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The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism

Signifying Monkey book cover

Black traditions in the past have suffered from both the lack of sophisticated scholarly attention and a Eurocentric bias in the critical discourses. In The Signifying Monkey, Mr. Gates explores the relationship between black vernacular tradition and African American literary tradition. He seeks to find a system of rhetoric for interpreting black literature -- our texts. The collection of essays is separated into two parts. The first part deals with the theory of African and African American traditions and the importance of "Signifyin(g)," a theory that arises from the black tradition itself. In the second part Mr. Gates applies theories to interpret African American literature tradition from Slave narratives to Zora Neale Hurston to Alice Walker. This volume is closely intertwined with Figures in Black which left off where The Signifying Monkey begins.


On Signifyin(g) and Talking Books
"The black tradition is double-voiced. The trope of the Talking Book, of double-voiced texts that talk to other texts, is the unifying metaphor within this book. Signifyin(g) is the figure of the double-voiced, epitomized by Esu's [divine trickster figure in black culture] depictions in sculpture as possessing two mouths." (Signifying Monkey, xxv)

Signification is a process in "how to employ tropes that have been memorized in an act of communication and its interpretation. (....) The language of Signifyin(g), in other words, is a strategy of black figurative language use." (Signifying Monkey, 84)

"The Monkey tales inscribe a dictum about interpretation, whereas the language of Signifyin(g) address the nature and application of rhetoric." (Signifying Monkey, 85)

Slave narratives make "the white written text speak with a black voice, [which] is the initial mode of inscription of the metaphor of the double-voiced." (Signifying Monkey, 131)

© 1988, Oxford University Press. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.


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