Celebrating Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr at 72: A man of gravitas – Onyeka Nwelue

As I establish the Henry Louis Gates Jr Fellowship at Centre of African Studies, University of Cambridge today, 16th September, which is the day Skip was born, in 1950, I would love to share with you something pertinent.

It is indeed very proper that we are here today to celebrate a man whose life has prominently traversed many “worlds of color”, to borrow the words of WEB DuBois. Color, because beyond the real or interpretative qualities and connotations of our political identities—positive and negative—the life of Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, whose pedagogic influence and intellectual rigor have keenly permeated the topography of African Studies, Literature, Identity, and the Black Tradition since the previous century till now, has indeed been colorful. His achievements in academia, TV, culture, history, genealogy, and so on are exceptionally fascinating. Rarely do we find such a man, blessed with the gift of speaking stinging truths, of searching meticulously and determinedly, and of enlightening us indefatigably, even when we prove to be intransigent in our ways.

In our “worlds of color”, we cannot but admit that we have always had in Professor Gates a consistently valuable repository of our past, a chronicler extraordinaire, a frank assessor of our history and our ancestors’ wrongs, a steadying anchor for our racial inclinations, and an inspirer of a future overflowing with unselfconscious colors. From Professor Gates, we have learned to be proud of our origin, to delight in the spectroscopy of our Africanness, and the promises and boundlessness of color in our world. But we are also constantly inspired to embrace color not only as a symbol of social, cultural, and political identification, but as a channel for penetrating unexplored depths and becoming our absolute best. Professor Gates once said, “whenever we treat an identity as something to be fenced off from those of another identity, we sell short the human imagination.” This charge remains a standing censure as it does a challenge to all of us. Whenever I need a positive steering, I always go back to one of Professor Gates’ works, Colored People, which I love so much. In Colored People, Professor Gates emphasized without mincing words:

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr and Dr. Onyeka Nwelue at Harvard University.

“I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups, that I can’t construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American? So I’m divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time—but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color.”

From Piedmont, West Virginia, through Potomac State College, Yale, and on to this great citadel, Cambridge (where he began a lifetime relationship with Professor Wole Soyinka, among others), to Cornell, Harvard, etcetera, “Skip” Gates has shown us what it means to be a man of gravitas. His kind is rare, and his uniqueness shines through in unlimited ways, dazzling us on screen and on paper, mentally and even spiritually, taking us through our roots and teaching us to be better humans. If there is one way to summarize the mental, cultural, and political topological space of Professor Gates, then we shall have to consult the man himself, who never ceases to enlighten us that, “…perhaps the first thing to learn, in these storm-battered days, is that we could all do with more humility, and more humanity.”

Dr. Onyeka Nwelue is an Academic Visitor at the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford and has published 21 books. 

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