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Harvard professor to give Nellie Y. McKay Lecture

March 7, 2011



Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., will give the annual Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 24, at Mills Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building, as part of the campuswide Go Big Read initiative.

Gates will delve into the issues aired in his PBS documentary “African-American Lives,” which showed the fascinating ways in which African-Americans are using genealogy and genetic science to understand their history. Go Big Read brought author Rebecca Skloot in October to discuss her book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Skloot’s book was a cautionary tale about how science used a woman’s body without permission. Gates will show how advances in science are helping African-Americans unlock their past.

The Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities was established in honor of the Evjue Professor of American and African-American Literature at UW–Madison and pioneer in the field of Afro-American studies, who died in 2006. Gates and McKay co-edited the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1996).

“Nellie McKay was one of the great literary scholars — at UW–Madison and in the nation. We are thrilled that Professor Gates accepted our invitation to speak in her honor and also to participate in the yearlong Go Big Read program that fosters dialogue between and among faculty, students, staff, alumni and members of the general community,” says Sara Guyer, director of the Center for the Humanities, a co-sponsor of the talk.

Gates is director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. His accomplishments are too many to list, but here are a few:

  • Producer of several PBS documentaries, including the “African-American Lives” series (2006 and 2008), “America Beyond the Color Line (2004),” and “Wonders of the African World” (2000)
  • A memoir, “Colored People,” which traces Gates’ childhood experiences in a small West Virginia town in the 1950s and 1960s and foundational works in literary criticism, including “The Signifying Monkey” (1988)
  • Co-author, with Cornel West, “The Future of the Race”
  • Co-editor of an eight-volume set, “African-American National Biography,” containing more than 4,000 biographical entries on both well-known and obscure African-Americans
  • Biweekly guest columnist for The New York Times

Gates’ talk will also usher in the March 25 Conference on the Public Humanities, Guyer says, showcasing how humanities scholars are changing lives in communities around the world.

Find more information online.