2006-Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Report of the Hubbell Award Committee

The Jay B. Hubbell Award is given each year to a scholar who has made an extraordinary contribution to the study of American literature over the course of his or her career. The winner for 2006 was Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Members of the Hubbell Award Committee for 2006 were as follows:

Gordon N. Hutner (U of Kentucky), 2006 Chair
Viet Nguyen (U of Southern California)
Wai Chee Dimock (Yale U)
Douglas Anderson (U of Georgia)
Dana Nelson (Vanderbilt U)


December 28, 2006

This evening it is my pleasure to introduce the winner of the Jay Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary studies, the highest professional award that that the American Literature Section of the MLA can give. This year’s recipient is Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University, where he is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Professor of English, Chair of African and African American Studies, and the Director of W. E. B. Du Bois Research Center and who is known to so many of us as Skip. In awarding this prestigious medal to Professor Gates, 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 twenty-five years, would be remarkably different, remarkably poorer. The last quarter of a century has witnessed several great historians and critics of African-American literature, including former Hubbell Medal winner Houston Baker, the late Nellie McKay, and Arnold Rampersad, but none, I venture to say, has made so profound and lasting an impact on the way we identify, study, and teach African-American literature and culture than tonightÂ’s honoree.

It is one thing to help to make a subject, and its resources, vital to fellow professionals and students. Most of us would dare not even dream that our contributions might extend so far. It is still another to make a whole country care about our subject discipline and to commit unprecedented resources to its scholarly pursuit and its popular appeal. And that, I believe, is what distinguishes Skip from the rest of us. Of course, he did not do so alone, for there have been very many others who have worked with him to give African-American literature its rightful recognition in the academy—in the critical and scholarly journals and academic presses, as the subject of innumerable symposia and conferences. Yet more than anyone else of his time, Skip Gates has taken African-American literary study out of the confines of the classroom and into the broad avenues of cultural understanding. As a critic, scholar, journalist, as an editor, bibliographer, historian, he has become a truly American scholar, what Emerson would call a “delegated thinker.”

Please allow me, as is customary on these occasions, to review that career. While in rehearsing these bright lights, I will only summarize his accomplishments and, I hope, the way those achievements, in turn, summarize the field he has helped to construct. Indeed, the American Literature Section is not the first body to honor Skip: his awards include a MacArthur Foundation grant (1981), the George Polk Award for Social Commentary (1993), Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Americans” list (1997), a National Humanities Medal (1998), election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1999), the Jefferson Lecture (2002), and a Visiting Fellowship at the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (2003-2004). I am afraid we are lagging just a bit behind in not having given Gates this medal sooner, considering that he has won more than 40 prizes over the last thirty years. He has also received 44 honorary degrees, from institutions like Penn, Dartmouth, Harvard, NYU, UMass-Boston, Williams, Emory, Toronto, and the University of Benin. He has served on numerous committees of local, national, and international importance, such as The College Board’s National Task Force on Minority High School Achievement, the Advisory Board of the PBS Adult Learning Series, the ACLU Medal Selection Committee, the Scholars Council of the TransAfrica Forum, and the Pulitzer Prize Committee, among way too many others. He has also served or is serving on the Boards of Directors or Trustees for the Pen American Center, Whitney Museum, American Repertory Theatre, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Amistad Research Center, National Trust for the Humanities, New York Public Library, Museum of Afro-American History, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Jazz at Lincoln Center, among about 40 others. Skip has been the subject of some twenty interviews and is listed in 8 different Who’s Whos. Over the last twenty-five years, Skip has served or is serving on the Board of Editors on no fewer than 30 academic journals and more than a dozen other research and publishing initiatives. In many respects, Skip has already moved beyond our modest powers of conferring distinction.

What we can bestow on Skip is the recognition of grateful colleagues who perhaps better than all the eminent foundations and fellowships appreciate how much he has done, how lasting are his contributions, and how various his meritorious projects have been. Many of us in the audience are aware of the shape of GatesÂ’ career as it has unfolded for our own particular interests and so perhaps are not as cognizant as we might be of the ways that he has taken many of our concerns to the broader public through articles in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Village Voice, the Nation, the Washington Post, Time, and even Sports Illustrated. Moreover, he has written profiles of figures as varied as James Baldwin, Wole Soyinka, Eldridge Cleaver and conducted dozens of interviews with figures like Spike Lee, Louis Farrakhan, and Kofi Annan.

