The title refers to a trickster figure that was transformed from its original, varied African forms into even more numerous African-American manifestations beginning in the sixteenth century. Henry Louis Gates Jr. identifies the American version primarily as a monkey that stands as a central symbol of African-American cultural and vernacular literary contributions. Rather than a chronologically organized history of the monkey’s transformations, Gates analyzes significant aspects of its representation around the Americas, especially in what became the United States. He uses these aspects to connect with important literary currents, including those of the mid-late twentieth century. One of Gates’s central missions is to show that African literary traditions have had a strong influence on modern literature, including (but not limited to) that by African-American authors. Without African input, Gates shows, American literature would have been not just different, but far less powerful.
Gates assembles an array of manifestations of this trickster, tracing it primarily to West Africa, specifically the Yoruba and Fon cultures of contemporary Nigeria and Benin. Although Esu-Elegbara is generally male, he is not exclusively so; an important element of the character is the ability to assume many identities, including those of different genders. Esu is associated with language and knowledge, especially sacred knowledge and divination. The character’s survival of the Middle Passage represents the survival of a conscious, rational subject, whose intelligence is often disguised and manifested through deceptive behavior.
Rather than confine himself to the British colonial domains that became the United States, Gates locates this figure throughout the Americas and in Euro-American traditions derived from French and Spanish culture as well. The kinds of “signifying” that Gates traces are mainly (but not exclusively) oral traditions and genres, including poetry, riddles, and other verbal trickery. The author plays special attention to its appearance in slave narratives. Bringing his analysis up to contemporary times, Gates explores what he terms the “signifyin(g) distinction of African-American themes and forms. Among the authors whose works he addresses are Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, and Alice Walker.