Written by Liz Mineo Harvard Staff Writer Harvard Gazette
The University of Cambridge awarded literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. the honorary degree of doctor of letters (Litt.D.) in recognition of his contributions to the history of African American literature. The award celebrates Gates’ scholarship and numerous accomplishments in the field of African American studies, said Professor Stephen J. Toope, Cambridge’s vice chancellor, in an email to the Gazette.
“The University of Cambridge offers honorary doctorates to individuals of outstanding international achievement in their field, and Skip’s credentials are impeccable,” said Toope.
“His contributions to the history of African American culture, and in particular his inclusive approach to African American literature, have been enlightening and enriching. This award celebrates his scholarship while also reinforcing his ties to our collegiate university.”
At Cambridge, Gates met Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright, poet, and novelist who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature and was then an honorary fellow at Churchill College, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, a British-Ghanaian philosopher and novelist, who, like Gates, was an undergraduate at Clare College. The three formed a strong bond and friendship over studies of African literature and African history. Both Soyinka and Appiah encouraged Gates to change his life path.
“Soyinka and Appiah each in their own way inspired me to start thinking about the possibilities of embarking on a career as an academic, which I had never considered before,” said Gates. “It had never crossed my mind. I had been raised to be a doctor. And then one night at dinner with the two of them, they both said to me, ‘You’re not going to be a doctor. You were put on this earth to be an academic and teach African and African American studies.’ They recognized an interest that I had not admitted to myself. And, to my own astonishment, I believed them.
“This is an award that I will accept in honor of them, their seminal influence on the shape of my career, and our deep and abiding friendship, a friendship almost half a century old,” said Gates.To show his appreciation to Cambridge, Gates raised $300,000 for a prize in honor of Alexander Crummell, the first Black student who graduated from the university in 1853.
“I wanted to honor the first African American graduate of Cambridge University,” said Gates. “This is a way of paying homage to the ancestors for this marvelous thing that happened to me, a way, as they say, of paying it forward.”
Gates is the only African American man who was been awarded an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge, which is the world’s fourth-oldest university. Opera singer Jessye Norman became the first African American woman to receive an honorary degree from Cambridge in 1989. Other honorands include Jane Goodall, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Stephen Hawking.