Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Value of Early Support: The Cases of bell hooks & Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

In retrospect, 1981 was a good year for bell hooks and Henry Louis Gates , Jr. They received or saw the culmination of a high level of support. That support would translate into even more support and recognition over the next several years, helping to make hooks and Gates two of the most notable figures in their respective fields.

hooks's most known early work Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (1981) was published by South End Press, which was founded in 1977. The book became especially popular among large communities of both black and white women in the academy. During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, volumes of poetry and novels by black women had been popular. However, in 1981, hooks produced something that at the time was fairly rare: a nonfiction book that was black and feminist, accessible and scholarly.  

Ain't I a Woman? appeared as African American Studies and Women's Studies Programs were further establishing themselves and seeking contemporary scholarly texts to serve as core works. hooks offered the possibility of disrupting the typical black male-centered focus of black studies and at the same time disrupting the focus on white women in Women's Studies. In addition, she served as a leading and courageous voice for black women.    

Also in 1981, years before the publication of his well-known book, The Signifying Monkey, Gates received a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship. Gates had earned his Ph.D. in 1979, and he apparently showed the necessary promise to receive enough positive endorsements to earn the MacArthur. Receiving such a major and financially substantial fellowship at the start of a career is notable. Beyond the financial benefits, such major recognition gives a recipient cultural capital in their field and a high level of confidence.  

Gates delivered in many ways. His fellowship was from 1981-1986, during which time he wrote Figures in Black (1987) and the more known The Signfying Monkey (1988). He has gone on to become one of the most prevalent and widely published scholars of African American literature. 

Looking back, the support that bell hooks and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., received early in their careers seems to have prepared them to become such leading figures in African American literature and black studies. It didn't hurt that hooks and Gates each have published more than 20 books over the last 30 years. Of course, being a prolific writer always requires considerable external support.

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