Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

After an informative introduction, Gates divides his study into two parts. Part 1, “A Theory of the Tradition,” includes three chapters that set the background against which part 2 is to be read. Part 2, “Reading the Tradition,” first treats five early narratives of slavery or captivity and then analyzes in separate chapters three novels by twentieth century African American writers.

The preface acknowledges a strong debt to two works: Ralph Ellison’s critical study Shadow and Act (1964) and Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972). Gates states his purposes as “to show how the black tradition has inscribed its own theories of its nature and function within elaborate hermeneutical and rhetorical systems” and “to argue, implicitly, that the central questions asked in Western critical discourse have been asked, and answered, in other textual traditions as well.”

The introduction makes important points about the analyses to come. The black vernacular has been a source of great power to African Americans, standing out as their “ultimate sign of difference.” It is the relationship of this vernacular tradition, with its African roots, to the African American literary tradition that constitutes the heart of this study.

The book begins with Esu-Elegbara, a “divine trickster figure” of the Fon and Yoruba cultures of Benin and Nigeria, with counterparts in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and the United States. Numerous carved representations of him exist. Esu’s powers are set forth in numerous poems as well as in prose narratives about the origin of the world and the gods. Esu is especially identified with the power of figurative language and its interpretation, and he is traditionally double-voiced, an attribute identified with textual indeterminacy. He is, in a sense, a god of rhetoric. Among the Fon, he is “the divine linguist” who speaks all languages. In the Yoruba tradition, he often holds a calabash containing ase, a slippery word that Gates translates as logos, the divine reason.

Esu is the interpreter of Ifa, the sacred knowledge of the Yoruba. The texts with which Esu works are a set of sixteen palm nuts that are shaken up on a wooden divination tray. The arrangement into which the nuts settle is read by Esu to reveal to humans the message of Ifa. Even though Esu is depicted as masculine, he can be understood as genderless; his sexual ambiguity is matched by his double-voicedness.

The historical details cannot be filled in, but evidence suggests that Esu survived the Middle Passage—the Atlantic crossing of the slave ships—and was reborn in the New World in the rhetorical genius of the Signifying Monkey. Gates is succinct:...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Abrahams, Roger D. Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia. 1st rev. ed. Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1970. One of the earliest studies of black signifying; still a valuable source study.

Abrahams, Roger D., and Rudolphe C. Troike, eds. Language and Cultural Diversity in American Education. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972. Section 5 contains six essays on “Black English,” including the seminal study “The Relationship of the Speech of American Negroes to the Speech of Whites” by Raven I. McDavid and Virginia Glenn McDavid.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. A powerful and well-written study that, Gates explains, does for the blues what he tries to do for Signifyin(g).

Cuddon, J. A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 3d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Reference, 1991. The Signifying Monkey is rife with the special language of postmodernist critical theory, most of it not on the tip of the common reader’s tongue. Cuddon explains the jargon as lucidly as anyone can.

Gruesser, John Cullen. Confluences: Postcolonialism, African American Literary Studies, and the Black Atlantic. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. Gates is prominently featured in this analysis of interrelations and interactions between African American literary theory, postcolonial theory, and the work of Paul Gilroy to theorize the Black Atlantic.

Pelton, Robert D. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Indispensable study of the tradition of Esu-Elegbara and his variants. The final chapter summarizes theories about the trickster’s significance.

Smitherman-Donaldson, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. A study of African American dialect that asserts for it a unique rhetorical style rooted in its African origins.