Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self / Edition 1

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For over two centuries, critics and the black community have tended to approach African-American literature as simply one more front in the important war against racism, valuing slave narratives and twentieth-century works alike, primarily for their political impact.
In this volume, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a leading scholar in African-American studies, attacks the notion of African-American literature as a kind of social realism. Insisting, instead, that critics focus on the most repressed element of African-American criticism—the language of the text—Gates advocates the use of a close, methodical analysis of language, made possible by modern literary theory. Throughout his study, Gates incorporates the theoretical insights of critics such as Bakhtin, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, and Bloom, as he examines the modes of representation that define black art and analyzes the unspoken assumptions made in judging this literature since its inception.
Ranging from the eighteenth-century poet, Phillis Wheatley, to modern writers, Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker, Gates seeks to redefine literary criticism itself, moving away from a Eurocentric notion of a hierarchical canon—mostly white, Western, and male—to foster a truly comparative and pluralistic notion of literature.

A leading scholar in African-American studies attacks the notion of African-American literature as a kind of social realism.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The originality, brilliance, and scope of the work is remarkable....Gates will instruct, delight, and stimulate a broad range of readers, both those who are already well versed in [African-American] literature, and those who, after reading this book, will eagerly begin to be."—Barbara E. Johnson, Harvard University

"Henry Louis Gates Jr. is establishing himself as the leading critic of Afro-American literature and his new book, Figures in Black, will certainly confirm his standing. Gates's brilliance lies in fulfilling an exceptionally difficult task: that of interpreting this body of literature through contemporary critical theory without losing sight of its tradition. These new essays thus combine historical breadth with critical insight....Figures in Black is one of the year's most outstanding critical studies."—Year's Work in English STudies

"A critical enterprise of the first importance....Gates promises to lead and to show the way in boldness of conception, in vigor of execution, and in vitality and pertinence of expression."—James Olney, Louisiana State University

"Figures in Black is an important work in the evolution of the [African-American] literary tradition, and provides some important prolegomena for the future of the criticism of [African-American] literature. Gates is at his best as a critic of criticism, when he reflects upon and clarifies the underlying ideological assumptions of the critical activity itself, and he is also astute in his application of the critical principles which he unearths."—MELUS (Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States)

"An extremely important...contribution to the study of [African-American] literature...there can be no doubt of Gates' crucial contributions as a literary historian."—Choice

"Entertaining and dramatic."—The Village Voice Literary Supplement

"Not only a series of provocative and original readings...but also much else of interest to students of black-white intellectual and literary history....Of the seminal importance of Figures in Black there can be no doubt."—American Literature

"The recognition of the critical sophistication of African-American literature and cultural expressions as well as recognition of the often unremarked blackness of antinomian critical thought are signal developments of the past decade, and [this book is a] signal contribution to elaborations of such insights."—English Language Notes

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195060744
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/28/1989
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.38 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is Chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies and W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of The Signifying Monkey, Loose Canons, and Colored People; general editor of The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers; and general editor of The W.E.B. Du Bois Institute series.

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