Not too shabby for an English professor, even for one who took his undergraduate degree at Yale and then his graduate degrees at Clare College, Cambridge, where, under the supervision of Raymond Williams, he wrote his dissertation on Africans in 18th-century England. In doing so, he was beginning to discover and disclose the grounds for his future research and writing. The early years of Gates’ career, roughly 1976 through 1981 see him moving away from his first writings as a literary journalist (In Harpers and the Antioch Review) and toward his first scholarly essays, including three contributions to the MLA book, Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction by Stepto and Fisher in 1979. By 1981, he was contributing essays to the Black American Literature Forum, now known as the African American Review. Soon he would authenticate and facilitate the publication, in 1983, of Our Nig, or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859), by Harriet Wilson, then believed to be the first novel published by an African-American woman. And two decades later, in 2002, Gates authenticated and published The Bondwoman’s Narrativeby Hannah Crafts, dating from the early 1850s and now considered one of the first novels written by an African-American woman.

In 1981, however, Skip’s career changed dramatically when he won a so-called genius grant. I doubt any humanist has put those five years to better use than Skip, for out of these years came writing that ultimately reshaped African-American literary study, especially Black Literature and Literary Theory, The Slave’s Narrative: Texts and Contexts, with his great mentor Charles T. Davis, and the brilliant collection that first appeared as a special issue of Critical Inquiry, perhaps the single most influential special issue I know of a literary critical journal, “Race,” Writing, and Difference (1986), whose essays by Edward Said, Gayatri Spivack, Anthony Appiah, Mary Louise Pratt, Homi Bhabha, Jane Tompkins, Sander Gilman, Hazel Carby, among others explored the various ways the discussion of race might penetrate the whole of literary study. As breath-taking as such accomplishments over a career may be, Skip was just 35 when both Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self and the instrumental Classic Slave Narratives (New American Library) first appeared. A year later was published the Signifying Monkey: Toward a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, winner of the American Book Award in 1989, which cemented his place, along with his friend Houston Baker, as one of the two leading theorists of African-American literary studies. Until that time, some of us recall, an older generation and its acolytes hoped that the new movement away from vernacularism and bibliography and toward theory would eventually go away, but of course it was GatesÂ’ ideas that triumphed. He concludes these years of unparalleled and decisive publication with the conclusion of his first great editing project, in 1988, the Schomberg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, a 30-volume collection of writings that did nothing less than reconstitute a field. Three years later, he added a ten-volume supplement to the Library, thereby creating a redoubtably enduring archive.

Throughout this fecund period of feverish production, Professor Gates never lost sight of the larger arguments he wanted to make about the place of African-American literature in the culture and the place of African Americans in the US. Yet at the same time, Skip ventured into one of his least-heralded but most important projects, when he revived and became the publisher of Transition magazine, an international review of African, Caribbean, and African American politics and culture. As the next phase of his writing seems to testify, he seems to move from literary studies to their general implications in his Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992), Colored People: A Memoir (1994) of his youth, The Future of the Race with Cornel West (1996), and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man. These studies draw on his experiences and deliver his reflections on African Americans’ expression of their history, social ways, and culture. Yet the conjecture that Skip lost interest in literature would be wrong on two counts: throughout his career, Gates has supervised a plethora of new editions of important African-American texts, by Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Frederick Douglass, and James Weldon Johnson and edited numerous collections of criticism on key figures like Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, and Hurston, and he continued to do so during these years as well.

The second way lies in the part he played producing the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature (1996). While many anthologies had preceded it—and some were really quite good—none enjoyed the unprecedented scale and scope of the Norton, which now stands alone, even 10 years later, as the most comprehensive volume on the subject, and the one with the very best headnotes, which many of you contributed, under the leadership of Nellie and Skip.

