The career of the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has been marked by a series of intellectual megaprojects, from the landmark 30-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteeth-Century Black Women Writers (1988) and the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature (1996), to the five-volume Africana encyclopedia (2000), and three mammoth biographical dictionaries featuring some 10,000 notable figures from Africa and across the African diaspora.
Now, Gates — perhaps best known to the general public through his PBS genealogy series “Finding Your Roots” — is planning another: a series of books on Black thinkers and artists, each by a leading contemporary author.
The series, published by Penguin Press, will begin appearing in 2023. The two dozen pairings announced so far include Lawrence D. Bobo on the sociologist William Julius Wilson, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham on the historian John Hope Franklin, Jelani Cobb on the legal scholar Derrick Bell, Farah Griffin on Toni Morrison, Tiya Miles on Harriet Tubman, Imani Perry on Stevie Wonder and Brandon Terry on Malcolm X.
The idea, Gates said in an interview, isn’t to offer a straight biography, but to allow authors to take something of a personal, almost alchemical approach to their subject.
“The idea is to establish a baseline of intellectual reflection on the achievements of creative writers and seminal thinkers who have one thing in common, which is that they happen to be quote-unquote Black in various ways,” he said. “My goal is for these thinkers and creative artists to become part of the world’s canon.”
The series grew out Gates’s own book-in-progress about W.E.B. DuBois, which mixes biography with analysis and personal memoir. Last spring, during a phone conversation with his editor at Penguin, Scott Moyers, he floated the idea of making it a part of series modeled on the Fontana Modern Masters, a British series of short guides inaugurated in 1970 that was edited by the literary critic Frank Kermode.
“They had these amazing titles — T.S. Eliot by Stephen Spender, Irving Howe on Trotsky,” he said of the series (whose distinctive op-art covers have inspired cultish devotion). “These books were publishing events in and of themselves.”
Moyers was intrigued. So Gates, the director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, started calling writers from his famously vast network, asking them about their intellectual and artistic heroes. He pitched some on particular ideas (Duke Ellington?). Some suggested their own alternatives (Charles Mingus!). Within a few months, he had two dozen authors signed up.
The series will be called Significations, a play on the African-American tradition of wordplay known as “signifying” (and a callback to Gates’s 1988 book “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism”). Each book will be 40,000 words, and all writers, Gates said, will receive the same advance.
(Moyers declined to provide any financial details about the deal, but called it “an enormous investment.”)
Gates said he sees the series as part of the latest bend in the arc of Black studies, which began with projects of recovery and preservation, and has now moved to the phase of explication and interpretation.
And the series, he said, would be a salvo on what he called “the last battleground of anti-Black racism.”
“If you can close your eyes and imagine other forms of racism disappearing, I think the last remnant will be underestimation of Black intellect, which is part of a racist discourse that goes all the way back,” he said.
While the subjects thus far are mostly American, there are some exceptions, including the Jamaican musician Bob Marley (who will be written about by Paul Gilroy), the French West-Indian philosopher Frantz Fanon (by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor at New York University who writes The New York Times’s Ethicist column,) and the Senegalese poet, politician and cultural theorist Léopold Sédar Senghor (by Wole Soyinka).
As for his own subject, DuBois, Gates said it would serve as a kind of introductory overture to DuBois’s work, some of which is as long, dense and difficult as it is seminal.
“Here was a guy who had a Ph.D. in history, and then went on to become a founder of American sociology, and also went on to write one of the most lyrical books” — “The Souls of Black Folk,” from 1903 — “which contains the two founding, shaping metaphors for Black narrative through the 20th century: double consciousness and the veil,” he said. (DuBois also created pioneering infographics, co-founded the NAACP and wrote a historical fantasy romance novel.)
And what will we learn from Gates’s book on his intellectual hero and model?
He laughed. “That there’s only one W.E.B. DuBois.”