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Analysis - Hoffman
Author: R. Wade Hoffmann
Instructor: Crystal Clark
Class: English 2281
White America has a long and rich history of denial of anything Black: humanity, intelligence, freedoms, equality. The list goes on and on. Is it any wonder that African-American literature would be any different? No less a personage than Thomas Jefferson simultaneously denied the possibility of an African American creating literature while critiquing the same work as being derivative and unimaginative, sublimating it to mindless repetition rather than art (Gates, "Mister Jefferson..."). With this in mind, the study of African-American literature must begin by stating that a tradition of African Americans creating literature does exist, and that it is art. It seems obvious that it has been defined as much by its denial as its creation. It is this denial that makes Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s claims in "The 'Blackness of Blackness': A Critique of the Sign of the Signifying Monkey" relevant. Gates' work sets forth a theoretical method of studying black literature in a way that exists outside of the academic critique that typically and traditionally has been applied to nearly all other Western literature. Gates' theory of intertextuality, revisionism, and signifyin(g) are easy enough for non-Blacks to recognize, as shown by Nikki Giovanni's poem "Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)" and its antecedent, Langston Hughes' poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers". As predicted by Gates' theory, being outside of the African-American literary tradition, the full scope and scale of how the tradition applies these concepts as self-criticism is not at first obvious.
The early writers in the African-American tradition had to overcome almost insurmountable odds simply to become literate and create their work. Even when they had, their work was questioned as legitimate because of their skin color and the oppressive racial climate of the times in which they lived. The denial mentioned earlier of Jefferson was regarding the work of Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American poet to be published in America. As a young adult, she was forced to endure an oral examination by 18 of the most powerful men in Boston at the time of the publishing of her work just to prove she was, in fact, the writer of those works. So great was the doubt in her abilities that these men agreed to sign an attestation stating that they did believe she wrote these works (Gates, "Mister Jefferson..."). Even still, questions lingered. This serves as a testament to the racism of the day and the strength of spirit of the earliest contributors to the tradition that we now call African-American literature, but it would not be the last test. Many more authors, writers, and speakers within the tradition dealt with similar doubts of their abilities and the authorship of their works simply because of their skin color.
Gates creates the signifying monkey paradigm and traces the act of signifyin' through black mythology, following multiple black cultures in various geographic locations (687). Using this analysis, he explicates the use of this concept in black culture as a whole, quoting scholar and folklorist Roger D. Abrahams to support his claims, and then narrows the concept to his specific purpose of critiquing black literature (689). Taking this perspective, it is fairly easy to apply these principles to some of the creative expressions of the slaves, and seems to also tie in well with Gates choice of critical review, Mumbo Jumbo, a phrase that roughly translates to gibberish (703). The work songs, spirituals, and folk tales composed by the slaves may have seemed like gibberish to the slaveholders, but it would seem to stand to reason that this was by design. Perhaps taking advantage of the fact that the Whites perceived slaves as ignorant, songs and stories that seemed like nonsense would be ignored by the masters but could be used to convey covert messages to other slaves in the same group or between larger groups of slaves. They could conceivably convey messages of hope, subversive sabotage, or even plans for rebellion. Another possible facet of signifyin' is to learn to accept insults in a lighthearted way so that the insults of the Whites could be handled in a way that was not as damaging to the black spirit and ego. Thus signifyin' would have be an important part of African-American culture from the early colonial period when slavery began in this country. This being the case, it would stand to reason that signifyin' would be as ingrained and natural to any African-American writer as language itself.
Another reason for denial of any literary work by an African American for the time period from the colonial days up until at least the Civil War, was that writing and expression in the same form as mainstream white culture would serve as proof of the intellectual abilities of the race being enslaved. The view of Blacks as ignorant, soulless brutes was part of the culture that allowed the Christian white majority to continue the enslavement. Even after the end of slavery, Southern Whites strove to keep many Blacks ignorant and illiterate in order to perpetuate their concepts of white superiority. As a result, any literary achievement made by a person of color, such as expanding or adapting existing literary models in some new way, would be dismissed by racist white scholars as non-literature or non-art. The constant comparison to literature in the European tradition is what led, at least in part, to the denial of a black literary tradition. Langston Hughes could have easily been relegated to this category if he had not forced critics to find cultural parallels to the rhythms of his poetry in Black music (Turner 143). Simply because white America lacked acceptance of Black literature did not stop it from being created, and the study of the tradition has taken place within the tradition.
