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Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000) 521-523

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Book Review

Grey Gundaker. Signs of Diaspora, Diaspora of Signs: Literacies, Creolization, and Vernacular Practice in African America


Grey Gundaker. Signs of Diaspora, Diaspora of Signs: Literacies, Creolization, and Vernacular Practice in African America. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. x + 291 pp.

Grey Gundaker endeavors to trace the connection between what some consider oral or folk art and practices and conventional literacies, the reading and writing of European languages and signs. She names the former "vernacular" and includes in that category religious and healing practices as well as Southern African American yard and home creations. Gundaker seeks to reconfigure the conventional concept of literacy by bolstering the understanding of African American interaction with and reinvention of it. [End Page 521]

Her thesis is that African Americans have crossed literate and vernacular signs and practices and that those interactions represent efforts to shape European literate ideology for African American situations and uses. Gundaker counters the assumption that vernacular practices are illiterate or unlearned actions, writing in her introduction, "This book is concerned with many material, performative, and graphic forms that do not directly involve speech but nevertheless recontextualize conventional literate as well as oral communication."

Included in her study are examples of transatlantic sources, such as symbols from West and Central African graphic systems; African American grave markers; and examples from youth culture such as inscribed hair and gang signs. While Gundaker states that she has not found enough support to claim that African graphic and writing systems survive in their entirety to the present, she posits that those systems have been combined with conventional literacies and inform the vernacular among African Americans.

Creolization, double voicing, and double vision are the three strategies African Americans have used to process and intersect conventional and vernacular practices and experiences. These strategies are necessary for scholarly reading of African American signs because they approximate an initiate's vision and understanding. For instance, while M. M. Bakhtin provides a theory for reading dialogic novels, dialogism doesn't adequately read the layered voices in African American texts, which may contain multiple voicings even when the genre is monologic. Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Gerald Early are two of the writers Gundaker references for examples and readings in her overview of the three strategies. And while her treatment of these ideas is generally clear and useful, she might have explored more fully the way creolization is manifested in the U.S. An example, perhaps from Gullah culture, would have made her attempt to link the West Indian creole with African American cultural practice stronger. Additionally, she does not sufficiently explain why her discussion of creolization omits the Francophone, Hispanophone, and Dutch Caribbean, although she references Haiti and Cuba in other parts of the work. Gundaker refers to, among others, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, M. M. Bakhtin, Gerald Early and Zora Neale Hurston in discussing these strategies. One of the connections she makes is between Arabic literacy, African American vernacular practice, and conventional [End Page 522] western ideologies of learning. She discusses the historical evidence of literate, African Muslims who were able to maintain Arabic literacy after being enslaved in America. Gundaker points out that Arabic script is important for its aesthetic form as well as its literate meaning. Its meaning and the form are elements of North African magic, from which signs are still used by Caribbean Spiritual Baptists. Masonic symbolism also owes a debt to Islamic tradition, as do Egyptian and Jewish forms. All of these elements, according to Gundaker, must be taken under consideration when examining African American expressive culture in order to avoid simply labeling practices as "literate" or "oral."

History grounds all of Gundaker's assertions, including the historical misrepresentation and exploitation of African Americans in conventional media. This explains why double meanings in expression are a necessary part of African American vernacular literacy. These are the double-voiced practices she witnessed during fieldwork, such as the use of the American eagle. Although it functions as a patriotic symbol...


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