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Henry Louis Gates, at RIT event, says it’s a time for truth, courage

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Henry Louis Gates speaks Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, at RIT's 40th "Expressions of King’s Legacy."

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates made his first public appearance since March 2020 on Thursday at Rochester Institute of Technology’s 40th annual “Expressions of King’s Legacy” event.

The program, which honors the life and impact of Dr. Martin Luther King, is RIT’s longest-running program.

The Gordon Field House and Activities Center was filled with hundreds of attendees who came to hear the “Finding Your Roots” show host’s remarks.

A jovial yet direct Gates was welcomed to the stage with live drumming by Womba Africa, which set the tone for the literary scholar’s presentation.

“This is a time for truth and courage,” Gates said as he navigated the audience through the social and political backlash of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era for African-Americans, and the importance of not revisiting those mistakes.

“History may repeat itself, ladies and gentlemen, but only if we let it,” he said.

RIT history professor Richard Newman, who has long collaborated with Gates on various projects, said Gates is driven by how genealogy can unite people.

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Chloe Sparkman, a third-year student in RIT’s physician assistant program from Penfield, thanks Henry Louis Gates after he spoke at RIT's 40th "Expressions of King’s Legacy" event.

“He really truly believes that if we know who our ancestors were, and what our roots were, we can make the changes that we need to because we won't see ourselves as separate, we'll see ourselves as connected,” Newman said.

Keith B. Jenkins, RIT’s vice president for diversity and inclusion, said selecting Gates as the event’s speaker was timely.

“With the most recent events of myriad pandemics, such as COVID-19 and the pandemic of systemic racism, he becomes an appropriate choice in terms of those links to our past, and some of the same battles that we find ourselves fighting today,” Jenkins said.

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Henry Louis Gates watches as the Womba Africa drum and dance group performs at RIT's “Expressions of King’s Legacy” event on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.