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  • To Make a Literature Black
  • Kenneth W. Warren (bio)

A helpful point of departure for considering the significance of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s, The Signifying Monkey twenty-five years after its publication may be Gates’s own assertion that “the most prevalent manifestation of signifying over the last four decades is to be found in the corpus of hip-hop music. You might say hip-hop is signifying on steroids” (xxix). That hip-hop has become a worldwide musical phenomenon is beyond dispute. That Gates’s testimony (which he mentions proudly in the new introduction) in the 1990 trial in which the rap group 2 Live Crew was acquitted on charges of obscenity for its sexually explicit lyrics played any significant role in rap’s commercial success is perhaps plausible if somewhat harder to credit. Yet for Gates the concomitant rise of rap and hip-hop and his own career may constitute the most notable legacy of his work. Of course, Gates’s view on this point does not necessarily entail that we also conclude that The Signifying Monkey has been inconsequential for the study of early American literature (and one could, on this point, total up citations to that work in journals and monographs on the period). Yet whatever picture we might paint statistically or otherwise of the book’s influence on the scholarship of the period, it is clear that in thinking about his book Gates remains enamored of the idea that each historical moment of expression by African-descended peoples constitutes a “part of the never-ending intertextual conversation that’s been going on in the black tradition at least since Esu-Elegbara came to embody indeterminacy in the African tradition” (xxxii). The point is that when we read texts by black writers we hear the present in the past and the past in the present. As Gates elaborates:

Texts written over two centuries ago address what we might think of as common subjects of condition that continue to be strangely resonant, and relevant, as we approach the twenty-first century. Just as there are remarkably few literary traditions whose first century’s existence is determined by texts created by slaves, so too are there few traditions that [End Page 843] claim such an apparent unity from a fundamental political condition represented for over two hundred years in such strikingly similar patterns and details.


Yet against Gates’s attempt to pull the study of early American literature into the currents of an ongoing black tradition there arose during this same period notions of the Atlantic world and the Black Atlantic more committed to historical periodization and discontinuity than to the telos of nationhood or peoplehood. If for Gates, under the sway of the signifying monkey as a trope, the experience of engaging with black writers in the eighteenth century and hip-hop performances in the early twentieth is finding the familiar in the distant and making aural and sonic connections across time and space, for other historically minded scholars, as I wrote some years ago in a reflective piece on the notion of the black Atlantic (“Taking the Measure”), the goal has been to bring into view a world peopled with black men and women whose horizons of expectation and being—and whose notions of literariness—diverge significantly from our own. Initially for historians of the period, and increasingly for early Americanist literary scholars, the Atlantic world was seen as indicating a spatial-temporal moment rather than a transhistorical sensibility.

Of course, one cannot invoke the term Black Atlantic without bringing into the discussion Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), which was published four years after The Signifying Monkey and announced as, among other things, an attempt to decenter the United States from the study of black culture and intellectual history. For Gilroy, the transatlantic life itineraries of black writers from Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley forward to the twentieth century, which included transatlantic crossings between the Americas, Europe, and Africa, attested to the extranational character of black expression beginning with the Enlightenment. And it was this international aspect of black literary production that Gilroy believed US-centered scholarship had...


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pp. 843-847
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