Based on Peter Barry's structuralism theory that things cannot be understood in isolation, how can we understand meaning to be contextual and relational in African-American culture and language? How and where do we make meaning based on the context of fundamental structural systems, whether cultural or linguistic?
Structuralist literary criticism is a means of analyzing culture through language by looking at the patterns of both. More specifically, structuralist criticism looks at culture as being expressed through language and language as a system of symbols. As David H. Richter, author of The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, phrases it, "Practically everything we do that is specifically human is expressed in language" (p. 809, as cited in "Structuralism and Semiotics (1920s-present)"). But structuralists also see language as being far more than "written or oral communication" ("Structuralism and Semiotics"). Richter has also been explained as saying that all things humanity does can be seen as a system of symbols, from paying with cash to writing checks to engaging dinner parties, etc.--all are a system of symbolic expressions and all are also aspects of culture (as cited in "Structuralism and Semiotics"). Furthermore, it can be said that since language is a system or a pattern of symbols, there are symbols that are "common to all human experiences" ("Structuralism and Semiotics"). Since structuralism sees culture as an expression of symbols, it can be said we can use structuralism to analyze culture and language within African-American literature though some may argue that viewing African-American literature through structuralism can pose problems.
As Joyce A. Joyce asserts in her essay "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism," it can easily be seen that there is a very clear relationship between a writer's audience and the writer's own class, beliefs, values, and personal history, and we can see this relationship even more clearly in African-American literature. In fact, in early African-American literature, both the literature's audience and purpose were very clear. The literature was written for the white American with the "explicit aim of denouncing slavery" ("The Black Canon"). To exemplify her point, Joyce refers to the slave narratives; the majority of African-American poetry; the 1853 novel Clotel; or, The President's Daughter written by prominent African-American abolitionist William Wells Brown; and Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, an autobiographical novel written by who is considered the first African-American woman novelist, Harriet E. Wilson ("The Black Canon"). But more interesting, Joyce asserts that though some African-American women writers today have changed focus, denouncing slavery is still a prominent topic even found within today's African-American literature. Since African-American history and culture are such prominent elements in African-American literature, as Joyce phrases it, "Black American literary critics, like Black creative writers, saw a direct relationship between Black lives--Black realities--and Black literature" ("The Black Canon"). Hence, since African-American literature is so closely connected with the context of culture, it can easily be seen how structuralism can be used to analyze the culture as a pattern of symbols.
However, Joyce also asserts that using structuralism to critique African-American literature poses a problem because it reduces all of humanity's culture to one simple relationship related by symbols. As Joyce phrases it, structuralist thinkers want to show that there is a "common bond that unites all human beings," which means that structuralists, as Joyce phrases it in quoting Anthony Appiah, look "for reality not in individual things [in man isolated] but in the relationships among them" ("The Black Canon"). However, failing to look at the African-American in isolation "negates his blackness" ("The Black Canon"). Therefore, in using structuralism to interpret African-American literature, we actually separate the literature from what truly makes it African American.