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Noted Scholar and Emmy-Award Winning Filmmaker to Address 139th Commencement

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

Henry Louis Gates Jr., renowned professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree and address American University’s Class of 2020 and their families during the university’s 139th commencement celebration to be held online at 1 p.m. EST Saturday, May 9.

“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.”

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.”

Three thousand students from all eight of AU’s schools, including the Washington College of Law will graduate. President Burwell made the difficult decision to move May’s commencement online on March 30. A special in-person ceremony will be held in December.

“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.”

Gates 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.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in history, summa cum laude, from Yale University in 1973, and his master’s and doctoral degrees 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.