The Signifying Monkey


A Theory of African‑American Literary Criticism





30 April 03


English 311


Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The Signifying Monkey attempts to address both the lack of literary theory directed toward African‑American literature and the Anglo? literary theories that are applied to African‑American literature. He speaks of the relationship between both African and African‑American speech and literature. Essentially, Gates contends that the voice of the black individual that is manifested in black literature should speak for itself and that the literary theory applied to black literature should be "generated from within the black tradition itself, autonomously" (xx). Namely, the purpose of devising such a theory is to explicate black works through black, not European, eyes. The intent, Gates states, is to magnify, not mystify the meanings which may not be evident to those who are alien to certain meanings or inferences.


I once heard a comedian state something to effect that when slaves are portrayed in films or on television, they are made to sound ignorant and use a vernacular made popular mainly by its presentation in media. In all actuality, this comedian goes on to say, when blacks first came to this country, they spoke no English. The language that is portrayed in the media was actually English that was learned from "ignorant ass slave owners." Seemingly, this can be applied to Gates when he speaks of the black tradition as being double‑voiced. Novelists such as Ralph Ellison or Ishmael Reed are writing through a voice that is both black and white because, as Gates states, many black writers have learned to write from reading mainly traditional Western literature.


Gates contends that his theory is not to applied only to black works because although he states that "repetition and revision are fundamental to black artistic forms" and that he focuses mainly on Signifyin(g) because of its fundamentalism. His implicit premise is that all works, whether motivated or unmotivated, Signify upon other works. Motivated signification, according to Gates, is manifested through such techniques as parody while unmotivated signification is manifest through such techniques as patiche. Neither, Gates asserts, is devoid of intent. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple signifies Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God through its covert and overt methods of narration. Gates, himself, almost seems to signify post‑structuralism, citing Saussure’s concept of the signifier and the signified.


Essentially, Gates strives to assert that his theory is pertinent and direly needed to assess namely black literature but other literature as well because his theory has the capabilities of being applied to a plethora of works because they all, in some way or another, signify upon another text.