Book Review: The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader
Publication Date: May 01, 2012
List Price: $29.99
Format: Hardcover, 656 pages
Imprint: Basic Civitas Books
Publisher: Perseus Books
Parent Company: Hachette Livre
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Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the nation’s most acclaimed scholars, is a masterful jack of all trades, including educator, editor, critic and filmmaker. This omnibus of essays on race, culture, and genealogy, The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader, collected over thirty years, showcases Gates, the Harvard professor, at his best. He is currently the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
Author of Colored People, In Search of Our Roots, and the American Book Award-winning The Signifying Monkey, Mr. Gates includes the engaging introductions to the re-discovered works, Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson and The Bondswoman’s Narrative by Hannah Croft. With these books, he sets a tone for the rest of the collection, honoring the richness of the African American literary tradition. What an incredible range of topics and opinion! The professor encompasses such subjects and personalities as signifying, 2 Live Crew, Jean Toomer, Oprah, critic Albert Murray, Harlem, the Chitlin Circuit, white guilt, Africa, and candid talks with Condoleeza Rice and writer William Julius Wilson.
Often, Gates can go too far afield, meandering into a far-flung detail, but he never fails to get right back on target. When the scholar discusses New York Times writer Anatole Broyard, who was born black and passed for white, he concludes: “Anatole Broyard had confessed enough in his time to know that confession did nothing for the soul. He preferred to communicate his truth on higher frequencies.” (pg. 347)
Or Gates can let the humanity shine through, despite the blinding light of celebrity, as in his electrifying chat with writer James Baldwin and international singer/actress Josephine Baker in the south of France. Baldwin, ever the rabble-rouser, chimes in: “I was the captive nigger. I was the exotic attraction of the beast no longer in the cage. People paid attention.” (pp. 563)
While this reader provides us with range and determined loyalty to research, Gates shows himself on a scholarly par with any of the noted white intellectuals. He’s a force to be reckoned with. He explains to this community about the depth of our ancestry, the courage and boldness of our pioneers, and the persistence of our leaders in achieving equality and freedom. This sampler is more than a history lesson, but a cultural quest by Gates for excellence and historical clarity.