The American Academy of Arts and Sciences named University Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. a recipient of its Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies on Wednesday, making him the seventh honoree since the award’s inception in 1975.
The Don M. Randel Award was established to recognize intellectuals for “superior humanistic scholarship,” according to the Academy’s website. Previous recipients include University of Chicago Law School professor Martha C. Nussbaum and Harvard English professor emerita Helen H. Vendler, who is also a University Professor.
The Academy plans to honor Gates with an in-person ceremony in Cambridge this fall, virus-permitting.
Gates said in an interview that he does not consider winning this award a personal achievement, but instead a “recognition” of the field of African and African American Studies.
“I was completely surprised by this award. It’s a great honor,” Gates said. “I see it as a recognition of the field of African and African American Studies, and that’s why I don’t see it as being about me — I see it as being about our field.”
An accomplished scholar and public intellectual, Gates has authored or co-authored 25 books and has been the recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, the National Humanities medal, and 58 honorary degrees. In addition, he has served as the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research since 1991.
Gates’ scholarship primarily focuses on African and African American history and culture. His critically acclaimed work includes the books “The Signifying Monkey,” “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow,” and the Emmy Award-winning miniseries “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.”
African and African American Studies chair Tommie Shelby described Gates’ work as “distinctive,” citing his ability to bring scholarship to the public eye through film, digital formats, encyclopedias, and numerous anthologies.
“I think it’s a combination of those things — both his own distinction as a creative literary scholar and public historian, and also the energy and boldness of his vision in trying to bring work that was largely confined to the academy to a much broader public,” Shelby said.
Shelby added that Gates has “indelibly shaped” the African and African American Studies department since joining Harvard’s faculty in 1991.
“It’s clear that the department of African and African American Studies, as we’ve come to know it, has been indelibly shaped by his hand, vision, energy,” Shelby said. “He’s not only helped to shape us into a leading light in the field, but also maintained very high standards and tried to have the best scholars and teachers available.”
Gates — who served as the department's chair for 15 years — said he created a “fantasy list” of faculty to help build “momentum” for the department.
“It was very exciting how each appointment built on the one before it,” Gates said. “We created a great sense of momentum.”
Shelby said he admires the “freedom of expression” and “independent thought” championed by Gates.
“I think one of the things that I’ve admired most about Skip is sort of his deep commitment to freedom of expression, independent thought,” Shelby said. “He’s always the person who wants to have an open forum about our past, or present, or future without it being overly driven by whatever the favorite ideology happens to be.”
“That spirit, that range in our department — much of that is due to him,” he added.
— Staff writer Felicia He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.