In the last ten years, Skip has sustained a pace that most of us find unimaginable and has also broadened his career, not only through the public service of the many, many Boards to which he has been named, but through the projects for PBS that he has written and narrated. These include the film, “From Great Zimbabwe to Kilimatinde,” in the series on Great Rail Journeys (1996), “The Two Nations of Black America” he wrote and hosted for Frontline (1998), “Wonders of the African World,” a six-part series (1998), his four-part series for BBC and PBS, “American beyond the Color Line (2004), and “African-American Lives,” the four-hour series which played earlier this year, the first documentary series to employ genealogy and science to provide an understanding of African American history. Perhaps his crowning achievement in these public works is the CD-Rom encyclopedia he created with Anthony Appiah, Encarta Africana, which has won no fewer than 14 awards from various educational and media groups.

Yet, try as I might to distinguish between Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Skip Gates, the public intellectual, old Skip just won’t let people misunderstand his career so neatly. He remains Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field of African American Studies and Africana Studies; the author of The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (2003); and the coeditor of a new Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006). Forthcoming in February, 2007 is the documentary “Finding Oprah’s Roots, Finding Your Own,” a one-hour documentary on the genealogical and genetic heritage of Oprah Winfrey, for which a companion volume will also be published. He is currently at work on a four-hour sequel to “African American Lives,” which is scheduled to air in February 2008, and is completing a book on race and writing in the eighteenth century, entitled “Black Letters and the Enlightenment,” which, I trust, will be the summa of his magisterial career.

For me, the wonder of Gates’ career has not only been its variety but also its coherence and comprehensiveness, how so much of it was laid out so early and how the rest of it was discovered in the course of his dedication to the principles guiding him over thirty years. I think also of Skip’s bountiful gifts and how he has earned the opportunities to fulfill them, how at so many various points he has understood what the profession needed and found a way to provide them. I think especially how indispensable his work has been—not just his scholarship and criticism, but also his editing and publishing, occasional writing, his whole cultural office.

This year when the Hubbell Committee vetted our candidates we came together quickly and unanimously to award this Medal to Skip Gates. It is now my great pleasure to do so. Professor Gates is unable to attend the ceremony, but he has prepared a few words, which Rudolph Byrd will deliver. So please welcome Professor Byrd. I am sure that your applause will be heard all the way back to Cambridge!

Respectfully submitted,

Gordon Hutner

Hubbell Acceptance Speech By Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

I came to the study of African American Literature for the first time in a formal manner through a scholar named Charles Twitchell Davis. Mister Davis, as all of his students called him, even unto his untimely death, was the first African American to be granted tenure in the English Department at Yale. Mister Davis was also the first black Master of Calhoun College—John C. Calhoun College—an irony he never tired of noting, with that inimitable gleam in his eye. Mister Davis was a man of style, as dapper in spirit and dress as he was dapper in mind. And did he love style! His principal Spring ritual turned on the Kentucky Derby, for which he would meticulously prepare Mint Juleps from his secret recipe, and then don his newly-shined white bucks to watch the race, dressed to the nines in a three piece white suit, like some cafe au lait version of Tom Wolfe, puffing on his funkiest cigar as the race progressed. I loved watching him watch the horses race, far more than I enjoyed watching the race itself. He used to say that this was the most sublime two minutes in the history of sports. But it was his embodiment of style that made it sublime for me.

In his scholarly work as in his life, Mister Davis was also a man who focused on style, on the language of the text and its signs and symbols. He was classically trained in American literature at Dartmouth (where he was denied a Rhodes Scholarship in 1939 because of his race), in American Studies at the University of Chicago in 1941, where he wrote a master’s thesis on the Harlem Renaissance, under the direction of Allison Davis, the first black person to teach at an historically white major research university, and at NYU where he took his Ph.D. in 1951, writing a dissertation on Whitman. In the early fifties, he became the first black professor to teach at Princeton, where he would eventually be denied tenure, just as he was denied his Rhodes Scholarship, because he was black. It would take over a decade and a half for him to recover from this blow, until he returned to the Ivy League to assume the chairmanship of Yale’s stellar Program in Afro-American Studies.

