|The Paula Gordon Show|
America’s public face at home and abroad
has been Black culture for a very long time, according to Henry Louis
Gates, Jr. It’s the “lingua franca” of America, says
this literary critic who has been instrumental in broadening America’s
literary canon. Twice now, Dr. Gates has brought to light pre-Civil War
women writers who were African-American as well as having unmasked the
“signifying monkey” for the world to behold.
Dr. Gates describes his
"Christopher Columbus complex," having authenticated the works
of two antebellum African-American women writers. He describes fulfilling
W.E.B. DuBois' dream of a pan-African encyclopedia as well as playing
a central role in the creation of other concordances, annotated bibliographies,
anthologies and series. He quotes a number of individuals and sources
from whom he has taken inspiration, revisiting how today's academic "canon"
Black readers can now
put Black authors on best-seller lists, Dr. Gates notes, comparing this
new reality to experiences of earlier writers. He assigns Toni Morrison
a permanent place in "the canon." Comparing expectations in
the 1960s to realities at the beginning of the 21st century, Dr. Gates
argues for government programs to give hope to poor people and to supplement
their hard work and individual initiative. He compares the Black culture
of his youth to today's Hip-Hop culture. He expands, eager to significantly
address social ills with a combination of structure and agency, individual
will and federal intervention.
Describing how the heroine
of The Bondwoman's Narrative transcends slavery, Dr.
Gates details why this is a story of hope carried by a fiction. He gives
vivid examples of the book's adherence to fact as well as noting the mysteries
it contains. He cites 100 other self-taught early brilliant writers, up
to and including Frederick Douglass, with echoes from other great writers
who also focused attention on economic exploitation. Dr. Gates describes
how W.E.B. DuBois wrote himself into a position of leadership. The signifying
monkey makes his first appearance.
Dr. Gates describes the
enormous cultural significance of and long-term implications attached
to the story of the signifying monkey. He gives examples of this language
game invented by slaves in the American context, but brought from Africa.
He compares the word play to jazz, expands the comparison to rap and tells
the only way to lose. He puts this verbal game into its cultural context,
noting the universality of trickster stories. The inability to distinguish
the literal from the figurative is explored, with a nod toward the role
slavery played in this evolving story. He gives examples of how Black
culture is America's "lingua franca."
Uniting the notion of
signifying with the autobiographical elements of The Bondwoman's
Narrative, Dr. Gates describes bringing the author's genius back
to life as one of the high points of his career. He recounts the story
of how it happened.
It was our pleasure to welcome Dr. Gates, who graced us with his presence when it was a challenge.
We are always grateful to the extraordinary Esther Levine of "Book Atlanta" who makes escorting people look easy -- which it most certainly is not!