Much of Henry Louis Gates’s influential scholarship argues that Black literary traditions privilege orality. This critical position has become something of a commonplace, in part because it is based on accurate observation. From the “talking book” featured in early slave narratives, to “dialect poetry” and the “speakerly text,” the Afro-American tradition that Gates constructs and canonizes is that which seeks to “speak” to readers with an “authentic black voice.” Presumably, for the African-American writer, there is no alternative to production of this “authentic black voice” but silence, invisibility, or self-effacement. This speech-based and racially inflected aesthetic that produces a “black poetic diction” requires that the writer acknowledge and reproduce in the text a significant difference
between the spoken and written language of African Americans and that of other Americans. Without disputing, as George Schuyler did in his satiric novel Black No More that any such difference exists, I would like to argue that any theory of African-American literature that privileges a speech-based poetics, or the trope of orality, to the exclusion of more writerly texts will cost us some impoverishment of the tradition. While Gates includes in his canon a consummately writerly text, such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, because it also functions brilliantly as a speakerly text, and while Gates appreciates Zora Neale Hurston and celebrates Sterling A. Brown, he cannot champion Jean Toomer’s Cane with the same degree of enthusiasm.1 I would not worry so much about the criteria Gates has set for inclusion in his canon, if it did not seem to me that the requirement that a Black text be “speakerly” will inevitably exclude certain African-American texts that draw more on the culture of books, writing, and print than they do on the culture of orality.