In the chapter entitled “The Trope of the Talking Book,” of Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey, he writes that “it is to the literature of the black slave that the critic must turn to identify the beginning of the Afro-American literary tradition” (127). Because black literary culture did not exist at the time of slave literature, it was not the purpose of these narratives to demonstrate a literary tradition, but rather to demonstrate the slave’s “own membership in the human community” (128). Gates describes the eighteenth century view that reason, above all else, was the mark of humanity and writing was the yardstick by which reason could be measured. Blacks, then, could continue to be viewed as subhuman in their inability to master the Western markers of humanity (129). Ironically, it was the Age of Enlightenment which “led directly to the relegation of black people to a lower rung on the Great Chain of Being” (130). Black people, then, could only “become” human, could only assert their humanness in the white world, by participating in the white literary tradition. In a world where black people were commodities, objects rather than subjects, the act of telling one’s story, of having it written down and published, read by others, was essentially the act of creating a voice and of having a voice, of becoming a subject.
The trope of the Talking Book, according to Gates, was a literary device used by several authors of slave narratives. He writes that its importance lies in “making the white written text speak with a black voice” and that through its use, the black slave “literally [wrote] themselves into being through carefully crafted representation in language of the black self” (131). This trope is especially important because it was the “first repeated and revised upon trope of the tradition” (132). Gates outlines the four known uses of the trope, how they were each written, both in their own right and in response to their previous uses.
John Marrant’s narrative, The Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black, is the next text examined by Gates. It is here that Gronniosaw’s trope of the Talking Book is reconfigured meaningfully for the first time, now turned on its head, so that Marrant himself is the one with the power to speak to the Book. Here, too, Gates points out the binaries. John Marrant is Christian, again the favored position, which stands opposite the Native American polytheism of his captors. Here, Marrant’s captors are unable to speak to the book which Marrant can. Gates writes that “in this Kingdom of the Cherokee, it is only the black man who can make the text speak” (144); here the black/white opposition is relinquished in favor of associating “black” with God, but without a true polarity. Marrant’s revision of the trope, Gates suggests, “seeks to reverse the received trope by displacement and substitution” (145). Furthermore, Marrant’s narrative does not place him in the position of having to, or trying to, relinquish his “blackness,” which instead is seen within the context of other non-Whites. The literary is the favored position against the non-literary and is the position which Marrant with his power.
Gates Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.