Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext,” for February 17, 2009


Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Gates’ essay is an early example of the critical movement within literary studies known as Post-Structuralism.  Though it is difficult to define post-structuralism in concise terms, it does operate on several important assumptions:

1.  The author’s intent, as tenuous as it is, is secondary to the meaning that a reader perceives.  Post-structuralism rejects the idea that a literary text has one, singular purpose, meaning, or existence.  On the contrary, post-structuralism declares that each different reader creates a new and individual purpose, meaning, or existence for a given text.

2.  No meaning is stable.  With the reader displacing the author as the primary point of inquiry, the author is, in post-structuralist terms  “destabilized” or “decentered,” and as a result, so too is meaning.  Without the author being centered, post-structuralists focus on different sources of meaning (e.g. readers, culture and cultural norms, other literary texts).  These alternative sources are neither authoritative or consistent.

3.  The only way to begin to critically understand meanings is to deconstruct the assumptions and systems of knowledge which produce the illusion of a singular meaning.

For Gates’ part, he is applying post-structuralist theory to African-American literary traditions in an attempt to liberate notions of “Blackness” and, by extension, Black art, from essentialism both in form, “Black is…,” and intent, “Black art is propaganda.”  He is trying to combat what he calls “a posture that belabors the social and documentary status of black art.”  In other words, he wants to reject the ideas that: 1) black art shows the “truth” of black life, and 2) that because black art is assumed to “document social realities” is must always be politically directed.

He painstakingly goes through many historical, literary, and critical examples to trace both transformations and flaws in the understandings and reception of African American literatures leading to his argument for destabilizing constricted notions of what is “black” and what is the purpose of “black art.”  He states:

Ultimately, black literature is a verbal art like other verbal arts.  “Blackness” is not a material object or an event but a metaphor; it does not have an “essence” as such but is defined by a network of relations that form a particular aesthetic unity.  Even the slave narratives offer the text as a world, as a system of signs.  The black writer is the point of consciousness of his language.  If he does embody a “Black Aesthetic,” then it can be measured not by “content,” but by a complex structure of meanings.

And he concludes with the heart of his argument when he says:  “Literary images, even black ones, are combinations of words, not of absolute or fixed things.  The tendency of black criticism toward an ideological absolutism, with its attendant Inquisition must come to an end.”

How does Gates’ essay directly respond to critics like DuBois, Wright, Neal, and Fuller?



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20 responses to “Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext,” for February 17, 2009

  1. Brad Pearce

    Gates seems to be praising William Dean Howells on page 243 when Howells discusses reading a book and being struck by how the author is, “thinking white.” If one assumes by that Howells means the author is a person like anyone else, and Gates is praising this statement, does it not stand to reason that African-Americans could effectively “write themselves into existence” with the creation of any high-quality literature without worrying about the social message?

  2. Jason Sikma

    Gates discusses how early black writers and poets were heavily criticized by white critics. Heywood Broun later says that only through Art would the Negro gain his freedom. How is the artistic expression of African Americans still racially criticized in the nature of black narrative forms?

  3. Katie Myers

    Since Gates work is considered post-structuralism, how have works created after Gates, been influenced by him, and how is his way of writing and expression still used in Black Literature and aesthetics?

  4. Lmnelson

    Gates states “In literature, however, we have no similar development, no sustained poignancy in writing.” Is Gates saying this because he doesn’t believe the writing appeals to all people much like music does?

  5. kristenmnelson

    White critics are contextualizing works using flaws and circumstances in the authors’ lives to further the argument that there is an inherent intellectual difference between white and black authors. Is there another purpose that these reviews serve? Do the critics have some vested interest in discrediting these works?

  6. Tom C

    Gates says when talking about history “people were fascinated by the African mind”

    My question is, does Gates feel that modern authors and critics no longer value the opinions and ideals of the modern black writer?

  7. Geoff McNeish

    With the critices of the white critics clearly bias. I wonder how the criitics really feel about the work and how much of the dislike is based upon the race of the author?

