- Symposium on the Twenty-Fifth-Anniversary Edition of The Signifying Monkey
Figuring Africa in Early America
One of my priorities at Early American Literature has been to highlight work in early African American studies. My previous efforts in this area have included the 2006 roundtable that I organized on “Historicizing Race in Early American Studies,” with contributions from Joanna Brooks, Philip Gould, and David Kazanjian. In 2011 I edited the themed issue on “Race,” Writing and Representation, with an invited introduction by Bob Levine. This symposium on the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism (orig. publ. 1988), which I proposed to book review editor Marion Rust and developed with her help, is a major new effort to foreground the place of African American literary studies in Early American Literature.
The size of this symposium registers the interest that Marion and I have in presenting a range of voices, including those of some scholars whose specialties might not otherwise be an obvious fit for the journal. It includes reflections by eight specialists in African American and early American literature and culture, from senior eminences to well-established midcareer scholars, to junior colleagues: Houston Baker, Ken Warren, Katherine Clay Bassard, Xiomara Santamarina, Ivy Wilson, Katy Chiles, Joe Rezek, and Jenna Gibbs. (I was fortunate to study pre-1865 African American literature at Berkeley with Kathy Bassard, and so it is especially gratifying to have her essay included here.) [End Page 827]
There is a notable autobiographical element in many of these comments, suggesting that The Signifying Monkey earns its place in the critical pantheon in part because of its ability to suture scholarly pursuits to broader concerns. There is also a valuable emphasis in many of the essays on new directions in the field. I’m looking forward to the conversations and submissions that this symposium will undoubtedly generate.
I first read The Signifying Monkey as I was preparing for my comprehensive exams while working with Lawrence W. Levine, the great Berkeley social historian whose magnum opus, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, appeared in its own anniversary edition in 2007. Levine’s scholarship ranged widely, from his first book on the populist orator William Jennings Bryan to his classic essay on Shakespeare in American culture in Highbrow/Lowbrow, to his late book on The Opening of the American Mind, a response to Allan Bloom that earned an enthusiastic blurb from Gates on the back cover. Levine’s expansive intellectual interests were entwined with his political commitments. He had been active in the civil rights movement, and he voiced support for the free speech movement at Berkeley when he was still a new faculty member there. His interest in the place of oral traditions in African American culture was closely tied to these commitments. This focus on the verbal arts broadly construed aligns his work with Gates’s book.
In the contributions that follow, Signifying Monkey is related to literary studies and to developments in the music world but not to its international political context, which involved a sharp and successful challenge to the apartheid system in South Africa. This context for Gates’s work is worth recovering. The divestment movement that helped to end South African apartheid had an important locus of support on university campuses in the United States. Cornell University, where Gates taught in the late 1980s, played a prominent role in those protests. Influenced by the Free South Africa Movement and inspired by the nonviolent anticommunist movements in Poland and Czechoslovakia, organizers at Cornell staged protests and sit-ins and built a shantytown starting in the spring of 1985, shortly before I graduated. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!” These lines from Wordsworth, whose works I’d recently studied with M. H. Abrams and Mary Jacobus, carried new meaning and fresh relevance. [End Page 828]
Student efforts at Cornell and elsewhere seemed...