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:...

(The entire section is 1119 words.)