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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s original, groundbreaking study explores the relationship between the African and African-American vernacular traditions and black literature, elaborating a new critical approach located within this tradition that allows the black voice to speak for itself. Examining the ancient poetry and myths found in African, Latin American, and Caribbean culture, and particularly the Yoruba trickster figure of Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey whose myths help articulate the black tradition's theory of its literature, Gates uncovers a unique system for interpretation and a powerful vernacular tradition that black slaves brought with them to the New World. His critical approach relies heavily on the Signifying Monkey--perhaps the most popular figure in African-American folklore--and signification and Signifyin(g). Exploring signification in black American life and literature by analyzing the transmission and revision of various signifying figures, Gates provides an extended analysis of what he calls the "Talking Book," a central trope in early slave narratives that virtually defines the tradition of black American letters. Gates uses this critical framework to examine several major works of African-American literature--including Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo--revealing how these works signify on the black tradition and on each other. The second volume in an enterprising trilogy on African-American literature, The Signifying Monkey--which expands the arguments of Figures in Black--makes an important contribution to literary theory, African-American literature, folklore, and literary history.

Excerpt

Black English vernacular, according to William Labov's three-year National Science Foundation study released in 1985, "is a healthy, living form of language," one which "shows the signs of people developing their own grammar" and one which manifests various linguistic signs of "separate development." Labov's extensive research leads him to conclude that "There is evidence that, far from getting more similar [to standard English], the black vernacular is going its own way." The black vernacular, he continues, "is reflecting [a larger social] picture [of segregated speech communities]. The blacks' own grammar, which is very rich and complicated, is developing its own way. It looks as if new things are happening in black grammar." The black vernacular, in other words, is thriving despite predictions during the civil rights era that it would soon be a necessary casualty of school desegregation and the larger socioeconomic integration of black people into mainstream American institutions. Because de facto segregation of black and white schoolchildren has replaced de jure segregation, and because black unemployment in 1988 is much higher than it was in 1968, it is impossible for us to determine if black vernacular English would have disappeared under certain ideal social conditions. It has not, however, disappeared; as Labov's study shows, the black vernacular has assumed the singular role as the black person's ultimate sign of difference, a blackness of the tongue. It is in the vernacular that, since slavery, the black person has encoded private yet communal cultural rituals.

The Signifying Monkey explores the relation of the black vernacular tradition to the Afro-American literary tradition. The book attempts to identify a theory of criticism that is inscribed within the black vernacular tradition and that in turn informs the shape of the Afro-American literary tradition. My desire has been to allow the black tradition to speak for itself about its nature and various functions, rather than to read it, or analyze it, in terms of literary theories borrowed whole from other traditions, appropriated from without. While this latter mode of literary analysis can be a revealing and rewarding exercise, each literary tradition, at least implicitly, contains . . .

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