One final important component of Gates theory is how the concepts he discusses combine in order to form a self-criticism within the Black literary tradition. Gates asserts that Black writers have read, studied, and been influenced by other Black authors within the tradition, and further, actually critique one another's work as part of their own literature, what Gates refers to as a "tertiary formal revision ... revise[ing] at least two antecedent texts, often taken from different generations or periods within the tradition" ("Blackness..." 692). This point is the fulcrum of Gates' theory, and refutes the final important denial of a cohesive Black literary aesthetic by asserting that there is a scholarly study of the tradition, although it is not practiced in the fashion that European and other Western traditions study themselves.
The question still remains both inside and outside the literary community of whether Gates' claims are true, accurate, and specific to the African-American literary tradition. Without a study of the Black literary tradition itself, the claims are not at all obvious. If one simply acknowledges that a Black literary tradition exists, the intertextuality, revisionism, and even the signifyin' seem to be similar or identical to any other Western literature. A study of Gates' work by one of his peers within the sphere of the African-American scholarly criticism, Professor Kenneth Warren, currently teaching at the University of Chicago, does not seem to completely agree with Gates. Warren argues in "The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism," that Gates is "convinced of the reality of black difference but too steeped in deconstructive thought to say so plainly" (Warren 224), which would seem to indicate that Gates might be trying too hard to differentiate Black literature from any other tradition.
Another of Gates' peers, Dr. Samuel B. Olorounto, associate professor of English and comparative literature at New River Community College, concurs with Warren. Despite the fact that Olorounto uses Gates theory as the basis for his work, he concedes that "whether Gates' premises provide a solid foundation on which to build a comprehensive theory of literary criticism requires further investigation" (5), meaning that the theory is still untested or not fully accepted within the critical literary community. While pointing out certain flaws or holes in the argument, Warren still praises Gates' work for writing "an intriguing counter argument to the claim that theory is somehow foreign to the black tradition: to theorize is to do nothing that black writers have not done for centuries" (Warren 225). He continues and admits, "even if one does not assent fully to this argument, Gates' demonstrated ability to suggest relations among black-authored fictions may help lay to rest the tiresome charges that attention to figurative language and literary form is inherently at odds with African-American literary practice" (226). It would seem by these statements that Warren is not entirely convinced Gates' theory is accurate, but admits that Gates' paper does at least serve a purpose in the academic community. By drawing attention to the concept of signifyin', along with defining the cultural and historical connections to Africa, Gates has contributed to a greater understanding of a Black literary aesthetic.
All of the information presented by Gates seems to indicate that regardless of whether or not signifyin' is unique and specific to Black literature, the concept can be used to explore the tradition in a new way. For instance, Olorounto cites several other literary scholars and theories, but ultimately adopts Gates' method in his critiques (4). Even without a scholarly or critical background, the intertextuality between certain works and their antecedents are clearly apparent. Gates' theory can easily be used to view two works within the tradition that exhibit traits suggested by the method.
Nikki Giovanni's poem "Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)" is a moving and powerful poem in its own right: The imagery creates an impression of Black beauty, strength, and wisdom that is all too often overlooked, ignored, or unacknowledged in American culture; in this way, Giovanni's poem celebrates and reminds the reader of the tremendous accomplishments and contributions that Africa and African persons have made to human history. Specifically, the most primal and basic fact that is widely accepted is that human history started in Africa, which would imply that we are all African at some point in our past. Giovanni also claims Noah as an African son and Jesus as having ties to or shared origins in Africa as well, which does seem to be supported by Biblical texts. The major accomplishments of African culture listed are: the designing of the pyramids – obviously one of the great wonders of the world; the birth of Nefertiti – celebrated for her beauty, and believed to have contributed to the formation of monotheism ("Nefertiti"); and the rise of Hannibal – who was celebrated as one of history's greatest military minds ("Hannibal Barca"). Finally, the richness of the land in gems and precious metals is mentioned, serving to prove that Africa is inherently wealthy in terms of resources. All of these facts stand in stark opposition to many of the common stereotypes and misconceptions of the African continent as a whole and the African people in general.
This, however, does not tell the whole story of Giovanni's poem. If one assumes an antecedent intertext as Langston Hughes' poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Giovanni's work takes on new meanings and creates new symbols. Applying Gates' methodology, there are numerous examples of both pastiche and parody: pastiche being defined as imitation of form or character in a flattering or complimentary way, whereas parody is repetition and reversal in a mocking or ironic way.
