In an exclusive podcast for the OUP Blog, OUP sat down with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to discuss his latest project, the African American National Biography. The AANB illuminates African American history through the immediacy of individual experience. From Esteban, the earliest known African to set foot in North America in 1527, right up to rising careers of Denzel Washington and Barak Obama, these stories of the renowned and the nearly forgotten give us a new view of American history. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
OUP: So how long have you been teaching writing in African American Studies?
Dr. Gates: I started my career teaching at Yale as a lecturer in 1976. So I’ve been teaching—how many years is that? 31 years. I’ve been teaching African and African American Literature since then and I’ve enjoyed every day of it.
Some people are lucky enough to be able engage in a career that’s both a vocation and an avocation, and I’m one of those people. Being a scholar of the African American tradition is somewhat analogous to being a Talmudic scholar—a secular Talmudic scholar, as it were, someone who resurrects the texts of his or her tradition and then explicates them. Publishing encyclopedias and concordances and dictionaries about the Black tradition codifies it. That way we can break the cycle which has cursed every previous generation of scholars of African Studies and African American Studies, which is, you might think of it as reinventing the wheel. There wasn’t a bibliographical memory.
OUP: Sure, of course.
Dr. Gates: The latest development is the phenomenally important, AFRICAN AMERICAN NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY Project with its 4,000 biographical entries. This means that anyone anywhere can access all this information about the Black community and the Black experience and it will never be lost again. You know I feel that my career has been worthwhile.
OUP: What are the biggest ways the field has changed since you began?
Dr. Gates: Well let me give you the three changes….First, we have more and more scholars teaching in African and African American Studies than we have before. Secondly, there are more and stronger departments with the right to grant tenure and the right to give a PhD at the major research universities in the United States, by which I mean Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, etc. This is a huge difference. And then third, we have more books published about African and African American Studies, both bibliographical and critical, since 1980, certainly than published in the history of Black people writing in the English language.
OUP: So it seems like what you’re saying is, in a way, the creation of these sort of monumental works has sort of helped create the field of African American Studies.
Dr. Gates: We’ve had an extraordinary burst of scholarship. And very subtle and sophisticated scholarship. Much of the early work on African Americans was ideologically driven, either positively or negatively, by “friends of the Negro” (quote unquote)—meaning abolitionists or neo-abolitionists—or by enemies of the Negro, apologists for slavery and Jim Crowe. So there has never been a better time to be a scholar or student of African and/or African American Studies.
OUP: Tell me, if you can, how do you think the AFRICAN AMERICAN NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY fits into this development of the field?
Dr. Gates: The AANB has just risen to the third power, or cubed, reference accessibility in our field. The metaphor that Maya Angelou uses is standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. That means that now we can take African American Studies to a whole new level. Because we don’t have to waste time—in terms of the subtlety of our analysis—because we don’t have to waste time reinventing the bibliographical wheel. We don’t have to waste time wondering who has written about Phyllis Wheatley or Frederick Douglas.
OUP: And then you can build on the information that has been recorded.
Dr. Gates: And you can build on it, yes. It is a tremendous—the contribution to efficiency is difficult even to calculate. And I think that—you know I’m biased— publishing the AFRICAN AMERICAN NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY will just be an enormous boon to scholarship in both these fields. You know now there are so many people we don’t know—even the most sophisticated scholar of African American history, for example, just simply doesn’t know about the vast number of players who were significant in African American history. The best biographical dictionary contains about 630 entries, and we’re about to publish 4,000 in print and then thousands more online. That’s amazing. I mean, you just can’t even grasp it.
OUP: In a way, we are potentially rescuing some figures that might have fallen by the wayside.
Dr. Gates: We are rescuing significant historical figures from the purgatory of ignorance. And doing so, we will revolutionize our field. So without a doubt the publication of AFRICAN AMERICAN NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY is the single most important event—archival event—in the history of African American Studies.
OUP: Would you say has any aspect of this work been surprising to you?
Dr. Gates: Oh, it’s full of surprises. These are people who thrived, were important in their time and have disappeared. They’ve fallen through the cracks. And the fact that we can then bring them back to life—you know, restore them to their historical significance—gives me more pleasure than I can put into words. It’s like these are the Lazarus’s of the Black tradition. And they are being brought back to life by the wonders of technology.
OUP: Technology and a lot of hard work.
Dr. Gates: And a lot of hard work. We have a great team of editors, our editorial board, and researchers and we’re all working together; it’s truly a collective project.
OUP: Certainly. And I think that’s probably why I think it’s going to be successful.
Dr. Gates: Yeah, I think so. You know, I feel that I’m blessed to have started my career when I did, under the tutelage of John Blassingame, and then been able to see these remarkably dramatic changes, and be part of—to utilize the changes in technology for the greater benefit of scholars of African and African American Studies. And, to some degree, to contribute to those changes, as well. I’m like a kid in a candy store.