literature should also be examined textually for its use of language. He identified language patterns common in the works of black writers, but uncommon in works of other writers. Central in Gates’s theory is the concept of signification, which he identified as a master trope (a language pattern involving word play and an unexpected turn in the idea) in African and African American writing. Signification includes patterns from both classical rhetoric and black vernacular, and it uses metaphor, irony, understatement, and exaggeration as well as loud-talking, specifying, testifying, and rapping. Signification presents infinite options in variations of words, phrasing, and meaning. It can tease, refuse to come to the point, use innuendo, or lie to create interest or stir up trouble.

The signifying monkey, which personifies signification in Gates’s theory, is closely related to versions of Esu, the trickster god in Yoruba mythology. He is the god of interpretation and the center of circles of all possible meanings incorporated in a word or phrase. Gates has emphasized that signifying covers “a range of meanings and events which are not covered in . . . standard English usage.”

With his insistence that works by black authors should be examined linguistically as well as for their content, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., opened a new range of perspectives on the literature. In addition to his books on critical theory and his editions of works of African and African American writers, Gates has contributed numerous articles to many scholarly journals.

BibliographyAdell, Sandra. “A Function at the Junction.” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 20 (Winter, 1990). Compares Gates’s approach to African American literature with that of Houston Baker.Branam, Harold. “Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” In Encyclopedia of Literary Critics and Criticism, edited by Chris Murray. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999. A helpful entry on Gates that analyzes his life and career.Bucknell, Brad. “Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the Theory of ‘Signifyin(g).’” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 21 (January, 1990). Presents a thorough analysis and discussion of Gates’s ideas. Also discusses Gates’s critical position in relation to the positions of other scholars who disagree with his theories.Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “An Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Interview by Charles H. Rowell. Callaloo: A Journal of African American and African Arts and Letters 14, no. 2 (Spring, 1991). Presents interesting and enlightening reflections by Gates on his ideas and his experiences.Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Interview by Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 22 (Autumn, 1991). Presents interesting and enlightening reflections by Gates on his ideas and his experiences.Olney, James. “Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” In Modern American Critics Since 1955, edited by Gregory S. Jay. Vol. 67 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 1988. An examination of his life and work.
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