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.
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...
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