For three months last year, Henry Louis Gates Jr. had no hip. To correct the leg-shortening effect of hip replacement surgery, he now wears a right shoe significantly taller than his left—as anyone sitting in the front row at his reading in Seattle last week could plainly see.
Gates, chair of Afro-American studies at Harvard, took six months to recover from the procedure. Complications arose. Doctors at one point believed he had a rare strain of malaria contracted in Africa (turns out it was a decidedly unrare strain of strep contracted at New England Baptist Hospital). "Yeah, Africa," Gates grumbled good-humoredly to the crowd at Elliott Bay, "everything bad started in Africa."
The extended recovery was fortuitous: It prevented Gates from attending an auction at which a book he wanted was up for sale—a book that, according to the auction house, may or may not have been written by a female slave in the 1850s. For all its possible historical worth, the opening price was set low: The manuscript's origin, age, and author had never been authenticated.
Gates, famous in the academic community, sent a friend—a white guy—to bid on the book for him. "If anyone had seen me there," Gates said, "they would have said, 'That little Negro knows something!'" (Gates would later tell his friend that he did the bidding "incog-Negro.")
Gates paid $8,500 for the book; no one else made a bid. Then he undertook to authenticate it—circumstantially, by matching 19th-century census records with names of characters in the book; and scientifically, by a manuscript scholar (the one who famously refuted the supposed Jack the Ripper diaries), who can prove full well the book was written between 1855 and 1860. It's now worth nearly half a million dollars.
Handwritten manuscripts are exceedingly rare, even for the canonized white male writers of the 19th century, and none had been found by black writers before 1900 until now. And all the slave narratives we already had (Frederick Douglass', for one) were heavily edited by white abolitionists with a definite agenda. This text, which Gates calls The Bondswoman's Narrative, is "the first unmediated glimpse into the mind of a slave"—in other words, maybe the most significant finding in African-American history.
Gates is, rightly, thrilled. As he put it, the author, Hannah Crafts, "transcended her setting by running away to the North. She made herself free. And then she did the most audacious thing of all: She sat down and wrote a novel."