African Signs and Spirit Writing
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African Signs and Spirit Writing

The recording of an authentic black voice, a voice of deliverance from the deafening discursive silence which an “enlightened” Europe cited as proof of the absence of the African’s humanity, was the millennial instrument of transformation through which the African would become the European, the slave become the ex-slave, the brute animal become the human being. So central was this idea to the birth of the black literary tradition that four of the first five eighteenth-century slave narratives drew upon the figure of the voice in the text as crucial “scenes of instruction” in the development of the slave on his road to freedom. James Gronniosaw in 1770, John Marrant in 1785, Ottobah Cuguano in 1787, Olaudah Equiano in 1789, and John Jea in 1815, all draw upon the figure of the voice in the text. . . . That the figure of the talking book recurs in these . . . black eighteenth-century texts says much about the degree of “intertextuality” in early black letters, more than we heretofore thought. Equally important, however, this figure itself underscores the established correlation between silence and blackness we have been tracing, as well as the urgent need to make the text speak, the process by which the slave marked his distance from the master.

[Gates & Davis, The Slave’s Narrative, pp. xxvi–xxvii]

Much of Henry Louis Gates’s influential scholarship argues that black literary traditions privilege orality. This critical position has become something of a commonplace, in part because it is based on accurate observation. From the “talking book” featured in early slave narratives, to “dialect poetry” and the “speakerly text” the Afro-American tradition that Gates constructs and canonizes is that which seeks to “speak” to readers with an “authentic black voice.” Presumably, for the African-American writer, there is no alternative to production of this “authentic black voice” but silence, invisibility, or self-effacement. This speech based and racially inflected aesthetic that produces a “black poetic diction” requires that the writer acknowledge and reproduce in the text a significant difference between the spoken and written language of African-Americans and that of other Americans. Without disputing, as George Schuyler did in his satiric novel, Black No More, that any such difference exists, I would like to argue that any theory of African-American literature that privileges a speech based poetics, or the trope of orality, to the exclusion of more writerly texts will [End Page 670] cost us some impoverishment of the tradition. While Gates includes in his canon a consummately writerly text, such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, because it also functions brilliantly as a speakerly text, and while Gates appreciates Zora Neale Hurston and celebrates Sterling A. Brown, he cannot champion Jean Toomer’s Cane with the same degree of enthusiasm. 1 I would not worry so much about the criteria Gates has set for inclusion in his canon, if it did not seem to me that the requirement that a black text be “speakerly” will inevitably exclude certain African-American texts that draw more on the culture of books, writing, and print than they do on the culture of orality.

Another concern I have about Gates’s argument is its seeming acceptance of an erroneous Eurocentric assumption that African cultures developed no indigenous writing or script systems. Although he is well aware of Job ben Solomon, a captive African sold into slavery in Maryland, and later ransomed and returned to Africa after it was discovered that he was literate in Arabic, Gates seems to overlook the possibility that non-Islamic slaves might also have been familiar with writing or indigenous script systems used for various religious purposes in their own cultural contexts. While the institutionalized illiteracy of African-American slaves born in the U.S. was enforced by laws forbidding anyone to teach them to read or write, the illiteracy of Africans cannot be accepted as given, although to speak of non-Islamic Africans as literate would require broader definitions of writing than Western scholars such as Walter J. Ong might find acceptable.

This essay is an attempt to explore connections between African signs and African-American spirit writing...