Gates Jr., Henry Louis

Assigned: Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times.” (2244-52). Also read the editors’ introduction (2242-44).

“Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times” (1988)

1. On 2245-47 (“Alexander Crummell, a pioneering…”), Henry Louis Gates Jr. cites the experience of nineteenth-century minister and scholar Alexander Crummell as an example of how difficult it can be for black Americans to escape the judgments of the white power structure. What was the nature of Crummell’s brief experience with South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, what lesson did he draw from it (including his reflection on native African languages), and what inferences does Gates, Jr. make about this long-ago experience on the part of an eminent black man?

2. On 2247-49 (“This is an exciting time for critics…”), Gates Jr. raises a key question for black critics: after years of preparation in learning “white” varieties of criticism and theory, is adopting or adapting this white, Western-derived literary theory no more than “a mental servitude as pernicious in its intellectual implications as any other kind of enslavement” (2248)? How does Gates Jr. himself respond to this question? What are his initial arguments in favor of doing something other than simply rejecting modern literary theory, or taking refuge in the idea of a “black” text that “rings true” (2248) as a way of preserving the “integrity” of one’s understanding of black literature and art? Why, for example, would such a rejection, in Gates Jr.’s view, put a black critic in dubious league with outmoded New Critical formalism?

3. On 2248-50 (“To be sure, this matter of criticism…”), Gates Jr., recognizing the racist bent in a substantial number of critical theorists themselves in past decades, asks bluntly, “Can we, as critics, escape a ‘mockingbird’ relation to theory?” (2249). In responding to that question affirmatively, he suggests that “the existence of a black canon is a historically contingent phenomenon; it is not inherent in the nature of ‘blackness…’” (2249). What is Gates Jr. suggesting on these pages about “black” texts and about how black critics should treat the concept of “race”? Consequently, what is his attitude towards “white” critical theory as an aid in interpreting literature written by black people? Finally, how does Gates Jr. describe the “critical trust” that is necessary among black critics (2250 top)?

4. On 2250-52 (“It is also political trust…”), Gates Jr. sums up his argument with the thought that black critics must avoid “the mistake of accepting the empowering language of white critical theory as ‘universal’ or as our only language” (2252) How, within these pages and before this point in the essay, does Gates Jr. suggest such critics should engage with theory while avoiding this pitfall? What insights does he adapt from Greg Tate about the supposed shortcomings of black critics in comparison to the achievements of African American artists (2250-51), and what is the remedy for those shortcomings?

5. General question: Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote “Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times” in 1988. Certainly, cultural studies and African-American studies have grown a great deal during that time. Would you say that they have generally followed Gates Jr.’s “middle way” approach of strategic engagement with theory as a means of interpreting texts and cultural objects or fields? Or do you think other approaches equally valid or more valid have become more prevalent? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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