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Noted Scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. to Deliver 2020 Commencement Address

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Head shot of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., the writer, host, and executive producer of Finding Your Roots. Credit: Courtesy of Stephanie Berger

Today, American University President Sylvia M. Burwell announced Henry Louis Gates Jr., renowned professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, as the speaker for the 139th commencement celebration scheduled Saturday, May 9, 1 p.m. EST. Gates will address members of the Class of 2020 and their families and the university will confer upon him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. President Burwell last month made the difficult decision to move this spring’s graduation online. Details regarding the online celebration are forthcoming. Graduates will also be invited to campus for a special in-person ceremony in December.

“It is an honor to have Professor Gates, a true change agent who calls on us to think critically about our lives and our world, join our esteemed graduates as we celebrate the accomplishments of our changemakers for a changing world,” Burwell said. “He has been integral in shaping the soul of America and continues to champion lives of purpose, which is the calling card of AU Eagles.”

The 139th Commencement will graduate 3,000 students from all eight of AU’s schools, including the Washington College of Law.

“Honoring great achievements, which is the essence of commencement, is more important than ever as we look to a future that is forever changed by recent events,” said Gates. “American University graduates embody the leadership, scholarship, and dedication to service that we will need to help to re-imagine our world.”

A literary scholar, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, journalist, cultural critic and institution builder, Gates has authored or co-authored 24 books and created 21 documentary films, including Wonders of the African World, African American Lives, Faces of America, Black in Latin America, Black America since MLK: And Still I Rise, and Africa’s Great Civilizations. Finding Your Roots, his groundbreaking genealogy series now in its sixth season on PBS, has been called “one of the deepest and wisest series ever on television,” leveraging “the inherent entertainment capacity of the medium to educate millions of Americans about the histories and cultures of our nation and the world.”

He is the recipient of 55 honorary degrees and numerous honors, awards and prizes. In 2017, the Organization of American States named Gates a Goodwill Ambassador for the Rights of People of African Descent in the Americas. In 2011, his portrait, by Yuqi Wang, was hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Gates earned his B.A. in History, summa cum laude, from Yale University in 1973, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature from Clare College at the University of Cambridge in 1979. He has directed the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research—now the Hutchins Center—since arriving at Harvard in 1991. During his first 15 years on campus, he chaired the Department of Afro-American Studies as it expanded into the Department of African and African American Studies with a full-fledged doctoral program. Gates is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and serves on a wide array of boards, including the New York Public Library, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Aspen Institute, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Library of America, and the Brookings Institution.