Methodologically, Mister Davis would have seemed to have been made for the New Criticism. With an almost innate attention to the details of style, he loved to devote minute attention to the language of the text, and he was fond of reminding his students that had a creative writer wished for us to explicate her or his work merely at the level of theme, she or he would have written an essay, and not a complex set of signifying structures that we call a poem, a play, or a novel. Mister Davis brought this careful concern with the texture of formal language-use to bear on African American literature. Indeed, he was one of the first truly close readers of the texts that make up the canon of the black tradition. Make no mistake about it: Charles was a snob when it came to taste: the tradition, as far as he was concerned, culminated in an apex of excellence and creativity with Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. While he valued Paul Laurence Dunbar’s place in the canon, and delighted in reading DunbarÂ’s dialect poetry aloud, he was not a particular fan of HurstonÂ’s use of dialect, curiously enough. But he loved Toni MorrisonÂ’s work from the very beginning, and even hired her to teach at Yale in the mid-seventies in the Program in Afro-American Studies of which he served nobly as Chair between 1971 (my junior year at Yale) and 1981, when he died so very prematurely of cancer of the liver. He was first and last a modernist, but he embraced early black post-modernists as well: while extraordinarily fond of Jean ToomerÂ’s “Cane,” about which he wrote one of his most important essays, he also was a vocal proponent of both Amiri BarakaÂ’s work, as well as Ishmael ReedÂ’s stunningly brilliant first four parodic and satirical novels. He would bring both to Yale, hiring Baraka to teach for a year in the midst of his most strident Marxist period. He even allowed Baraka to issue press releases on his “Revolutionary Communist League” stationery, using 493 College Street as his address, the same address as that of the Program in Afro-American Studies!

Mister Davis loved to teach black literature as much as he loved to read it. He taught a graduate seminar on “The Afro-American Literary Tradition” each year for the English Department. And it was in this seminar, which he offered in the Spring semester of the 1975-1976 academic year, that I fell in love with Afro-American literature as well.

I had returned from graduate school in English Language and Literature from the University of Cambridge in the summer of 1975, to attend the Law School at Yale. I had fled Cambridge, deeply frustrated and exhausted from my ideological battles with the Faculty of English at Cambridge, which had just the year before denied the Nigerian playwright, Wole Soyinka, teaching privileges because “African literature,” as they put it, “just wasn’t ‘literature.’” It was definitely anthropology, at the least, they argued, and perhaps sociology, at the best. But it was not literature. So, I had been introduced to the African worlds of mythology and literature by Wole Soyinka himself, as his sole student in the Social Anthropology Department at Cambridge, rather than through the English Department where I was enrolled. After one month at the Law School—truth be told, I knew after just one week—I realized that I was meant to become a scholar of literature, and not a lawyer after all. And so, I took a leave-of-absence. Last time I checked, I was still on leave!

But now I would need a job, to support myself and my fiance. So off I went to Calhoun College, to ask Mister Davis for his advice. He had supervised a tutorial that I look junior year with Linda Darling, my girlfriend at the time, on the History of the Blues. Linda was a brilliant pianist and vocalist. Since she and I broke up during the middle of the semester, I was able to bring a certain experiential reality to the study of the Blues that semester that I would not have understood otherwise! The tutorial, in other words, was a disaster, with Linda and I dividing up our sessions with Mister Davis, so that we could avoid seeing each other’s jive-time face! What hell that semester was: we had decided to take all of our courses together, because we couldn’t stand not being together; soon enough, we couldn’t stand to be in each other’s presence! But Mister Davis was cool with the whole thing, and seemed to be oddly bemused by our determination to go on with the tutorial, and divide him and ourselves into two parallel and never-intersecting universes. He even allowed us to write and submit a final paper jointly, which we somehow managed to do without ever conferring once about its final form, and without ever seeing even one draft from the other’s pen! Somehow, nonetheless, we managed to earn an A, which I believe Mister Davis granted us as an award for all of the amusement that our tortured antics provided him!

