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?