Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Like the jazz and blues that are among the major subjects of the novel, The Spyglass Tree revolves around the issues of discourse, expression, and practice. The style of the novel is based on the endless improvisations of African American music and on the interplay and conflict between different orders of verbal codes. An equal, and potentially more violent, conflict results from the differing methods of cultural practice that accompany these modes of discourse.

The most important of these styles of discourse are “signifying” and “woofing,” both of which are practiced in Gasoline Point and Tuskegee. Signifying, or verbal gamesmanship, was introduced as a literary term by the African American critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In the novel, signifying is used by characters in a usually humorous attempt at one-upmanship. The barbershop is the most common place to encounter signifying, as in the following lecture given by Fred Douglass Whatley, better known as Deke Whatley, on the importance of playing politics properly:That’s all it is. Everybody getting their little taste and that other fellow getting his little taste, too. That’s what the king and them aristocrats forgot and that’s how come so many of them wound up losing their hat, ass, and gas mask. You don’t have to have no Ph.D. to dig that. Me, all I ever had was a little old country RFD [Rural Free Delivery; a mailbox address] myself, and I damn sure know it.

Deke’s signifying on politics sets up the conflict not only between black and white cultures but also between the different varieties of discourse practiced within the African American community itself. Deke represents those who are not trained in academic discourse but...

(The entire section is 707 words.)