An advocate of African American literature and culture, he has played a vital part in establishing an African American literary canon and in creating a distinctive African American literary tradition. Multifaceted critic, he has helped build institutional structures to Study African American literature and has disseminated his views of race and culture through mainstream media, from magazines to television. Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times (1988) sets out his credo for present day African American literary theory, which borrows from but revises mainstream theory with infusions of African American modes of thought and vernacular discourse. Born and raised in West Virginia. Yale University. He travelled to Africa visiting 15 countries and learning about African culture. At Cambridge he worked with the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who exposed him to Yoruba myths and interpretive modes. His work shows the influence of the two poles of his education:
· The sophisticated reading practices and deconstructive literary theories of the critics affiliated with Yale University in the 1970s, such as Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Geoffrey Hartman,
· The indigenous African tradition of literature and interpretation introduced to him by Soyinka.
His early critical writing draws from sources as diverse as Mikhail Bakhtin, Northorp Frye, and Derrida, which he applies to readings of African American literature in an attempt to revalue it and to construct a canon. In his book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988), he blends the poststructuralist theory of signification rooted in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure with the African vernacular tradition of “signifyin(g),” deriving from Yoruba oral literature. The latter tradition is evident in present-day practices such as “the dozens” (a game of verbal one-upmanship[[#_ftn1|[1]]]) and jazz improvisation. He uses theory provisionally; his intention is to develop theories of criticism indigenous to our literatures by drawing on black textual tradition. His poststructuralism enables him to define race as a function of linguistic and cultural differences rather than as a natural or essential property.
In literature, he explains in Signifying Monkey, blackness is not a transcendental property but is produced in the text itself only through a complex process of signification. By blending contemporary Euro-American theory with African tradition, Gates positions himself as an intermediary between dominant Anglo-American and minority African American literary cultures. In advocating theory alongside the black tradition, his work parallels that of the African American critic Houston A. Baker JR. although Baker primarily draws on African American rather than African sources. Against the conservative view that African American literature lacks aesthetic merit and is valuable only as a social report, Gates urges us to judge it on its own aesthetic terms, within the vernacular black tradition. Using these criteria, he establishes an African American canon. Against radical black separatist arguments for the exclusive study of African American literature, or Afrocentrism, Gates argues instead for cultural tolerance, and he freely makes use of mainstream literary theory as a means to specific ends. Between traditionalists and radicals, between assimilationists and separatists, and between antitheorists and theorists, Gates negotiates a middle path.
His goal is institutional as well as theoretical. As he puts it, he aims to forge a place for black writing and criticism in the broader, larger institution of literature. Talking Black exemplifies his intermediary role, drawing on two competing poles in African American cultural politics: assimilationist and separatist, as well as asserting the status of black writing in mainstream literary culture. He calls for simultaneously using critical theory and injecting African American tradition. He foregrounds the example of the early African American intellectual and religious leader Alexander Crummell (1815-1898), who advocated studying classical languages and obtaining a traditional white education. Most African American critics view this position as accommodating, and Gates distances himself from it, stressing that his amalgam of contemporary theoretical approaches and black tradition transforms the theory it employs. Talking Black exemplifies his efforts to bridge the gap between the specialized sphere of academic criticism and the public sphere of journalism, efforts that have been remarkably successful.
This middle-of-the-road position has helped win Gates a high degree of public visibility and success, but it has also generated much criticism. Traditionalists believe that the effort to create a separate African American canon degrades the Western canon, whose value, they argue, has been confirmed over time. Some dedicated theorists see his mainstream writings as a watering-down of his scholarship. On the other hand, some African American critics consider his use of sophisticated theory to be elitist. At a further extreme, separatist Afrocentrist critics consider it a means of accommodating white culture, in effect claiming that Gates has become a modern Crummell. Other radical critics judge that he focuses too exclusively on literature and culture rather than on the material conditions of African Americans. Gates defines his role as that of a literary critic and argues that attention to black literary tradition and heritage carries an implicit politics, fostering greater cultural recognition for African Americans. Ironically, his intermediary position, both intellectual and stylistic, fuels his popular influence as well as the attacks of his detractors.
From: Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times (1988)
"Learning the master’s tongue, for our generation of critics, has been an act of empowerment, whether that tongue be New Criticism, Marxism, etc. Each of these critical discourses arises from the western tradition. We have drawn upon their modes of reading to explicate the texts in our own tradition. Now the question is if we should go on with this type of criticism. There is a long history of resistance to the (white) theory in the (black) tradition. Black literature and its criticism have been put to uses that were not primarily aesthetic; rather they have formed part of a larger discourse on the nature of the black, and of his or her role in the order of things. Critics of Afro-American literature are more concerned with the complex relations between literature and theory than ever before. I have tried to work through contemporary theories of literature not to apply them to black texts, but to transform by translating them into a new rethorical realm, to re-create, through revision, the critical theory at hand. We must learn to read a black text within a black formal cultural matrix as well as its white matrix.
This is necessary because the existence of a black canon is a historically contingent phenomenon…The black tradition exist only insofar as black artists enact it. Race is a text,(an array of discursive practices), not an essence. This is the challenge of the critic of black literature in the 80s: not to shy away from white power -that is, literary theory- but to translate it into the black idiom renaming principles of criticism where appropriate, but especially naming indigenous black principles of criticism and applying them to our own texts.
My task… is to help guarantee that black and so-called Third World literature is taught to black and Third World and white students by black and Third World and white professors in heretofore white mainstream departments of literature and to train students to think, to read and to write clearly, to expose the false uses of language...propaganda and vicious lies- from all of which our people have suffered…from an economic order in which we were zeros and a metaphysical order in which we were absences. We, as critics must turn to our own peculiarly black structures of thought and feeling to develop our own languages of criticism….by drawing on the black vernacular, the language we use to speak to each other when no outsiders are around.
We must redefine theory itself from within our own black cultures, refusing to grant the racist premise that theory is something that white people do, so that we are doomed to imitate our white colleagues. We are all heirs to critical theory, but critics are also heirs to the black vernacular critical tradition as well. While it is true that we must, as Du Bois said long ago, know and test the power of the cabalistic letters of the white man, we must also know and test the dark secrets of a black discursive universe that awaits its disclosure through the black arts of interpretation.

[[#_ftnref1|[1]]] One-upmanship: The art or practice of outdoing or keeping one jump ahead of a friend or competitor.


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