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 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.