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  • From Writing the Slave Self to Querying the HumanThe First Twenty-Five Years of The Signifying Monkey
  • Katy Chiles (bio)

I honestly can’t remember the first time I read Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. Was it working on my undergraduate thesis in the basement of the library at the University of Kentucky? Maybe when I arrived in my Americanist graduate seminars at Northwestern University? I own a 1989 paperback edition of the text and can locate various and sundry photocopies of chapters in various and sundry file folders I have collected over the years. But I can’t find the one I read first, the original if you will, nor can I locate in my memory the first time I read it. But that’s the interesting thing about The Signifying Monkey (something else I had forgotten, but remembered on rereading the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition). On the one hand, the claims that Gates makes in it have so imbued the study of African American literature that many of them seem commonsensical, giving one something of the sense of “I already knew that, but I’m not sure from where,” almost like some things were so obvious that they didn’t need stating (but, of course, in 1988, many of these things did need stating). On the other hand, this feeling for me was and continues to be coupled with another, paradoxical, but nonetheless true sensation—that every time I have returned to this text, each time I have repeated the act of reading it, including this last time, I have learned something new. The Signifying Monkey is both what we (seem to) have always already known and also what we have yet to discover. This, in part, is what makes it the kind of book that generates both a twenty-fifth-anniversary edition and a roundtable on its anniversary in Early American Literature. [End Page 873]

In what follows, I reflect on the past twenty-five years of this book’s existence. I first talk about what I find most striking about this book for early African Americanists and early Americanists more broadly and also about what it has enabled—both in the classroom and in scholarship that has built on it. Then I focus on a few trenchant and important critiques of Gates, the kind that even in disagreeing with The Signifying Monkey show how crucial it has been and continues to be to the development of the field. Lastly, I hope to pose a few questions that signal places we can take The Signifying Monkey next.

Scholars have discussed in the pages of this journal at exactly what point early American studies began to engage with ideas of race, racial identity, and the literary work of those considered racialized in the Americas.1 I’m less concerned here with pinpointing exactly when that happened and more with celebrating the fact that the study of early American literature today is decidedly concerned with these issues and with recognizing the role that The Signifying Monkey played in that development. Although an important portion of the book focuses on Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Ishmael Reed, and Alice Walker, the lion’s share analyzes early African and African American cultural production that takes place prior to 1835. This text clearly has been important in helping establish the field of African American literary study (usually in the diachronic version of Phillis Wheatley to Nikky Finney), but it also has been hugely important to the (somewhat more synchronic) field of early African American literary study and early American literary study more broadly. As Paul Gilroy blurbs on the back of the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, this text “remains an indispensable point of orientation for the study of African American literature,” and surely it does. But I would add: just as it belongs on every PhD exam list in African American literature, The Signifying Monkey likewise belongs on every corollary list in early American literature.

The Signifying Monkey must have a place in the training of our graduate students not because it shares a coincidental historical range but because...


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