Henry Louis Gates: The American literary critic on '12 Years a Slave', his Irish ancestry, and how he fell in love with Cheddar and chutney


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What did your role entail as historical consultant on 12 Years a Slave?

My job was to vet the scripts for historical accuracy. And I researched and wrote the words at the end that tell the fate of the characters – and the fact that we don't know what happened to Solomon.

Was it an emotional project to be involved in, or did you keep a professional distance?

I'd long been familiar with 12 Years a Slave. But what was new was Steve McQueen's treatment of it. There were many things about the production that were simply stunning and unprecedented. For example, the contrast between the beautiful settings and the horrific treatment of Patsy and the metaphors for the complex role of slavery's role in American economy and society.

Did any particular performance stand out for you?

I thought one of the film's greatest achievements was to show the extraordinarily tortured relationship between the master and his slave. Obviously Epps loves Patsy, but he hates himself and feels guilt for loving her – so he beats her. That's a very subtle thing to get across in a performance. I think Michael Fassbender deserved an Academy Award just for that. No one would have done it, for political reasons. But his performance should be singled out as a performance of genius.

Steve McQueen has said 12 Years a Slave should be given a place on the US school curriculum...

It probably will be.

How many other slave narratives are there which haven't been brought to public attention?

There were 102 book-length slave narratives published between 1760 and 1866. And another 101 published after 1866 by people who were born in slavery, like Booker T Washington. And these are all online on the University of North Carolina website.

And what became of them after they were written?

The two bestselling of the slave narratives were by Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup. It was the Civil War which diminished their importance. The slave narratives became literary artefacts and it took the birth of black studies in the late-Sixties and early-Seventies to bring them back to the classroom. They were really written as indictments of slavery; they were polemics. So once you've got rid of slavery, why read them? But they were, also, literary autobiographies.

And is it correct you've traced one line of your family back to a 4th-century Irish king?

Well, we always knew that my great-great-grandfather was white, but we didn't know who he was. We still don't, but we now know that he's Irish, which is very interesting to me. I've spent time in Ireland, I love it. And I love Guinness, so it must be true.

You studied at the University of Cambridge. What do you remember from your time in the UK?

Well, first of all, I fell in love with Indian food. And I learnt about port and Stilton and shepherd's pie.

That's good to hear – British cuisine isn't usually well-regarded.

I still, everyday at four o'clock, try to have Cheddar cheese and chutney. It makes me think of my good days back at Cambridge.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr, 63, is an American literary critic, writer and editor. In 2009, he was controversially arrested for trying to enter his own home at Harvard University. A leading scholar of African-American Studies, he was historical consultant on ‘12 Years a Slave’, released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday