2021 PEN/Audible Literary Service Award: Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University.
Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or co-authored more than 20 books and created more than 20 documentary films, including The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Black in Latin America, Black America since MLK: And Still I Rise, Africa’s Great Civilizations, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This is Our Song,, and Finding Your Roots, his groundbreaking genealogy series now in its seventh season on PBS.
The recipient of 58 honorary degrees, Gates was a member of the first class awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation in 1981, and in 1998 he became the first African American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal. A native of Piedmont, West Virginia, Gates earned his BA in History, summa cum laude, from Yale University in 1973, and his MA and PhD in English Literature from Clare College at the University of Cambridge in 1979. He also is an Honorary Fellow, Clare College, at the University of Cambridge.
A former chair of the Pulitzer Prize board, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and serves on a wide array of boards, including the New York Public Library, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Aspen Institute, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Library of America, and the Brookings Institution. In 2011, his portrait, by Yuqi Wang, was hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Acceptance Remarks and Conferral of the Award by Jodie Foster and Wole Soyinka
JODIE FOSTER: On this night, we honor the brave humans who grace us with the fiery and seductive stroke of the written word. I bet you’re wondering what I’m doing up here. Am I right? Preceding such a literary giant as the great Wole Soyinka? Honoring one of the most prolific and influential thinkers of our time, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. I mean, I can speak French and I’ve played some writers on TV, but why me? It’s actually a really good question.
I’m not here as a filmmaker. I’m not here as a celebrity or a fan, but I am here as a student. One who loves and has always loved words. The sacred ocean of meaning they provided was my lifeboat, my anchor, my connection, and a hope that held me when no other hand outstretched.
So imagine me in 1982 or so. I’m 20 years old, I’m a sophomore at Yale, and I stumble into a literature lecture on “Signifying” and the rhetorical play of coded signs embodied in Black vernacular speech. It was all about the “word” and its powerful promise of transformation through recognition, knitting the fabrics of African culture, language, and history together in the act of reading, telling, and subverting. So whatever the lecturer said that day blew my mind, as did the magnetic young professor-to-be. Of course, I didn’t know he was young since he was a whopping 10 years older than me, with already two MacArthur Fellowship grants and a series of published works in the area of African and Afro-American literature. I just prayed that he would agree to be my advisor for my senior thesis on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Professor Gates became my academic mentor, which also initiated our long friendship going on almost 40 years.
Clearly, I am not here as a scholar. I am here simply as a fairly well-educated person inspired by the strong canon of African and Afro-American thought. And through that scholarship, I became a fuller human being who hopefully brings that spirit to the institutions of privilege that I affect. “Words”—both sacred and quotidian—infused my veins with aliveness and the thrill of humanity and belonging across the cultures. But those words also reminded me of the sadness and confusion of my separateness as a member of the dominant Eurocentric tradition. Words make perspective shifts possible. Teacher to student. Person to person. Drip by drip.
Skip, as a weirdly young father figure, introduced me to our mother Africa. And I carry her word, both sacred and quotidian, blessed and scarred, lived and imagined. She is with me in everything that I do.
So thank you, Skip, for the honor of your mentorship, and thank you for the lifetime of work that you’ve given to us all. You have widened the landscape of our culture through your academic research, your discoveries, your documentaries, your deep personal poetry, and your childlike curiosity. You have brought your generosity of spirit and brilliance to championing other thinkers, like Anthony Appiah, who’s also my other Yale advisor. Your accomplishments and accolades are so many—I would list them, but I have pilates in the morning.
Skip, I want you to know that I am especially grateful to you as my friend ’cause your energy comes from pure love, and I know Marial and your daughters Maggie and Liza can attest to that. So with a mixture of earnestness delivered in a Robin Williams patter, you can be both funny and fragile. Your humor tinged genius throws caution to the wind. Because, yes Skip, you are also gifted with a rather big mouth. One day, we were walking on the crowded Yale campus and he shouted out to this very regal professor across the street, “Hey Sarah. What the hell do you got on your head? Is that a hat or a dashiki?” And he giggled, but I died of embarrassment.
