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

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. | Go to book overview

7
Color Me Zora:
Alice Walker's (Re), Writing of the Speakerly Text

O, write my name, O write my name:
O write my name . . .
Write my name when-a you get home
Yes, write my name in the book of life . . .
The Angels in the heav'n going-to write my name.
Spiritual Underground Railroad

My spirit leans in joyousness tow'rd thine,
My gifted sister, as with gladdened heart
My vision flies along thy "speaking pages."
Ada, "A Young Woman of Color," 1836

I am only a pen in. His hand.

Rebecca Cox Jackson

I'm just a link in a chain.

Aretha Franklin, "Chain of Fools"

For just over two hundred years, the concern to depict the quest of the black speaking subject to find his or her voice has been a repeated topos of the black tradition, and perhaps has been its most central trope. As theme, as revised trope, as a double-voiced narrative strategy, the representation of characters and texts finding a voice has functioned as a sign both of the formal unity of the Afro-American literary tradition and of the integrity of the black subjects depicted in this literature.

Esu's double voice and the language of Signifyin(g) have served throughout this book as unifying metaphors, indigenous to the tradition, both for patterns of revision from text to text and for modes of figuration at work within the text. The Anglo-African narrators published between 1770 and 1815 placed the themselves in a line of descent through the successive revision of one trope, of a sacred text that refuses to speak to its would-be black auditor. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston depicts her protagonist's ultimate moment of self-awareness in her ability to name: her

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