The following are given as examples of pastiche from Giovanni to her antecedent:
- Duplication of form, repeating "I"
- Many embodiments using "I" (African, women)
- "born in the congo" (1)
- "walked to the fertile crescent" (2)
- Duplication of form with use of "My"
- "flows ever on" (26) like rivers flow
- "gold was laid" (45)
- Repetition of "I" in of each line
- Embodiment of negroes in "I"
- "built my hut near the Congo" (5)
- "bathed in the Euphrates" (4)
- "turn all golden in the sunset" (8)
The similarities are more than chance; they are a purposeful use of the power of Hughes' poem. Giovanni simultaneously pays homage to Hughes while borrowing his symbolism and his form of embodiment with the first person voice speaking for all of African culture. It would also seem to pull in elements of the American experience, which is mentioned in Hughes's poem, but not in Giovanni's, thus giving a subtle focus to the poem that would not be present without Hughes' mention of Lincoln. Using this method, Giovanni's work benefits tremendously and the reader can gain a new perspective of both works.
The following are some of Giovanni's parodies of Hughes' work:
- "designed a pyramid" (4)
- "created the nile" (14)
- "I am a beautiful woman" (15)
- "and raised the pyramids" (6)
- "looked upon the Nile" (6)
Given that designing is more intricate and complicated that raising or building, Giovanni claims for all of Africa an expanded and heightened accomplishment of not only building, but also the designing the pyramids. The Nile River is mentioned in both, but Giovanni extends her claim far beyond that of Hughes' and pronounces that her tears created it (14). Obviously an act much grander than simply looking, it is an act of god-like power. It would also seem to hint at the life-giving parallels between a woman giving birth to a child, and a river providing fresh water and giving birth to a community. Nothing denotes the gender of the speaker in Hughes poem, but using the proclamation "I am beautiful woman" (15), Giovanni pulls all the symbols together to create a powerful female who is both graceful and bold, and yet still feminine and beautiful. Lacking the prior knowledge of Hughes's poem reduces the scope and scale of Giovanni's work.
Giovanni's work critiques Hughes's poem, making use of his original form and several of the powerful themes – simultaneously repeating, reversing, and expanding them. This is very much in line with what Gates' theory states. Giovanni's work reaches back through time to speak to Hughes's work, borrowing his robust and compelling symbols, but changing them into her own unique and dynamic massage of the beauty and strength of African-American femininity. While both works romanticize the shared African heritage of the authors, Giovanni's clearly takes that a step further to celebrate the beauty and uniqueness of African cultural contributions to humanity throughout history in a way that is, as the title states, justifiably egotistical.
Once the fact that a tradition exists is established, a study of any of the works within the Black literary tradition still seems possible without additional study, but the initial interpretations would scarcely be considered complete without some basic understanding of the African heritage inherent in African-American literature. It is abundantly clear that the richness of the tradition is only fully appreciated when viewed as a collection of works building upon one another. Before reading Hughes's poem, Giovanni's is still a beautiful and moving piece; with the prior knowledge of Hughes, it is all the more vibrant and powerful. Apart from the defining the past suppression of many African-American literary works and the denial of a tradition, Gates' theory and method is worthy of praise and additional study. In light of this, the question of whether the concepts are unique to African-American literature is somewhat irrelevant. Perhaps his methods would prove to be useful in other applications for other literary traditions as well, but nevertheless, Gates himself has contributed to the African-American literary tradition by expanding the understanding of it both inside and outside of the tradition.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Mister Jefferson and the Trials of Phillis Wheatley." www.Neh.Gov. National Endowment for the Humanities, n.d. Web. 23 July 2014.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "The 'Blackness of Blackness': A Critique of the Sign of the Signifying Monkey." Critical Inquiry 9: 685-723. Web. 5 Jul. 2014.
Giovanni, Nikki. "Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)." Nikki Giovanni: Multimedia: Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why). Nikki Giovanni, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 8 July 2014. "Hannibal Barca." Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 31 July 2014.
Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 July 2014. "Nefertiti." Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 31 July 2014.
Olorounto, Samuel B. "Studying African-American Literature in Its Global Context." Studying African-American Literature in Its Global Context. VCCA Journal, 1 June 1992. Web. 11 July 2014.
Turner, Darwin T. "Introductory Remarks about the Black Literary Tradition in the United States of America." St. Louis University, n.d. Web. 11 July 2014.
Warren, Kenneth. "The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (Book)." Modern Philology 88.2 (1990): 224-226. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 July 2014.