Honours for 'intellectual entrepreneur' Henry Louis Gates

18 December 2014 | Story by Newsroom
Blessed with ideas: Honorary graduate Prof Henry Louis Gates Jr, renowned literary critic, educator, scholar, documentary maker, writer and editor.
Blessed with ideas: Honorary graduate Prof Henry Louis Gates Jr, renowned literary critic, educator, scholar, documentary maker, writer and editor.

Honorary graduate Henry Louis Gates Jr, director of the WEB du Bois Institute for African American Research and founding director of the Hutchins Centre for African and African American Research, received a standing ovation from the platform party at the Faculty of Humanities graduation on Wednesday 17 December 2014, the third of four humanities ceremonies this week.

One of America's foremost public intellectuals, Gates had described himself as an "intellectual entrepreneur", one "blessed with ideas", said university orator Professor Alison Lewis in her citation. UCT conferred a Doctor of Literature (honoris causa) on the scholar.

"But it's clearly far more than just luck and ideas that have taken Henry Louis Gates Jr from Piedmont, West Virginia, to the BA summa cum laude at Yale," Lewis continued. "And it's completely unsurprising that he ended up in the colleges of Cambridge, where he was the first African American to receive a PhD."

The cultural critic, journalist, literary scholar, Alphonse Fletcher Professor at Harvard, award-winning film-maker, and fundraiser extraordinaire had immersed himself in his "Grand Design", said Lewis. This is to compile and build the scholarly basis of African American literature, history, and culture, an effort that would resonate with the South African project of reclaiming lost histories.

"At a time when African American culture and cultural product was promoted through 'ethnic cheerleaders', Gates determined that what was needed was evidence in the form of foundational texts.

"He began with the Black Periodical Literature Project, to uncover lost literary works published in the 1800s, and, with extraordinary vision, undertook to resurrect the lived experiences of 4 000 ordinary and notable African Americans in the eight-volume African American National Biography, moving on to the ten-volume Image of the Black in Western Art and a plethora of books, the most notable of which is The Signifying Monkey. This is an ongoing project of insisting on the place of the African American in the literary canons."

Easily bored and with a mind that "moves at a mile a minute", Gates had sought more platforms to promote his project, said Lewis, and had branched into popular culture, writing for the New York Times and Time, editing a daily online magazine and hosting a regular TV series called Finding your Roots.

Gates was also the face of and creative energy behind the documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, recent winner of Emmy and Peabody Awards.

As the director of the Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, he had been instrumental in setting up the Harvard Mandela Fellowships at the Du Bois Institute, said Lewis.

"These have supported numerous fortunate UCT academics on their sabbaticals at Harvard."

UCT Fellow honoured

At the same ceremony, Professor Nigel Worden of the Department of Historical Studies was elected as a UCT Fellow (in absentia).

Worden is described as possibly the most influential historian of slavery in South Africa. Both as a scholar and flowing from his intimate knowledge of the founding influence of the Dutch East India Company at the Cape, Worden has also played a critical role in developing an understanding of the history of Cape Town, the Cape Colony and the South African state.

Graduation fact: Did you know that the each of the officers of the university wears different academic dress at graduations? Chancellor Graça Machel's academic dress consists of a dark blue silk gown, lined with pale blue silk, with front facings of dark blue velvet embroidered with a gold floral design. This is worn with a square blue velvet hat with a gold tassel.

Download the citation for Prof Henry Louis Gates Jr



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Compiled by Helen Swingler. Photo by Je'nine May.

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