image of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Ph. D. Photo Credit Hutchins Center, Harvard

Press Release

Date: Friday, April 13, 2018

Today, the 2018 Creativity Laureate Prize will be awarded to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Established in 2002 and awarded annually by the Benjamin Franklin Creativity Collaboration, a joint program of the Smithsonian Associates and the Creativity Foundation, the Creativity Laureate Prize recognizes and honors the most gifted and creative thinkers, innovators and professional catalysts in all areas of human endeavor—the arts, humanities, sciences, technology and public service.

Previous Creativity Laureates include: cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, entrepreneur Ted Turner, Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Pulitzer Prize cartoonist Jules Feiffer, actress Meryl Streep, theoretical physicist Dr. Lisa Randall, anthropologist and museum director Dr. Johnnetta Cole, choreographer and dancer Mark Morris, social entrepreneur Bill Drayton, molecular biologist and educator Shirley Tilghman, author Azar Nafisi, and actor and social activist Tim Robbins.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. was chosen for the award for his important work in the areas of arts and criticism, humanities and historical research, genetic science, documentary film, and public service. He exemplifies the spirit that inspired the Creativity Laureate Award – the multi- disciplinary creativity of Benjamin Franklin.

Gates became known as a leading scholar of African-American literature, history, and culture in the 1980s. Working on the Black Periodical Literature Project, he uncovered lost literary works published in the 1800s. After receiving one of the first “genius grants” from the MacArthur Foundation, Gates rediscovered what is believed to be to be the first novel published by an African-American in the United States: Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson. Originally published in 1859, Gates republished the work in 1983.

Gates is now the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American research at Harvard University, which sponsors visiting fellows, art exhibitions, publications, research projects, archives, readings, conferences, and new media initiatives. Since arriving at Harvard in 1991, Gates has shaped the Hutchins Center (originally known as the W. E. B Du Bois Institute) and transformed the Department of Afro-American Studies as it expanded into the Department of African and African American Studies.

But the influence of Gates is felt far beyond the gates of academia. He has authored or co- authored twenty-two books and created eighteen documentary films, including Wonders of the African World, Faces of America, African American Lives, Black in Latin America, Black America since MLK: And Still I Rise, and Africa’s Greatest Civilizations. His six-part PBS documentary series,The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (which he wrote, executive produced, and hosted), earned the Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Program, as well as the Peabody Award, Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, and NAACP Image Award.

Gates is currently the host, writer, and executive producer of the hit series Finding Your Roots. Now in its fourth season on PBS, the series investigates the genealogy of notable public figures, thereby helping to expand America’s sense of itself — stimulating a national conversation about identity with humor, wisdom, and compassion. In the process of exploring family roots, he also teaches science. He has received grant funding to develop a Finding Your Roots curriculum to teach students science through genetics and genealogy.

Gates has written for such leading publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Time. And he has been a pioneer in new media. Gates serves as chairman of TheRoot.com, a daily online magazine he co-founded in 2008, while overseeing the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field.

The Award Ceremony at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is open to the public (and already sold out). It will begin with the presentation of the Benjamin Franklin Laureate Prize for Creativity. The prize includes a silver medallion, which replicates Jean-Baptiste Nini’s “Benjamin Franklin in Fur Cap.” After the brief Award Ceremony, the format of the program will be a dialogue between Professor Gates and Brandon Terry, Assistant Professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University. Together, they will explore the critical influences, challenges, and experiences in the development of Professor Gates’ creative life. A question and answer period will follow.


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