The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. | Go to book overview
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The Signifying Monkey, even more than is usual, has been shaped with the help of my friends. The central idea of this book assumed its initial form in a paper that I delivered at a Yale English Department seminar on Parody, conducted by James A. Snead, an old friend since our undergraduate days at Yale College. Snead's enthusiastic response, and that of his students, confirmed my hope that I had at last located within the African and Afro- American traditions a system of rhetoric and interpretation that could be drawn upon both as figures for a genuinely "black" criticism and as frames through which I could interpret, or "read," theories of contemporary literary criticism.

After several active years of work applying literary theory to African and Afro-American literatures, I realized that what had early on seemed to me to be the fulfillment of my project as a would-be theorist of black literature was, in fact, only a moment in a progression. The challenge of my project, if not exactly to invent a black theory, was to locate and identify how the "black tradition" had theorized about itself. It was Geoffrey H. Hartman, shortly after my return to Yale from graduate school at Cambridge, who issued this challenge to me, accompanied by what has proven to be his unflagging support for this project.

Ralph Ellison's example of a thoroughly integrated critical discourse, informed by the black vernacular tradition and Western criticism, provided the model for my work. Ishmael Reed's formal revision and critique of the Afro-American literary tradition, a project that had arrested my attention since graduate school, helped to generate this theory, especially as Reed manifested his critique in his third novel, Mumbo Jumbo. It seemed to me that the relation of Reed's text to those of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, Jean Toomer and Sterling A. Brown, and Zora Neale Hurston, was a "Signifyin(g)" relation, as the Afro-American tradition would have it. Through Reed's character, Papa La Bas, I was able to construct a myth of origins for Signifyin(g) and its sign, the Signifying Monkey. Slowly and surely, my search for a chart of descent for the Monkey ended with that Pan-African repository of figuration and interpretation, Esu-Elegbara, the Yoruba trickster figure, by way of Nigeria, Benin, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and New Orleans. In a curious way, which I was to realize only much later, my discovery of Esu was a rediscovery; for my super


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