The American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association (MLA) last month presented its highest professional award to Henry Louis Gates Jr., the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro American Research.
Gates received the Jay Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies for his many contributions, during a career spanning more than 30 years, to the study of African-American literature. In fact, judging from the lengthy citation by Gordon Hutner, chair of the prize committee, Gates not only has made contributions to the field; he practically invented it.
“In awarding this prestigious medal to Professor Gates,” Hutner said, “the MLA is recognizing his superb accomplishments, indefatigable energy, and unsurpassed industry in the scholarship and criticism of American literature. His numerous books and articles, the whole range of production, however, cannot measure alone the gift he has bestowed on us, the gift of shaping – in large part defining – the contours of African-American literary studies in our time. Without Skip Gates, the literary historiography and criticism of African-American writing, over the last 25 years, would be remarkably different, remarkably poorer.”
Gates’ many publications include works of criticism, edited volumes, anthologies, reference works, memoirs, and popular articles. He is also responsible for the discovery and publication of many forgotten texts by early African-American writers.
In his acceptance speech, Gates paid tribute to the African-American scholars who inspired him and helped to shape his career, particularly the pioneering literary scholar Charles Twitchell Davis.
It was Davis, Gates said, who made him realize that as a scholar of African-American literature he was obliged to maintain particularly high intellectual standards because of the prejudice in many circles that writing by blacks did not qualify as literature.
“We had to ‘represent’ the tradition, in English departments and in American Studies programs,” said Gates, “and we had to show both racists and well-meaning skeptics that ‘our’ literature was just as accomplished and complex as white male American literature. That was our burden; but that also was our enormous privilege, both an historic responsibility and an opportunity to write ‘definitive’ analyses of this great yet still largely unknown tradition of literature that he loved, and which we would come to love as well.”