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Professor, Author and TV Host Henry Louis Gates: ‘I Work Hard ... and Sleep Like a Baby’

Gates, 73, shares how he became a revered Harvard professor, a best-selling writer and the founder and host of the hit PBS show ‘Finding Your Roots’


VIDEO: Henry Louis Gates Found Fame Exploring Family Histories

Some public intellectuals win their places in society through fierce debate, showing off the sharpness of their minds during verbal attacks. But Henry Louis Gates Jr. took a slightly different path. He did it by being charming.

Gates, who bouncily introduces himself as Skip, is a charismatic everyman who just happens to be smarter than almost everyone else. Arguably the world’s foremost scholar of African American literature, Gates has published such an influential body of work that he helped expand the canon of American literature taught at universities to include Black authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison. In 1981, he was part of the inaugural group of recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship — the so-called genius grant.

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A Conversation With Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In a new episode of Real Conversations with AARP, Harriette Cole sits down with distinguished professor, genealogist and author Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Tuesday, Mar 19, 2024
7:00 p.m. ET • 6:00 p.m. CT • 5:00 p.m. MT • 4:00 p.m. PT

Register here

He has, more than any other scholar in the U.S., ensured that Black culture and literature are not only preserved but disseminated throughout America in every which way — books, movies, television and continued scholarship. And at 73, he’s creating more popular work than ever. The 10th season of his PBS celebrity genealogy show, Finding Your Roots, premieres Jan. 2 and features Valerie Bertinelli, LeVar Burton, Michael Douglas, Dionne Warwick and Sammy Hagar. (AARP is a corporate sponsor of this season of the show.) A month later, PBS is airing Gospel, Gates’ four-hour documentary on that quintessentially American worship music. The month after that, his book The Black Box: Writing the Race, will provide a home version of his Harvard intro course on African American studies.

Here, in a wide-ranging and exclusive interview, Gates recounts the path that led him to his influential perch.

spinner image left a photo of henry louis gates junior when he was seven right a photo of his family when he was a child from left to right gates then his mother pauline then his father henry senior then his brother paul
(Left to right) Henry Louis Gates at age 7; Gates with his mother Pauline, father Henry Sr. and brother Paul.
Courtesy McGee

Roll up your sleeves

My father worked two jobs: at the paper mill and as a janitor at the telephone company. The phone company was a small office with six operators. They loved my father. We never had a phone bill. And because he had two jobs, we were the most prosperous Black family in Piedmont, West Virginia.

My brother and I would start looking at the Sears, Roebuck catalog in July for our Christmas presents, and I got pretty much whatever I wanted. After Christmas we were asked to bring in our favorite new toy to school. It took me years to realize that that was patently unfair. When I was 13, I started buying Christmas presents for about 12 kids in the neighborhood. It was a practice motivated by a sense of privilege and guilt.

I have replicated my father’s life, but doubled. I have probably four jobs. I have a seven-day work week. And I love it.

A house that reads

The paper mill, which employed 2,500 people, let out at 3:30. So the mill whistle would blow then, and school let out at the same time. We would have dinner at 4 o’clock. Then my dad would go to his second job at 5 o’clock and get home at 7:30. Every evening he would read the paper and do the crossword puzzle. He subscribed to Alfred Hitchcock’s magazine. He read more books in his life than I’ll ever read in mine.

spinner image henry louis gates junior in his p b s documentary the black church
Gates in his PBS documentary "The Black Church" (2021)
Courtesy McGee

Flirting with God

My mother went through a very severe menopause. One Sunday when I was 12 years old, they were taking Mom into the hospital. And my mother told me she was going to die. I went up to my bedroom. I cried and made a deal with Jesus that if he let my mother live, I would give my life to Christ. On Wednesday, she came back from the hospital.

That following Saturday, I hitchhiked 5 miles away to the county seat, Keyser, West Virginia. I walked into the service at the Black Methodist church. The average age was, like, 95. There’s a call to the altar if you want to give your life to Christ. So I stood up and everybody in the church got around me. They ask you five questions and you say “I do.” I cried. Everybody cried. It was one of the most moving things that ever happened.

That night, I was so nervous through dinner. I knew my parents would not like this. Joining that church meant I could not go to basketball games. I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t play cards. I loved to dance. I loved to play cards. And I said, “I joined the church today.” They went crazy. I never told why I did it. I thought that would be a violation of the agreement I had with God.

So for two years, I didn’t go to basketball games. I didn’t dance. I didn’t play cards. Everybody in that church thought I was going to be a preacher. But I had the same brain then as I have now. I began to feel like a hypocrite because I was worshipping with people who thought the world was created in seven days. And that there actually was a man and woman named Adam and Eve.

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spinner image henry louis gates junior posing for a a r p
PHOTOGRAPH BY KWAKU ALSTON

Getting off the farm

During the first decade of the 20th century, my great-grandparents sent their three girls to Howard University. They kept the oldest boy on the Gates farm, a 200-acre farm in Patterson Creek, West Virginia. They didn’t educate him, which really pissed him off. I don’t think he ever forgave his parents or his sisters. I descend from the guy who stayed and ran the farm with his father. And that guy made sure that his children and grandchildren would be educated.

I can’t remember ever suspecting I was not going to college. It’s just the way it was. The only question was which medical school I was going to.

Strive!

At the Peterkin church camp in West Virginia in the summer of ’65, I met Mark Foster Etheridge III. His father was the editor of the Detroit Free Press. Mark was the editor of the camp newspaper, the Peterkin Peeper. He wrote an editorial about how the bishop cheated playing softball. Everybody was scandalized that somebody would take on the bishop. Obviously, I wanted to be like that guy. I said, “Where do you go to school?” And he said, “I go to a place called Exeter.” I wrote to Exeter, and they wrote back and said, “We would like you to be interviewed.” I was interviewed by William Campbell, who was a very famous professional golfer. I got a free ride to Exeter. But I dropped out after six weeks. I was homesick.