So that is how I found myself in his office, in late September, 1975, begging for some sort of job. He asked me if I could type. Turns out that I can type very well, thanks to two years of training, mandatory for all boys in my high school, in the sophomore and junior years. Also turned out that the secretary in Afro-Am had just quit, and the Program was having trouble finding a suitable replacement. So, on October 1, 1975, I became a Secretary B in the Program in Afro-American Studies at Yale, typing memos, manuscripts, and letters, a position I held and enjoyed, quite frankly, until July 1, 1976, when Mister Davis promoted me to a Lecturer in Afro-American Studies and English.

When the second semester started, Mister Davis called me into his office and invited me—no, instructed me—to audit his graduate seminar in Afro-American Lit. While I had read fairly widely in the tradition, I had done so as an avocation, for fun, and, of course, as an undergraduate at Yale in the mid to late sixties, for all that these ferociously adamant texts could unveil to me, sheltered as I was in the hills of eastern West Virginian, about the nature of the unfolding Black Experience. I had, in other words, never studied African American literature in a formal way. But all of that was about to change.

Walking into that seminar—which he held in the Master’s Living Room of Calhoun College—was like walking into a Hall of Wonders. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to participate in one of the truly great learning experiences in my life, and, I believe, in the lives of the other participants, who included Kimberly Benston (now a professor at Haverford), Horace Porter (now at Iowa), Cynthia Smith (now at Smith), Joe Skerritt (now at UMass), Erroll McDonald (senior vice president at Random House, and a major editor of African American authors), and Rudolph Byrd (now at Emory and who is the kind man who is reading this speech!), among several other major figures at work in the profession today. I couldn’t wait for this class to meet each week, couldn’t wait to do the reading, and to hear the oral presentations of my stellar fellow seminarians. To this day, we are all, to a person, the proverbial children of Charlie Davis, and we read African American literature in much the same way that Mister Davis did, with an added dash of theory, perhaps, thrown in to our explications for spice. I know that I most certainly do. Without Charles Davis’s tutelage, I wouldnÂ’t even be in the profession.

I fell in love with African American literature in that seminar, and with Charles Davis’s approach to the study of African American literature, and have never looked back. He would often remind us that we were at the beginning of the formal study of this great literary tradition in the broader academy (while Black Literature had been taught at Howard since the 1920’s, it was only being introduced into English Department and American Studies curricula with the coming of Black Studies in the late sixties) and that we had the great fortune of being unburdened by a mountain of secondary sources through which we had to wade to establish our bona fides as scholars. Of course, he continued, that which was a blessing of sorts, was also a curse: each of our readings would be pioneering, by definition, because so very few close readings of black texts existed—that was the good news. The bad news was that we had so very little to build upon in the way of an established critical tradition. Teaching us the best of the critical tradition as embodied by Sterling Brown, Arthur Davis (his uncle), and Ralph Ellison, among others, nevertheless, he told us again and again, we would be, by and large, out there on our own. And then, too, as he was fond of noting, the mixed blessing of the scholar of black literature was that, often, we had to resurrect the texts of the tradition before we could explicate them, demanding that we be literary historians as well as literary critics, that we be careful and meticulous historical researchers as well as clever theorists and close readers, that we establish texts just as our white colleagues had been forced to do fifty years before, and read them closely, first and last as acts of language, stressing their status as literature and not as polemic.

We had to do more than our peers in white American literature, he would admonish us, and we had to do it better, more carefully, than they, because many of our older colleagues in the field were skeptical of the value and worth of this body of literature, thinking—as had my professors back at the University of Cambridge—that black literature was anthropology, at the least, and sociology, at best, but not really “literature.” We had to “represent” the tradition, in English Departments and in American Studies programs, 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 (Mister Davis went to his grave believing that a single, well-wrought analysis could be definitive) of this great yet still largely unknown tradition of literature that he loved, and which we would come to love as well. Ours was the “cross-over” generation, and if we did our jobs well, our legacy would be the canonization of African American literature, both as part of the larger American tradition, and as a tradition of its own, one with its own histories, rules, and even theories through which its texts could be explicated. One day, he once mused, we might even live to see the publication of a Norton Anthology of African American Literature, a seemingly impossible dream in 1976, which we all paused in that seminar setting to contemplate.

