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  • The Significance of SignifyingVernacular Theory and the Creation of Early African American Literary Study
  • Katherine Clay Bassard (bio)

A provocative difference one notices on the cover of the two editions of Henry Louis Gates’s groundbreaking book The Signifying Monkey is the change in the subtitle from “A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism” to “A Theory of African American Literary Criticism,” a change that the book helped to enact. In the twenty-five years since its original publication, The Signifying Monkey has earned its place as a classic work of literary criticism and theory. As with any lasting scholarly work, moreover, it did not merely produce clones of its theory and method but enabled scholars in a host of disciplines in the arts and humanities and beyond to critique and push beyond its original borders. I still have my original copy from 1988, with the light blue (though frayed by now) book cover. In 1988, I had just learned that there was a difference between “literary criticism” and “literary theory” and, its subtitle notwithstanding, The Signifying Monkey established that not all theory emanated from Europe, even as it framed my scholarly coming-of-age-in-the-academy story. To open the text and to realize that Africa had theory was revolutionary and it is good to have an occasion to reflect on how revolutionary it was. While the study of early African American literature today has expanded—necessarily and rightly—to encompass archival discovery, biography, and print culture, it began, I think, with Gates’s concept of “signifyin(g).” First, two autobiographical digressions.

My journey with early African American literature began with absence. The one black literature course at Wake Forest University in 1979 began with Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. The prevailing sense was that there was nothing “back there”—really. J. Saunders Redding in To Make a Poet Black (1939) had lumped everything before the Harlem Renaissance under the finely wrought phrase “literature of necessity.” [End Page 849] What writing might have existed was utilitarian, functional, certainly nothing to put on college syllabi or inspire literary analysis. I didn’t question this at age twenty because it resonated with my own truncated family history growing up in the South. There was simply a point where there was “nothing back there” and you learned to be content with absence and silence. In 1988, the year of the first edition of The Signifying Monkey, upon entering the Rutgers University library to do research for a paper on Spenser’s Fairie Queene (1590), I encountered an entire wall of books on Spenser. On the way out of the library I stopped by the Afro-American literature section and saw two shelves, half full or half empty depending on one’s temperament, the books held in place by metal bookends. My subject had found me. I walked out of the library, into Murray Hall and Cheryl Wall’s office, and announced that I wanted to write my dissertation on early black American literature. Of course, declaring “Afro-American literature before 1865” as an orals area was also problematic, and I was told by the graduate director that there was no such thing. After much reading and many visits to the Rutgers and Princeton libraries, I produced a five-page, single-spaced bibliography of slave narratives, poetry, novels, and essays by black writers before Emancipation and I was able to begin reading for orals.

I use these two autobiographical touchstones as a way to reflect for a few moments on the significance of The Signifying Monkey to the creation of early African American (meaning pre-Harlem Renaissance) literary study. Gates’s vernacular theory as an organizing principle within which to sketch—sometimes more successfully than others—an Afro/African American literary tradition reconfigured black texts away from biographical and sociological contexts to a consideration of the formal properties of African American intertextuality. Often accused by poststructuralists of creating a canon at the very juncture of the demise of the notion of canonicity, Gates did not achieve a construction of an undeconstructable canon so much as he precipitated a move that posited both an African American...


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pp. 849-854
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