Skip, you are a preacher of sorts that connects with confidence and humility. You are one of us and none of us, and among the most loyal friends I could ever have, so I take your trust in me as a badge of honor. Brotherhood, sisterhood, neighborhood. You are my guy, and that is a forever thing for me.
And that is why it is so very special for me to witness you receive the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award. PEN America stands up for the written word, the power of ideas, and the individuals who use these tools to transform our world. You are the perfect exemplar of PEN America’s mission to celebrate and defend free expression, having used your own voice to give voice to countless others. So like other great luminaries of our day, from Cornel West to Carl Sagan, from Maya Angelou to Mahalia Jackson, you bring faith to the “us.” And I believe that that faith itself is an act of manifest, a conjuring. We are all here in recognition of your magic trickstering, your bringing history to bear on this present place we share together as children of this earth. So may this award remind you of our spiritual commitment to humanity and our impossible bonds. Thank you, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., from your ever grateful student, Alicia Christian Foster. AKA, “you know who.”
WOLE SOYINKA: Skip, get ready, you’re in for it tonight.
Contrary to widely-held opinion, an opinion which Mr. Henry Louis Gates himself has been at great pains to propagate, I wish to take this marvelous occasion to disclaim any responsibility for the phenomenon known as Mr. Professor Henry Louis Gates II—what this phenomenon does, when, why, and how. Skip, as he is more generally known, gives the description sui generis a totally unquantifiable dimension. No one on this planet ever knows what he’s up to until the results emerge to astonish us all; to compel frantic, drastic deviations from accustomed perceptions of ourselves, our history, and place in the contemporary world that we live in.
On learning that I was supposed to make a few remarks about him today, I had to commence inquiries all around him regarding what was the latest in his inexhaustible bag of tricks he was about to deliver. I knew that when most of the world, for instance, was locked down, incapacitated by the raging pandemic, I knew that Skip was not idle, but I had no real details of his latest preoccupations. Finally, just to ensure that I was up to date, I found I had no recourse except to tackle him himself. The result was not long in coming; he had been filming a totally new series, the first in a new trilogy: Making Black America: Through the Grapevine. This would be complemented or very swiftly followed by a series on gospel music, the Great Migrations, and so on and on. All this and more, amplifying and expanding the reach of his undertakings in genealogy, a hoard of unsuspected ancestral revelations.
My earliest experience of Sklp Gates should have warned me. It is pertinent to the very preoccupation in the cause of which he is being appropriately honored today: his activities in the exhumation of hidden knowledge, and the freedom that must go with its dissemination. That encounter had to do with a famous African journal called Transition, the 60th anniversary of which is actually being celebrated at this moment. That magazine, like many other cultural initiatives and productive entities, suffered during the conflict between [the] East and Western bloc. That magazine became somewhat infiltrated by one of those sinister, hyperactive cloak-and-dagger national agencies—I think this very organization, PEN International, knows what I am talking about. We found at the time that this journal had been infiltrated just like many other journals and cultural institutions all over the world. Our attitude—those of us who were at the helm of this magazine—was simply to take down that journal, wipe off the memory of it completely, and then look for some other means of transmitting our ideas.
Henry Louis Gates was having nothing of the kind. He was then working for a world journal as well as freelancing here and there. He never does one thing at a time—I think you all know that. And so, he plunged straight into the fray. He drafted a letter, which was an appeal for sponsorship from independent bodies, clean bodies. I signed it, and thus began the rescue mission. Those efforts eventually transited the journal from Legon university through the University of Ile-Ife, and finally ultimately settled—again with Skip at the propelling helm—in its present, secure home in Harvard University. The story of that great trek is one that still awaits its full telling, with ramifications that continue to today among also ignorant revisionisms—some mischievous, some really sinister, but more about that in another place.
