Setting Oneself Up for Greatness and Setting Women Aside, Gates’ Quest for “Integrity”

Henry Louis Gates’ “What’s Love Got to Do with It?: Critical Theory, Integrity, and the Black Idiom” is a critique of a criticism by Joyce Joyce, a well-lauded black female critic who wrote “The Black Canon.” His criticism focuses on a woman’s work, but his evidence almost entirely relies on men’s criticism and literary writing. His connection to Africa through travel and scholarship combined with his appointment to a position named for one of what he feels to be the great African American legends cast this piece in an interesting light, suggesting the critic’s concern for his own legacy.

Gates came from a very working class background, but transitioned to elite institutions of learning. He went to a local junior college and left for Yale University bachelor’s degree in history. After graduating, Gates transitioned into exploring Africa physically and academically. He took a leave of absence after graduating to travel through Africa, serving as an anesthetist in Tanzania. This fact, though unrelated to his later work, made me wonder if he was inspired by differences in treatment of black people in hospitals in America versus Africa. It has been documented that black people in America are often given lesser diagnoses and less pain medication, and I know that many minority scholars who travel to Europe or a country where they are the majority experience a significant shift in their sense of self.

It seems clear that Gates’ travel did impact him in some way because when he moved on to study at Cambridge University, he was under the tutelage of a Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka. Soyinka is the one responsible for persuading Gates to study literature, for which he received a doctorate degree in 1979. He then taught at several institutions, including Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard.

At Harvard, he was appointed the W.E.B. du Bois Professor of the Humanities in 1991. This stuck out to me because in my source, Gates brings up Du Bois multiple times in mixed levels of praise and condemnation. He begins one section by saying that he is going to highlight the “salient points” of Joyce’s piece, which he proceeds to undermine by saying that the first only reveals the stupidity of Joyce’s student quoted in the article. He says of her reaction he deems faulty that any good teacher, including Du Bois, would have told Joyce’s student, “back to the text and told her to read it again” (Gates 354). He goes on to refer to her as not a full teacher and suggests that her opinion that authors have failed to be clear to readers is in fact her own failing as a scholar.

The next mention of Du Bois in the article is to refer to him as, “a mediocre poet and a terrible novelist” (Gates 355). He does this in the part of his argument where he says Joyce is categorically wrong to say the best critics are creatives. In what I think is a clear move to align himself with Du Bois, Gates mocks the almost legendary figure, writing, “Du Bois was probably the very first systematic literary and cultural theorist in the tradition. Rather, we genuflect to Du Bois” (355).

This fact about Gates’ career really changed the way I perceived his treatment of Du Bois in the article. Clearly, Gates thinks highly of himself and his conclusions from his repeated totalitarian dismissal of any others as wrong or rather passive aggressively as “muddled” (356). If Gates feels himself to be in the same group as Du Bois, it would explain more fully the extent to which he takes Joyce’s criticism of respected critics so personally. She suggests that some black critics have attempted to assimilate into whiteness, and Du Bois repeatedly asks his audience if different things he does in his criticism make him “less black.” I am not suggesting that this is Gates’ primary interest, but the article was written two years after he received that title, which might have put Du Bois in his mind as a predecessor or peer. It also seems to make him feel as though he can completely dismiss Joyce and many other ideas. Furthermore, his thoughts should be, as he phrased it, genuflected to. His piece’s themes of “legacy” and “integrity” and repeated defense of himself reflect a goal of legendary status he fears more intersectional criticism might upset. In this way, his response to a women’s criticism of black male writing is very familiar.


Gates, Henry Louis. “‘What’s Love Got to Do with It?”: Critical Theory, Integrity, and the Black Idiom.” New Literary History, vol. 18, no. 2, 1987, pp. 345–362. JSTOR, JSTOR,


The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encylclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 24 Oct. 2014.


One thought on “Setting Oneself Up for Greatness and Setting Women Aside, Gates’ Quest for “Integrity””

  1. Margot, your author biography is really effective in thinking critically about how Henry Louis Gates’s life shapes his writing and research. I think you’ve done a great job here of paying attention to elements of his personality i.e. how he perceives himself in relation to other scholars, and how this influences the way he writes. Although I haven’t engaged with Gates’s work extensively, I have come across a few of his articles (mainly those which focus on Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean) and noted that he is often positioned as a controversial figure in some ways; in other words, I’ve come across a lot of criticisms of his scholarship. Even just last week when writer and filmmaker Raquel Cepeda came to campus, she brought up some of her criticisms of Henry Louis Gates into conversation–notably, his lack of complexity in dealing with issues of anti-blackness in the Dominican Republic as it relates specifically to Haiti. This is just to reiterate that it serves us well to always engage with critics *critically*, which I certainly think you’re doing here. Especially as you focus in on a particular person, paying attention to a scholar’s tone, engagement with others, and how their own experiences inform their scholarship, can be really valuable.

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