Meet Henry Louis Gates Jr., award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, and host of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots.” In this Black History Month Alumni Identity Spotlight, Gates shares advice for finding and building lifelong friendships. 

This feature is part of a series focused on amplifying the voices of alumni who are making an impact today and illuminating how the identities we bring to Yale transform both our community and the world. 

What is your most enduring memory of your time at Yale?

The day I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and the day I learned that I had been chosen to receive a Mellon Fellowship.

How has your identity shaped your Yale experience?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. visits campus
Henry Louis Gates Jr. during a visit to campus in 2000. Photo: Yale Bulletin Archive

Profoundly: I stepped onto campus as a West Virginian, and I graduated as a Yalie.

What is your hope for the future of the Yale alumni community?

My hope for the future of the alumni community is that it grow closer.

What advice would you give to fellow or future Yalies? 

Throw yourself into campus life, and get to know as wide a variety of people as possible. They will be your lifelong friends.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates’s most recent books are Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow and The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. He has also produced and hosted more than 20 documentary films, most recently The Black Church on PBS and Black Art: In the Absence of Light for HBO. Finding Your Roots, his groundbreaking genealogy and genetics series, is now in its eighth season on PBS.

He is a recipient of a number of honorary degrees, most recently a Litt.D. from his alma mater, the University of Cambridge. Gates was a member of the first class awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation in 1981, and in 1998 he became the first African American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal. A native of Piedmont, West Virginia, Gates earned his BA in History, summa cum laude, from Yale University in 1973, and his MA and PhD in English Literature from Clare College at Cambridge in 1979, where he is also an Honorary Fellow.

A former chair of the Pulitzer Prize board, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and serves on a wide array of boards, including the New York Public Library, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Aspen Institute, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Library of America, and The Studio Museum of Harlem. In 2011, his portrait, by Yuqi Wang, was hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

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