Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts

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Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self

Figures in Black book cover

In his essays in Figures in Black, Mr. Gates contends that standard literary theories drawn from Western tradition are inadequate when applied to African American texts. In order to demonstrate the difficulty of applying literary theory to African American literature, many of his chapters consist of a close reading of a black text through contemporary critical methods. The relationship between black text and white critical context leads Gates to redefine African American texts apart from a European notion of a hierarchical canon of texts, and to read them instead within a black formal cultural matrix.


On African-American Literary Tradition
"Unlike almost every other literary tradition, the Afro-American literary tradition was generated as a response to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century allegations that persons of African descent did not, and could not, create literature." (Figures in Black, 25)

On Harlem Renaissance
"For the Renaissance poets, the act of writing itself was an act of definition, not only of a personal, poetic sensibility but also of a people-hood through the exemplars of the race -- Du Bois's 'talented tenth'...." (Figures in Black, 184)

On Signifyin(g)
"Signification is a theory of reading that arises from Afro-American culture; learning how to signify is often part of our adolescent education." (Figures in Black, 235-36)

© 1987, Oxford University Press. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.


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