That revelation should put an end to all further speculations about who is to be held responsible for the multiple headaches that attach to numerous heady, stimulating, always creative and mind-stretching collaborations in our cultural ventures. For that intervention alone, for the salvaging of the Transitions journal, our man Skip is more than deserving of the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award. But for him, that journal of ideas and intellectual exchange, Transition, would have made its final, definitive transition into oblivion.
So thank you, Mr. Skip, and congratulations.
HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Give it up for Jodie Foster and Wole Soyinka, please. Thank you so very much for that warm welcome. Receiving the PEN/Audible Literary Award is a signal honor in my career, especially to receive it along with our three heroic PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honorees, Baktash Abtin, Kayvan Baja, [and] Reza Khandan Mahabadi; our two recipients of the PEN/Benenson Courage Award, Mimi Hall and Dr. Gail Newel; and our Corporate Honoree, Robert Iger, who’s been such a seminal force in the history of American popular culture, by fueling the life of the imagination worldwide. Let’s give it up to our honorees this evening.
You know, something Bob has said has always stuck with me. “True authority and true leadership,” he maintains, “come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.” For Bob, humility isn’t a statement of weakness—it’s a precondition for growth. Of course, T’Challa, the hero of a certain film Disney produced under Bob’s tenure, was also an expert in confident humility. I’d say it worked pretty well for both of them.
Now a few words about PEN’s resonant motto, “the freedom to write”—because for so many Black authors, that freedom was hard-fought. As James Baldwin once noted and I quote, “For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language.” Recall, first, that it was illegal for an enslaved person in this country even to learn how to read and how to write. And then centuries of slavery were followed by another century of lynching, Jim Crow segregation, disenfranchisement. Does the English language fail us, Baldwin seems to be asking, in the face of the horror of racist terror? No, he decides—we must embrace it, we must occupy it, we must refashion it in our own images, speak it in our own voices, use it to redress the terror.
And what of the freedom to learn? Who has the right to study, the right to teach, to broach fraught subjects at a time when the temptation to police culture has never been higher? Today, partisans in various states are passing laws that regulate what teachers can say, aiming to exclude critical race theory, The 1619 Project, even trying to ban words, ladies and gentlemen—words—words like “multiculturalism,” words like “equity,” words like “whiteness.” But we must not exempt ourselves from scrutiny, and when well-meaning people treat an identity as something to be fenced off from those of another identity, we sell short the human imagination.
One reason this award is special to me is that it is presented by two people quite dear to my heart: one my former professor, the other my former student, whose own senior essay on Toni Morrison, written at Yale in 1985, was so brilliantly insightful. Together, they represent ideals of education that I hold sacred. The idea that you have to look like the subject to master the subject was a prejudice that our forebears—women seeking to write about men, Black people seeking to write about white writers—were forced to challenge. Toni Morrison’s master thesis at Cornell was a study of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, completed in 1955, the same year that Rosa Parks refused to move from the white section of that public bus. Any teacher, any student, any reader, any writer, sufficiently motivated and committed, must be able to engage with the subjects of their choice, freely and without prequalification. That is not only the essence of learning, ladies and gentlemen—that is the essence of being human.
The great Wole Soyinka helped me grasp that when I came to study with him at the University of Cambridge almost five decades ago. Despite the fact that I wasn’t African, let alone Yoruba, Wole welcomed me into his mythical, metaphysical world. And what exhilaration I felt, exploring these new worlds, recalling a passage from the Book of Jeremiah, “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not!” Or as W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, yearningly, “I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.” Du Bois never let anyone tell him to stay in his lane. When Du Bois needed to, he paved his own lane.
What I owe to my teachers—and to my students—is a shared sense of wonder and awe in the face of encountering humanity across space and time, a bridge we magically cross in works created by people who don’t look like us, and who in so many cases, would be astonished that we even know their work and know their names. Social identities, ladies and gentlemen, are not protected but betrayed when we turn them into silos with sentries. The freedom to write can only thrive if we protect the freedom to read and the freedom to learn. And perhaps the first thing to learn is that we could all do with much more humility and much more humanity. Thank you very much.