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Exploring Our Roots

Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. to talk about genealogy and African American history

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January 20, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold
Henry Louis Gates

Henry Louis Gates
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Henry Louis Gates Jr. -- the nation’s foremost African American public intellectual and an ardent champion of African American Studies -- will deliver the annual Leon Forrest Lecture Thursday, Feb. 17, at Northwestern University.

His lecture, “Exploring Our Roots: Genealogy, Genetics and African American History,” will take place at 4 p.m. in the Ryan Family Auditorium of the Technological Institute, 2145 Sheridan Road, on the Evanston campus. While the event is free and open to the public, seating is limited.

A giant in academia, Gates is well known to the general public for his “African American Lives” series, broadcast on PBS in 2006, 2007 and 2008. In addition to tracing his own roots, he traced the ancestry of Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, Maya Angelou, Whoopi Goldberg and other prominent African Americans using genealogy, oral history, family stories and DNA analysis.

“Understanding how you got to where you are as a human being through your ancestors is the most important element in shaping your sense of self and your self esteem,” Gates said. In “Faces of America,” which last year aired on PBS, he explored the ancestry of Yo-Yo Ma, Stephen Colbert, Meryl Streep, Malcolm Gladwell, Dr. Mehmet Oz and others.

Not averse to controversy, Gates has been outspoken in his criticism of the Nation of Islam for its anti-Semitism and, last year, in a New York Times op-ed piece titled “End the Slavery Blame-Game” discussed the significant role Africans played in the slave trade. A decade earlier, he defended the rap group 2 Live Crew against obscenity charges, writing in The New York Times that the musicians’ “exuberant use of hyperbole” was part of the African American tradition of “signifying.”

The recipient of 49 honorary degrees, Gates was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution in 2006 after tracing his lineage to a free African who fought in the American Revolution. He is a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner, among many other honors.

At Harvard University, Gates is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African American Research. He is the author of more than a dozen books and anthologies, including the breakthrough book “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism,“ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man,” “Finding Oprah’s Roots, Finding Your Own” and a memoir titled “Colored People.”

Presented annually by the African American studies department in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the Forrest Lecture honors acclaimed novelist and scholar Leon Forrest who taught at Northwestern for more than two decades.

Call (847) 491-5122 or visit http://planitpurple.northwestern.edu/event/403343 for more information.

Topics: Campus Life