“Justly celebrated and indignantly rebuked.” This is how Houston Baker, Jr., sums up the response to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism following its initial publication in 1988. It is also very much what you will find here, albeit in a less indignant mood, in the essays that Baker, Katherine Clay Bassard, Katy Chiles, Jenna Gibbs, Joseph Rezek, Xiomara Santamarina, Kenneth Warren, and Ivy Wilson have written on the occasion of its twenty-fifth-anniversary edition as “A Theory of African American Literary Criticism” (emphasis added). The move from “Afro-” to “African-“ in the paperback issue of 1989 and to “African” sans hyphen with this new edition shows that the book is itself engaged in signifyin(g). It talks back to earlier selves, repeating and revising, often without calling attention to the tropological shifts it enacts. The fact that Bassard and Wilson held on to the original hardback long enough to be able to register a one-word change in a subtitle, meanwhile, attests to the vitality of the still heated discussion regarding the work’s provenance and legacy.
Just celebration: every one of these essays, from the most stringent to the most laudatory, agrees on one thing. The Signifying Monkey, while it did not create African American literary studies, provided “indispensable conditions of possibility” for its continued existence (Baker). Just as Gates’s work could not have existed without that of Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and a great many others mentioned throughout these essays (it is this fact that Baker refers to above), The Signifying Monkey made innumerable other books, articles, and conversations possible, whether directly (as shown by Chiles in her attentive discussion of the study’s scholarly and pedagogical legacy) or indirectly (as laid out by Gibbs in her elaboration of the “six degrees of separation” between her work and Gates’s). The Signifying Monkey’s effect in this regard was particularly salient for the years focused on by Early American Literature. While preparing for her PhD oral exams, Bassard remembers being told “that there was no such thing” as [End Page 921] “Afro-American literature before 1865.” Her five-page single-spaced bibliography proved her graduate director wrong. The Signifying Monkey—especially in its brilliant fourth chapter, “The Trope of the Talking Book”—ensured that others in his position would be hesitant to make the same mistake.
Indignant rebuke: it may be an indication of what Wilson identifies as Gates’s “epic” achievement that many have questioned the terms of such success. In “helping to legitimize the study of African American literature,” as Rezek puts it, did The Signifying Monkey simultaneously put limits on what that study could accomplish? For Rezek, the answer is yes, and the example he provides is the field’s generally belated attention to the distinction between writing and print. More broadly, as Santamarina, Warren, and others suggest, Gates imposed a perhaps utopian continuity on a host of disparate texts whose sole commonality may be their authorship by individuals arbitrarily ascribed the racial signification of blackness. As with all utopias, the results were not always salutary. An emphasis on innovative black forms of literacy may have distracted readers from questioning the abominable equation of literacy with humanity. An elaboration of rhetorical practices that linked Africa with diasporic communities throughout Europe and America may have minimized both the rich variety of African cultures and the capacity of such culturally and linguistically diverse individuals to become in any sense one. Similarly, a celebration of forms of equivalence between early and modern authors may have done an injustice to their distinctiveness. As Warren concludes: “in seeking to make black literature black, The Signifying Monkey made history a nullity, which may be its most dubious legacy.”
It is my hope that this symposium, in its admiration and skepticism, its gratitude and ambivalence—most of all, in the time each contributor took to engage, once again, with a signal text—will return us to The Signifying Monkey, twenty-fifth-anniversary style, in all its textual and paratextual glory. The collective commentary solicited for this issue of Early American Literature invites us to question truths...