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  News & Views

Charles Twitchell Davis:
The Seminal Scholar of the African-American Literary Tradition

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Editor’s Note: Harvard’s famed literary scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr., pays tribute to the man who ignited his passion for the study of African-American literature.

I came to the study of African-American literature for the first time in a formal manner through a scholar named Charles Twitchell Davis. Mister Davis, as all of his students called him, even unto his untimely death, was the first African American to be granted tenure in the English department at Yale University. Davis was also the first black master of Calhoun College — John C. Calhoun College — an irony he never tired of noting, with that inimitable gleam in his eye. 

Davis was a man of style, as dapper in spirit and dress as he was dapper in mind. And did he love style! His principal spring ritual turned on the Kentucky Derby, for which he would meticulously prepare mint juleps from his secret recipe, and then don his newly shined white bucks to watch the race, dressed to the nines in a three-piece white suit, like some café-au-lait version of Tom Wolfe, puffing on his funkiest cigar as the race progressed. I loved watching him watch the horses race, far more than I enjoyed watching the race itself. He used to say that this was the most sublime two minutes in the history of sports. But it was his embodiment of style that made it sublime for me.

In his scholarly work as in his life, Davis was also a man who focused on style, on the language of the text and its signs and symbols. He was classically trained in American literature at Dartmouth (where he was denied a Rhodes scholarship in 1939 because of his race), in American studies at the University of Chicago in 1941, where he wrote a master’s thesis on the Harlem Renaissance, under the direction of Allison Davis, the first black person to teach at a historically white major research university, and at NYU where he took his Ph.D. in 1951, writing a dissertation on Walt Whitman. 

In the early fifties, he became the first black professor to teach at Princeton, where he would eventually be denied tenure, just as he was denied his Rhodes scholar-ship, because he was black. It would take over a decade and a half for him to recover from this blow, until he returned to the Ivy League to assume the chairmanship of Yale’s stellar program in Afro-American studies.

Methodologically, Davis would have seemed to have been made for the New Criticism. With an almost innate attention to the details of style, he loved to devote minute attention to the language of the text, and he was fond of reminding his students that had a creative writer wished for us to explicate her or his work merely at the level of theme, she or he would have written an essay, and not a complex set of signifying structures that we call a poem, a play, or a novel. Davis brought this careful concern with the texture of formal language-use to bear on African-American literature. Indeed, he was one of the first truly close readers of the texts that make up the canon of the black tradition. 

Make no mistake about it: Charles was a snob when it came to taste; the tradition, as far as he was concerned, culminated in an apex of excellence and creativity with Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. While he valued Paul Laurence Dunbar’s place in the canon, and delighted in reading Dunbar’s dialect poetry aloud, he was not a particular fan of Hurston’s use of dialect, curiously enough. But he loved Toni Morrison’s work from the very beginning, and even hired her to teach at Yale in the mid-1970s in the program in Afro-American studies of which he served nobly as chair between 1971 (my junior year at Yale) and 1981, when he died so very prematurely of cancer of the liver. He was first and last a modernist, but he embraced early black post-modernists as well: while extraordinarily fond of Jean Toomer’s Cane, about which he wrote one of his most important essays, he also was a vocal proponent of Amiri Baraka’s work, as well as Ishmael Reed’s stunningly brilliant first four parodic and satirical novels. He would bring both to Yale, hiring Baraka to teach for a year in the midst of his most strident Marxist period. He even allowed Baraka to issue press releases on his “Revolutionary Communist League” stationery, using 493 College Street as his address, the same address as that of the program in Afro-American studies!

Mister Davis loved to teach black literature as much as he loved to read it. He taught a graduate seminar on “The Afro-American Literary Tradition” each year for the English department. And it was in this seminar, which he offered in the spring semester of the 1975-1976 academic year, that I fell in love with Afro-American literature as well.

I had returned from graduate school in English language and literature from the University of Cambridge in the summer of 1975, to attend the Yale Law School. I had fled Cambridge, deeply frustrated and exhausted from my ideological battles with the faculty of English at Cambridge, which had just the year before denied the Nigerian playwright, Wole Soyinka, teaching privileges because “African literature,” as they put it, “just wasn’t ‘literature.’” It was definitely anthropology, at the least, they argued, and perhaps sociology, at the best.  But it was not literature. 

