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

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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star