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