Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Questions for English 492 Modern Critical Theory, CSU Fullerton



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Assigned: "Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times." (2430-38, Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edition).

"Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times"

1. On 2430-33 of "Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times," 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 judgements 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, and what inferences does Gates, Jr. make about this long-ago experience on the part of an eminent black man?

2. On 2433-34 of "Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times," Henry Louis Gates, Jr. raises a key question for black critics: is working with white, Western-derived literary theory "merely another form of intellectual indenture, a mental servitude as pernicious in its intellectual implications as any other kind of enslavement" (2434)? 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 as a way of understanding black literature and art? Why, for example, would such a rejection put a black critic in dubious league with outmoded New Critical formalism?

3. On 2435-36 of "Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times," Henry Louis Gates, Jr. insists that race itself must be interpreted in much the same way that a literary text would be interpreted, and that "the existence of a black canon is a historically contingent phenomenon; it is not inherent in the nature of 'blackness …' (2435). What is he suggesting here about "black" texts and about the construction of race? How, that is, does race, or blackness in this instance, turn out to be something quite other than a given that requires no interpretation?

4. On 2436-38 of "Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times," Henry Louis 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" (2438) 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?

5. General question that might be folded into one of the above questions as part of a presentation: it has been nearly three decades since Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote "Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times" (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? Either way, explain your reasoning.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. and William E. Cain. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd edition. Norton, 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0393932928.