Noted historian Henry Louis Gates's The Signifying Monkey and Other Essays is a collection of essays and does not have characters like fictional works do. However, it does have a least one central figure in each chapter or essay.
Esu Elegbara: Eshu and "The Signifying Monkey"
Gates's introduction introduces the main figure that will guide his literary analysis. Esu Elegbara is an African god or spirit that speaks with two voices. He is an Orisha of the Yoruba people of West Africa, from which many African American and Afro-Latino people are descended. In many versions of Yoruba belief, he is Eshu, and Elegbara is one of hundreds of different roads or paths one can take to truth or wisdom.
Gates argues that Elegbara is the inspiration for the Signifying Monkey: a trouble maker, mimic, and eloquent genius that often shows up in African American lore and legend. For many, the best known story of the Signifying Monkey is Rudy Ray Moore's references about him in the Dolemite series of films.
Garcilasso de la Vega
Garcilasso de la Vega is described by Gates as the inventor of the trope of the Talking Book, meaning the combination of the oral tradition with writing. He thus gave the authors of slave narratives a way to comb their hunger for "the Word" and create a tradition of African American narrative that uses signifying. De la Vega was an Inca, son of a Spanish noble and an Incan noble, and a historian best known for writing Royal Commentaries on the Incas.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston is the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Gates argues she struggled with how an authentic black voice should be represented in print: she explored how to present speech in works from both oral and literary traditions, with two voices in both first- and third person.
Ishmael Reed is the author of Mumbo Jumbo. Gates reads Reed's central theme as arguing that there is no way of always defining Blackness. Gates also argues that Reed saw himself both as African American and against oral tradition.
Alice Walker is the author of The Color Purple. Gates argues that Walker combined direct and indirect narratives into an uncertain mix of telling and showing storytelling techniques.