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  • The Literary Theory of American Afro-centrism
  • Xiomara Santamarina (bio)

For those new to Henry Louis Gates’s landmark monograph, the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of The Signifying Monkey offers a bewildering editorial apparatus. The anniversary edition includes two prefaces, one original and one new; an original introduction and a new one; and finally, an epilogue—really an imprimatur—by W. J. T. Mitchell, the editor of Critical Inquiry, a journal for the academy’s all-stars. If this overdetermined layering of commentary doesn’t offer an example of “signifyin(g)” it’s hard to see what does. Representing classic Gates virtuoso volubility, the editorial material ranges across many genres: a conversion narrative, a bildungsroman, a memoir of institutional enterprise, and an aesthetic manifesto. Planting his explorer flag with zeal and conviction, Gates reaches the heights not of the North Pole but of formalist race theory.

Signifying Monkey broke new ground when it appeared in 1988. It made visible a wide historical range of early, unknown texts by African American authors along with extensive readings of more familiar authors, like Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. Gates’s linking of early authors to modern authors was highly generative: building on the earlier work on slave narratives by Frances Smith Foster, Robert Step-toe, and others, he challenged the omission of nineteenth-century texts from discussions of black literature by putting these in conversation with twentieth-century African American literature and theory. In so doing, Gates sought to carve a new route in literary criticism, intending to sail clear of the Scylla and Charybdis of competing Eurocentrist and Afro-centrist literary theories of race difference. The “blackness of black texts” he asserted, was indigenous to and constitutive of a “tradition” anchored in the vernacular of black wordplay, parody, and critique known as “Signifyin(g)” (132). By yoking a distinct, black vernacular to then-prominent deconstruction theory Gates appeared to bridge the divide that kept black [End Page 855] literary theory invisible to the academy at large. If theory, according to Jonathan Culler, can be described as “[the] pugnacious critique of common sense” (4), signifying appeared to be a classic application of the practice.

But Gates’s effort to theorize black authors’ Bloomian anxiety about earlier African American texts points tellingly to his own anxiety about his role during the prominence of critical literary theory in the 1980s and ’90s. As he recalls about the institutional culture of English departments at that time, “Our burden was that we had to represent the tradition, in our writings and in our persons, in our comportment and in our demeanor, as members of the faculties of English and American studies departments, to show skeptics that ‘our’ literature was just as complex as theirs, the literature that had been created by white males” (xiv). This imperative to personally represent the race—as “complex,” no less—extended to the conditions of entry for the study of black literature. If African American literature was devalued and seen as transparent, it wasn’t because the methods and ideologies of literary study in the academy were founded in structures of white race privilege (and class); Gates attributed the invisibility of a black literary tradition to a “lack of sophisticated scholarly attention to it” (xxii). His was a rectifying effort “to lift the discourse of Signifyin(g) from the vernacular to the discourse of literary criticism” (xxi). With this formulation Gates invoked a key metaphor from the late nineteenth-century black elite ideology of “uplift” that was the backbone of a middle-class black Talented Tenth’s “civilizing mission” (Gaines 14). Notwithstanding these conservative class politics it did appear that African American literary critics had to be inside the academy in order for black literature to be respected.

As to his motivation, in his new introduction Gates recalls wondering “if [Africans] had been theorizing about their aesthetic practices and principles all along, as Europeans had” (xi). Notwithstanding the discovery of an African trope of origin narrativized outside of Western time, the search for a “signifying” trope remained ironically anchored to an Anglo-European consensus that inescapably figured African Americanist theory in relation to its belatedness. Today we could describe...


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