It should be clear by now that I loved Charles T. Davis, and that I am proud to have been his student. And without Charles’s example and tutelage, I would never have embarked upon a career as a scholar of African American literature. It should also be clear that the path that I have taken was charted by Mister Davis both in that seminar, and in my capacity as his junior colleague in Afro-Am between 1976 and his death in 1981.

I never dreamed that my colleagues in American Literature in the MLA would select me to receive this great award, and I am deeply touched and honored—and humbled–by this gesture. I have to confess that much that I have done or tried to do, I have done to honor the memory of my mentor, Mister Davis, who died much too soon at the age of 61 to see so many of his hopes about the institutional presence of the black tradition realized. I keep his picture just above my desk on the wall of my office at Harvard, to remind me why I am here, and how I got here from there. So you will understand if I accept this honor in Mister Davis’s name.

Of all the projects in which I have participated since my career in the profession began in 1975, I have to confess that it is the “recovery” projects that have brought me the most joy and professional satisfaction. In discussions with Mister Davis, and with the great black historian, John W. Blassingame (“Blass,” as we called him, was the first African American scholar to write a full-length study of slavery from the point of view of the slaves themselves, in his seminal book entitled “The Slave Community,” published in 1972), it became clear to me that our generation of scholars of the black tradition had to find a way to map the field with foundational reference works, sophisticated reference works such as biographical dictionaries, canon-establishing anthologies, encyclopedias of history and culture, scholarly editions of texts, collected works of authors whose works had never been collected, and which were languishing in the rare black newspaper or magazine in middle nineteenth or early twentieth century, collected papers projects for major canonical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.,B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and others, bibliographies, concordances, recovered “lost” texts—in short, all of the foundational reference works that, taken together, make a field of study, well, a genuine academic field.

It is upon reference works such as these that any discipline of study is constructed, and Afro-Am (as we called in back at Yale) would be no exception. Indeed, we were determined that we would be part of the generation that eliminated forever the curse of scholars of African American Studies: that each successive generation was forced to reinvent the proverbial wheel, repeating research unknowingly undertaken by previous scholars, of which we remained painfully unaware. It was nothing less than a textual legacy of Memory that we hoped to leave to our colleagues and students, and to successive generations of our intellectual heirs. And that is why I embarked upon projects such as the Black Periodical Literature Project, the Africana Encyclopedia, the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, with my dear friend and colleague, Nellie McKay, and nine of our senior colleagues in the profession. This is why I worked so diligently to authenticate the identity of Harriet Wilson, the author of the first novel published by a black woman in the African American literary tradition, and that of Hannah Crafts, the author of the novel, “The Bondswoman’s Narrative.” Moreover, this is why I was delighted to edit with so many colleagues in our field the 40 volume series called the Schomburg Library of Black Women’s Writings, forever returning to print and to the classroom those myriad texts in all genres by black women in the nineteenth century, so many of which had been long lost or long out of print. It is this same impulse that has led me to edit, with my colleague Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the 6,000 entries that will make up the African American National Biography, to be published on-line and in print by Oxford University Press.

Because of the dedication and the vision of Charles T. Davis and John W. Blassingame, who imprinted their dreams of the future direction of African American Studies upon their students, and most certainly upon me, my own research agenda was set out for me, fully three decades ago. I had only to follow the trail that they charted; that was my task, and that is what I have tried to do. Davis and Blassingame were the two scholars who brought me to the party. And through the research projects that I have pursued, I have tried to do them justice, as we say, tried to honor their memories, and tried to make them proud, even though they were true giants of our field, and I merely one of their many disciples. And it is in memory of these two great Americanists, Charles T. Davis and John W. Blassingame, and on behalf of all of us who love black literature and culture, that I accept this signal honor that you have conferred upon me today. In selecting me, you have honored them, my great teachers, my inspiration for the work that I do. This is certainly the greatest honor that I have received since I became a member of the profession. And I want to thank you so very, very much.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.