So, I had been introduced to the African worlds of mythology and literature by Wole Soyinka himself, as his sole student in the social anthropology department at Cambridge, rather than through the English department where I was enrolled. After one month at the law school — truth be told, I knew after just one week — I realized that I was meant to become a scholar of literature, and not a lawyer after all. And so, I took a leave of absence. Last time I checked, I was still on leave!

But now I would need a job, to support myself and my fiancée. So off I went to Calhoun College, to ask Davis for his advice. He had supervised a tutorial that I took junior year with Linda Darling, my girlfriend at the time, on the history of the blues. Linda was a brilliant pianist and vocalist. Since she and I broke up during the middle of the semester, I was able to bring a certain experiential reality to the study of the blues that semester that I would not have understood otherwise! The tutorial, in other words, was a disaster with our dividing up the sessions with Mister Davis so that Linda and I could avoid seeing each other’s jive-time face! What hell that semester was: we had decided to take all of our courses together, because we couldn’t stand not being together; soon enough, we couldn’t stand to be in each other’s presence! 

But Davis was cool with the whole thing, and seemed to be oddly bemused by our determination to go on with the tutorial, and divide him and ourselves into two parallel and never-intersecting universes. He even allowed us to write and submit a final paper jointly, which we somehow managed to do without ever conferring once about its final form, and without ever seeing even one draft from the other’s pen! Somehow, nonetheless, we managed to earn an A, which I believe Davis granted us as an award for all of the amusement that our tortured antics provided him!

So that is how I found myself in his office, in late September 1975, begging for some sort of job. He asked me if I could type. Turns out that I can type very well, thanks to two years of training, mandatory for all boys in my high school, in the sophomore and junior years. Also turned out that the secretary in Afro-Am had just quit, and the program was having trouble finding a suitable replacement.  So, on October 1, 1975, I became a secretary in the program in Afro-American studies at Yale, typing memos, manuscripts, and letters, a position I held, and enjoyed, quite frankly, until July 1, 1976, when Davis promoted me to a lecturer in Afro-American studies and English.

When the second semester started, Mister Davis called me into his office and invited me — no, instructed me — to audit his graduate seminar in Afro-American literature. While I had read fairly widely in the tradition, I had done so as an avocation, for fun, and, of course, as an undergraduate at Yale in the mid to late 1960s, for all that these ferociously adamant texts could unveil to me, sheltered as I was in the hills of eastern West Virginia about the nature of the unfolding Black Experience. I had, in other words, never studied African-American literature in a formal way. But all of that was about to change.

Walking into that seminar — which he held in the master’s living room of Calhoun College — was like walking into a hall of wonders. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to participate in one of the truly great learning experiences in my life, and, I believe, in the lives of the other participants, who included Kim-berly Benston (now a professor at Haverford), Horace Porter (now at Iowa), Cynthia Smith (now at Smith), Joe Skerritt (now at UMass), Erroll McDonald (senior vice president at Random House, and a major editor of African-American authors), and Rudolph Byrd (now at Emory), among several other major figures at work in the profession today. I couldn’t wait for this class to meet each week, couldn’t wait to do the reading, and to hear the oral presentations of my stellar fellow seminarians. To this day, we are all, to a person, the proverbial children of Charlie Davis, and we read African-American literature in much the same way that Davis did, with an added dash of theory, perhaps, thrown in to our explications for spice. I know that I most certainly do. Without Charles Davis’ tutelage, I wouldn’t even be in the profession.

