BY THE VILLAGE SUN | Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was awarded the National Arts Club’s Medal of Honor for Achievement in Literature on May 11.
Known to friends and associates as “Skip,” Professor Gates heads the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. A longtime writer for The New Yorker, he is probably best known to Americans as the host of the television series “Finding Your Roots,” in which professional genealogists track down celebrities’ and other people’s unknown family histories.
Speakers at the N.A.C. event included David Remnick, the editor since 1998 of The New Yorker. Remnick said there had been other Black writers whose articles were sporadically published in the magazine, but that it was Gates who transformed a publication that had been “for too long, monochromatic,” by penning profiles on the likes of Anatole Broyard, Colin Powell and Farrakhan.
“He opened the eyes of white readers,” he said.
Gates was praised as “America’s professor” and also for his friendship and mentorship.
“A generosity — I think that might be the key word,” Remnick said, “a generosity of his self.
“Where would African-American studies be without him?” he asked, “not just at Princeton and Harvard and Wesleyan, institutions like that — but also many others.”
Remnick quipped that his mother loved watching Gates’s show on Channel 13 and “could not get over that her son knew the man that she called ‘Dr. Gates.’
“Is there a more important teacher, a more important evangelist in the last 30 years?” he asked. “I think not.”
In his remarks, Gates said he had been blessed to be supported by people “that believed in me more than I believed in myself. Tina Brown believed that I could become a part of the magazine.”
He added that he initially thought he would be a medical doctor but then changed course in college.
Gates said he learned how to write profiles from reading Remnick’s writing.
“A mentor doesn’t have to look like you,” he said, “to be there for you.”