I wrote Exeter in the spring of my senior year of high school and said, “I would like to come for a postgraduate year.” I was sure they were going take me back. And they didn’t. I hadn’t applied to any other place. So I went to Potomac State College.

I threw myself into premed my freshman year. I got straight A’s. I was gonna be a doctor in Piedmont! [Laughs.] But I had a great English teacher there who persuaded me to apply to Yale and drop premed. So I did and went to Yale on a scholarship.

spinner image henry louis gates junior right and his father left at a superbowl game
Gates, right, attends a Super Bowl game with his father.
Courtesy McGee

Great expectations

When I left for Yale, my father said, “If they don’t treat you right, come on home.” And I cried. Because that was so empowering. It meant that “our opinion of you is not based on the judgment of some anonymous people 424 miles away — whether they went to Yale or not.”

My parents bought me a brand-new car to go up to Yale. They thought everybody had cars up there. When I got to Yale, I was the only person with a car. One of my best friends at Yale, Sheila Ford, Henry Ford’s great-granddaughter, I don’t think even she had a car.

Time Out

I knew that Time magazine had hired Strobe Talbott [a fellow Yalie and later President Clinton’s deputy secretary of state] in London when he got his Rhodes scholarship. So when I got the Mellon Fellowship to go to Cambridge, I wrote to them and said, “If you hired Strobe Talbott, how about me?” One of my best friends at Yale was Kit Luce, [Time Inc cofounder] Henry Luce’s grandson. He sent it right to the chief of correspondence. I came down for an interview in London, and the next day they called me and said, “You have a job.” I would call my parents and say, “You see those three sentences in this article? I wrote those.” They offered me a job permanently when I finished at Cambridge, but I wanted to continue my studies.

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spinner image henry louis gates lecturing at harvard
Gates giving a lecture in a class at Harvard.
Courtesy McGee

Stick to your guns

When I came back from testifying for the rap band 2 Live Crew in their 1990 obscenity trial, I was told that I had embarrassed the Duke University [where he taught at the time] community. That cut me to the quick because I had gone there to defend the First Amendment. I am not a fan of hip-hop. I’m a devotee of soul music and R&B from the ’60s.

Right after that, Harvard called and asked me to come up to give a talk. I knew I was being considered for a job there. The room was packed. First question: “Why did you testify for 2 Live Crew?” And I said, “Of all the people who talk dirty in the United States, two Black guys get arrested? That’s racist. I will always stand up and fight anti-Black racism. And I’ll always stand up and fight for freedom of expression.” And people went crazy. In the middle of the reception, the dean’s assistant tapped me and said, “Dean Rosovsky would like to see you at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning.” And he told me I was going to get the job as chair of the department of African American studies. The band was acquitted, by the way.

PREVIEW: Singer Ciara on the Season 10 premiere of "Finding Your Roots."

Reach out, all ways

I conceived of the original version of Finding Your Roots around Alex Haley’s Roots. I only did Black people. The narrative arc was constructed so that the apex would be when the guests found out what ethnic group they were from in Africa. I thought that’s when they would go crazy.

PBS sat me down and said, “We think this series is for everybody.” The mistake I had made was to assume that everybody but Black people knew their family tree. But nobody knows their family tree. People know their grandparents. But some people don’t know that. Angela Davis did not know the identity of either grandfather. As it turned out, both of them were white.

spinner image henry louis gates on p b s show finding your roots with guest levar burton
Gates, left, with guest star LeVar Burton in "Finding Your Roots."
Courtesy McGee

Take the high road

I have an ethics protocol, and it ensures I ask this of our show’s genealogy candidates when appropriate: “We have found something in our research that will forever transform your understanding of your biological family. Do you want to know or not?” I’ve never had anybody say no. The most painful thing we find is that the man you called your father is not your biological father. They drop out of being on the show after that.

Dressing the part

I’ve had the same tailor on Savile Row make suits since 1998. I have 70 suits and sport coats. I wear 22 each season of Finding Your Roots. I have a couple hundred ties and pocket squares. We don’t repeat. I have a custom-made closet. It’s my closet. My wife is not allowed in my closet. [Laughs.]

Good night

My wife and I eat dinner at 8. We generally stream a show during dinner. We’re watching The Diplomat. I love it, but I’m an Anglophile. When I’m tired, I go to bed. If that’s at 8 o’clock, it’s 8 o’clock. I work hard and have a lot going on, but I sleep eight hours a night and sleep like a baby.

spinner image henry louis gates junior posing for a a r p
PHOTOGRAPH BY KWAKU ALSTON

The Life and Times of Henry Louis Gates (So Far)

1973: Graduated from Yale with history degree

1975: Dropped out of Yale Law School after one month

1979: Earned Ph.D. in English literature from Cambridge

1979: Named assistant professor in English and Afro-American Studies at Yale

1981: Discovered Our Nig, the first published novel (in 1859) by an African American woman. Awarded a MacArthur genius grant that same year.

1985: Mentored Jodie Foster in her undergrad thesis on Toni Morrison

1989: Joined Duke as an English professor

1990: Defended the rap group 2 Live Crew in an obscenity trial

1991: Appointed director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research

1992: Received George Polk Award for a New York Times op-ed essay

1998: Became the first African American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal

2009: After being arrested for unlocking his stuck front door, had a beer with the arresting officer at the White House with President Obama and Vice President Biden

2012: Began hosting PBS’s Finding Your Roots

2013/2014: Wins Emmy and Peabody Award for the PBS documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

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