The African American Vernacular Tradition
As the introduction to the Norton Anthology states, “In African American literature, the
vernacular refers to the church songs, blues, ballads, sermons, stories, and, in our own era, hip
hop songs that are part of the oral, not primarily the literate (or written-down) expression” (3).
Verna, of course, comes broadly from Latin, meaning “native.” In our contexts, this relates to the
people of African descent who came to the United States.
How, then, can we come to describe the forms inherent within the Black vernacular tradition?
The introduction contends that it “consists of forms, sacred song—songs, prayers, and
sermons---and secular—work songs, secular rhymes and songs, jazz, and stories of many
kinds. It also consists of dances, wordless musical performances, stage shows, and shows,
and visual art forms of many sorts” (6).
And what about the other characteristics within this tradition?
“ In addition, the forms share traits that reflect their African background: call-response
patterns of many kinds; group creation; and poly-rhythmically percussive, dance-beat
orientation not only in musical forms but in rhythm of a line, tale, or rhyme. Not
surprisingly, improvisation is a highly prized aspect of vernacular performance” (6).
Henry Louis Gates Jr On Signifyin(g) and “Talking Books”: "The black tradition is double-
voiced. The trope of the Talking Book, of double-voiced texts that talk to other texts, is the
unifying metaphor within this book. Signifyin(g) is the figure of the double-voiced, epitomized
by Esu's (a derivative of the signifying monkey) [divine trickster figure in black culture]
depictions in sculpture as possessing two mouths" (
The Signifying Monkey
Further, Gates contends in
The Signifying Monkey:
Signifyin(g), Abrahams argues implicitly, is the black person’s use of figurative modes of
language use […] It is useful to list the signal aspects of his extensive definitions:
Signifyin(g) “can mean any number of things.”
It is a black term and a black rhetorical device
It can mean the
“ability to talk with great innuendo.”
It can mean to “carp, cajole, needle, and lie”
It can mean “the propensity to talk around a subject, never quite coming to the point.”
It can mean “making fun of a person or situation.”
It can “also denote speaking with hands and eyes.”
It is the “language of trickery, that set of words achieving Hamlet’s ‘direction through
The Monkey “is a signifier, and the Lion, therefore, is the signified” (74-75)
Throughout this semester, look at the ways in which African American creation/writing plays