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  • In Other Words
  • Ivy Wilson (bio)

When The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism arrived, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was, in his own words, at long last able to present to his readers, academic and otherwise, “a system of rhetoric and interpretation that could be drawn both as figures for a genuinely ‘black’ criticism and as frames through which [he] could interpret, or ‘read,’ theories of contemporary literary criticism” (ix). While not quite as ambitious as justifying the ways of God to man, Gates’s achievement was scarcely anything less than epic both in terms of the sophisticated and nuanced verve of his particular readings and also for what the publication of Signifying Monkey represented in the context of the culture wars. Gates had published only the year before Figures in Black:Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (1987), where he would sketch in the introduction and final chapter his first sustained critique of signification and the Esu-Elegbara figure. Indeed, it is not simply that some of the ideas of Signifying Monkey were introduced in Figures but rather that the two works function together as if a diptych. For it is in both of them together that the full purchase of Gates’s interventions can be evinced, inasmuch as the very nearness and performance of their publication renders conspicuous the differences between analyzing African American literature through the lenses of so-called high theory in Figures to analyzing African American literature primarily through the theoretical lenses produced within and by the black tradition itself in Signifying Monkey.

What seems particularly noteworthy is that The Signifying Monkey could animate the lines of critical inquiry both for national literatures and cultures and comparative literatures and cultures. Gates himself was certainly aware of his own position as a figure who sits at the crossroads of distinct hermeneutical and theoretical lines, writing, “The critic of comparative black literature also dwells at a sort of crossroads, a discursive crossroads. … This sort of critic would seem, like Esu, to live at the intersection of these crossroads. When writing a book that lifts one concept [End Page 861] from two discrete discursive realms, only to compare them, the role of the critic as the trickster of discourse seems obvious” (65). To be sure, Gates is in Signifying Monkey less concerned with the traditional conventions of comparative literature per se than he is with abstracting aspects of Yoruba culture and its variations as they manifested on the other side of the Atlantic to constitute a frame or theory for reading African American literature.

If The Signifying Monkey was not the first to use the words “African American” in a work of literary criticism, as the updated subtitle reveals, it was certainly one of its most prominent usages—a startling display at a time that underscored the unsettled and unsettling lines of critical inquiry regarding the putative connections between US blacks and Africa. To say that these connections tracked Gates’s own life would be a correct but nevertheless incomplete recognition. For what we can limn in hindsight is that The Signifying Monkey marked, as much as it occasioned, a turning point in African American literary criticism with increased attention not only to the themes, tropes, and cultures of the United States (perhaps exemplified with Houston Baker’s Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature [1984] on the one hand) but to those related to transnationalism and diaspora (perhaps most identified with Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic [1993] on the other hand). The discursive if not curricular relationship between African studies and what was then called Afro-American studies was uneven and mercurial, a mercurial relationship that persisted into my own graduate training and continues where I now teach.

On the occasion of the twentieth-fifth anniversary of The Signifying Monkey, Oxford University Press issued a second edition of the volume complete with color plates as well as a new preface, introduction, and afterword. While all three of the latter paratexts have indelible autobiographical elements—with Gates detailing his academic journey from graduate studies at Cambridge to the faculty at Yale to W. J. T. Mitchell recalling the letter from Gates inquiring about editing the...


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