  8. Jennifer Kurz

    Gates says there was a confusion that the Harlem Renaissance was plagued with propaganda, and “The race against Social Darwinism and the psychological remnants of slavery meant that each piece of creative writing became a political statement.” It seems that this is being portrayed as a bad thing, when evidence throughout history shows that a great many classic novels have some sort of moralistic, or political message. Authors tend to write about, or incorporate issues that are close to their hearts. Why then was writing from the Harlem Renaissance termed “propaganda,” especially if it’s about promoting human equality?

  9. Whitney Harmon

    One question kept coming to mind when I was reading this essay, particularly when I was reading the part concerning pretexts. That question was why did pretext seem to be especially necessary for these early African American writers? Did they have to prove or explain or make excuses almost? I wonder what would happen if they had allow their work to stand on it’s on with only their name attached. Because readers would not immediately know the race of the author based on their name. I wonder how that would have affected the literary society at that time.

  10. Elliott Lamp

    My Question also has to do with the Pre Text, I wanted to know why African Americans wrote theses Pre Text? White writers never did that, why did the African American writer have the need to do that?

  11. Katie Joseph

    On page 237, Gates is talking about Thomas Jefferson and his thoughts. The text that inspired my question was the following; ” …Jefferson concludes, ” are below the dignity of criticism….” My question is, by standards of which culture or context is this below the dignity of criticism?

  12. Jenna Currie

    On page 238, Gates states “Through an examination of a few of these prefaces, I propose to sketch an ironic circular thread of interpretation that commences in the eighteenth century but does not reach its fullest philosophical form until the decade between 1965-1975: the movement from blackness as a physical concept to blackness as a metaphysical concept. Indeed, this movement became the very text and pretext for the “Blackness” of the recent Black Arts movement…” If the meaning moved from a physical concept to a metaphysical concept, why is defining “blackness” such a prevalent and important part of Gates essay and why is it a focus of pretexts?

  13. Troy Alapit

    On page 244 Henry gates writes that, “The race against social Darwinism and the psychological remnants of slavery meant that each piece of creative writing became a political statement.” Knowing that politics is constructed by our society which is stemmed from this nation’s democratic roots, and Social Darwinism is a construct of guidelines where one is chosen and judged not by natural selection but rather their human physical traits and characteristics, could not each piece of creative writing be viewed upon as something not associated with politics, since politics is a construct as well? Could these pieces of creative writings be viewed upon as art that exemplifies an oppressed people and encourage them, rather than something associated with activism in politics?

  14. dmesick

    “The tendency toward thematic criticism implies a marked inferiority complex: Afraid that our literature cannot sustain sophisticated verbal analysis, we view it from the surface merely and treat it as if it were a Chinese lantern with an elaborately wrought surface, parchment-thin but full of hot air.” (page 254)

    Would Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s own writing of a pretext, the justification for his work, not fall into the above mentioned category which he seems to have negative reactions towards?

  15. Jon Ecklund

    From the above description of Post-Structuralism it seems that an author and the work they produce are seperate identities. Their writing is a living object that continually changes meaning with applied context; each reader therefore creates a new understanding. In response i ask, is it not only secondary, but trivial what the author’s original context or intent were? If this is so, then it would be possible to easily misconstrue and completely misunderstand the author’s message. Then how can it be virtuous to the literature to completely disregard its intent? It seems that there must always be some form of contextualization of the literature or it will be worthless in itself, and only valuable in an opinionated critque.

  16. David Hagen

    On page 246, Gates discusses the success of “black music” in comparison with that of “black literature” when he states: “Thus, Afro-America has a tradition of masters, from Bessie Smith through John Coltrane, unequalled, perhaps in all of modern music. In literature, however, we have no similar development, no sustained poignancy in writing.” Why is it that African American poetry didn’t develop the same “tradition of masters” alongside African American music when poetry shares so much in common with music, both in terms of rhythm and message?

  17. marissa m

    My question is why were the pretexts and in some cases the “certificates of authenticity” an important aspect of African American writing. How did these pretexts define the African American writer?

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