I fell in love with African-American literature in that seminar, and with Charles Davis’ approach to the study of African-American literature, and have never looked back. He would often remind us that we were at the beginning of the formal study of this great literary tradition in the broader academy (while black literature had been taught at Howard since the 1920s, it was only being introduced into English department and American studies curricula with the coming of black studies in the late 1960s) and that we had the great fortune of being unburdened by a mountain of secondary sources through which we had to wade to establish our bona fides as scholars. Of course, he continued, that which was a blessing of sorts was also a curse: each of our readings would be pioneering, by definition, because so very few close readings of black texts existed — that was the good news. The bad news was that we had so very little to build upon in the way of an established critical tradition. Teaching us the best of the critical tradition as embodied by Sterling Brown, Arthur Davis (his uncle), and Ralph Ellison, among others, nevertheless, he told us again and again, we would be, by and large, out there on our own. And then, too, as he was fond of noting, the mixed blessing of the scholar of black literature was that, often, we had to resurrect the texts of the tradition before we could explicate them, demanding that we be literary historians as well as literary critics, that we be careful and meticulous historical researchers as well as clever theorists and close readers, that we establish texts just as our white colleagues had been forced to do 50 years before, and read them closely, first and last as acts of language, stressing their status as literature and not as polemic.

We had to do more than our peers in white American literature, he would admonish us, and we had to do it better, more carefully, than they, because many of our older colleagues in the field were skeptical of the value and worth of this body of literature, thinking — as had my professors back at the University of Cambridge — that black literature was anthropology, at the least, and sociology, at best, but not really “literature.” We had to “represent” the tradition, in English departments and in American studies programs, and we had to show both racists and well-meaning skeptics that “our” literature was just as accomplished and complex as white male American literature. 

That was our burden; but that also was our enormous privilege, both a historic responsibility and an opportunity to write “definitive” analyses (Davis went to his grave believing that a single, well-wrought analysis could be definitive) of this great yet still largely unknown tradition of literature that he loved, and which we would come to love as well. Ours was the “cross-over” generation, and if we did our jobs well, our legacy would be the canonization of African-American literature, both as part of the larger American tradition, and as a tradition of its own, one with its own histories, rules, and even theories through which its texts could be explicated. One day, he once mused, we might even live to see the publication of a Norton Anthology of African American Literature, a seemingly impossible dream in 1976, which we all paused in that seminar setting to contemplate.

It should be clear by now that I loved Charles T. Davis, and that I am proud to have been his student. And without Charles’ example and tutelage, I would never have embarked upon a career as a scholar of African-American literature. It should also be clear that the path that I have taken was charted by Davis both in that seminar, and in my capacity as his junior colleague in Afro-Am between 1976 and his death in 1981.

Of all the projects in which I have participated since my career in the profession began in 1975, I have to confess that it is the “recovery” projects that have brought me the most joy and professional satisfaction. In discussions with Davis, and with the great black historian, John W. Blassingame (“Blass,” as we called him, was the first African-American scholar to write a full-length study of slavery from the point of view of the slaves themselves, in his seminal book entitled The Slave Community, published in 1972), it became clear to me that our generation of scholars of the black tradition had to find a way to map the field with foundational reference works, sophisticated reference works such as biographical dictionaries, canon-establishing anthologies, encyclopedias of history and culture, scholarly editions of texts, collected works of authors whose works had never been collected, and which were languishing in the rare black newspaper or magazine in the middle nineteenth or early twentieth century, collected papers projects for major canonical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and others, bibliographies, concordances, recovered “lost” texts — in short, all of the foundational reference works that, taken together, make a field of study, well, a genuine academic field. 

It is upon reference works such as these that any discipline of study is constructed, and Afro-Am (as we called it back at Yale) would be no exception. Indeed, we were determined that we would be part of the generation that eliminated forever the curse of scholars of African-American studies: that each successive generation was forced to reinvent the proverbial wheel, repeating research unknowingly undertaken by previous scholars, of which we remained painfully unaware.  It was nothing less than a textual legacy of memory that we hoped to leave to our colleagues and students, and to successive generations of our intellectual heirs.

Because of the dedication and the vision of Charles T. Davis and John W. Blassingame, who imprinted their dreams of the future direction of African-American studies upon their students, and most certainly upon me, my own research agenda was set out for me, fully three decades ago. I had only to follow the trail that they charted; that was my task, and that is what I have tried to do. Davis and Blassingame were the two scholars who brought me to the party. And through the research projects that I have pursued, I have tried to do them justice, as we say, tried to honor their memories, and tried to make them proud, even though they were true giants of our field, and I merely one of their many disciples.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University.