2019 Laureate Prize Winner

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

2018 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate in the Humanities and Public Service

In his remarkable and versatile career, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has done important work in the areas of arts and criticism, humanities and historical research, genetic science, documentary film, and public service.  He exemplifies the spirit that inspired the Creativity Laureate Award – the multi-disciplinary creativity of Benjamin Franklin. 

Gates became known as a leading scholar of African-American literature, history, and culture in the 1980s. Working on the Black Periodical Literature Project, he uncovered lost literary works published in the 1800s. After receiving one of the first “genius grants” from the MacArthur Foundation, Gates rediscovered what is believed to be to be the first novel published by an African-American in the United States: Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson. Originally published in 1859, Gates republished the work in 1983.  

Gates is now the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American research at Harvard University, which sponsors visiting fellows, art exhibitions, publications, research projects, archives, readings, conferences, and new media initiatives. Since arriving at Harvard in 1991, Gates has shaped the Center (originally known as the W.E.B Dubois Center) and transformed the Department of Afro-American Studies as it expanded into the Department of African and African American Studies. 

But the influence of Gates is felt far beyond the gates of academia.  He has authored or co-authored twenty-two books and created eighteen documentary films, including Wonders of the African World, Faces of America, African American Lives, Black in Latin America, Black America since MLK: And Still I Rise, and Africa’s Greatest Civilizations. His six-part PBS documentary series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (which he wrote, executive produced, and hosted), earned the Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Program, as well as the Peabody Award, Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, and NAACP Image Award.  

Gates is currently the host, writer, and executive producer of the hit series Finding Your Roots. Now in its fourth season on PBS, the series investigates the genealogy of notable public figures, thereby helping to expand America’s sense of itself -- stimulating a national conversation about identity with humor, wisdom, and compassion. According to Gates, "people have so much anxiety about the future, so they want to anchor themselves in the past, and not by taking a course in world history, or American history, but in taking the course of their own family history." In the process, he also teaches science.  He has received grant funding to develop a Finding Your Roots curriculum to teach students science through genetics and genealogy. 

Gates has written for such leading publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Time. And he has been a pioneer in new media.  Gates serves as chairman of TheRoot.com, a daily online magazine he co-founded in 2008, while overseeing the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field. He is also chair of the Creative Board of FUSION TV. 

Most recently, Gates published The Annotated African American Folktales with Maria Tatar. “I am very much concerned that black kids see themselves as part of a global black experience,” Gates said. Aiming to introduce young readers to stories that have been passed from West Africa to the Deep South, and down through many generations, the book contains more than 100 African and African-American folk tales, as well as introductory essays and commentary to provide historical context. Dedicating this “labor of love” to his 3-year-old granddaughter, Gates hopes the book will not just reach black children of her generation, but reach all American children.  

Gates is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and serves on a numerous 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 America, and the Brookings Institution. In 2017, the Organization of American States names Gates a Goodwill Ambassador for the Rights of People of African Descent in the Americas.   

Gates was born on September 16, 1950 in Keyser, West Virginia. He graduated from Yale University in 1973 with a degree, summa cum laude, in English language and literature, and in 1979, he earned a doctorate degree at Clare College - Cambridge University. In 1998, he became the first African American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.