Signifyin(g), Henry Louis Gates's (1988) theory of Afro-American literature, refers to among others, "a principle of literary history" (89) because it is an account of how writers read and revise one another's tropes. Contrary to some critics' claims, Afro-American writers do not simply imitate other authors; they Signify on them. By reading and Signifyin(g) upon fellow black writers, black writers are doing "an act of rhetorical self-definition" (122). The cleverness of how they revise other writers' tropes is the measure of their "blackness.”
There are many forms of Signifyin(g), the most familiar of which is found in the embellishments of jazz artists and the most amusing of which is seen in the "dozens," a word game of witty and subversive mockery learned by Afro-Americans from childhood (99). In this paper, I will read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970) and Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1970) using Henry Gates's theory of Signifyin(g). Morrison and Walker, two great Afro-American women who were avowedly political writers,3 must have seen the blatant sexism in a "brilliant, monumental" book by an important male literary precursor, Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man (1952), and Signified on his 23-year old "Romance of the Father." By refiguring Ellison's image of the perpetrators and victims of the crimes of rape and incest, Morrison and Walker help reconstruct the concept of black Womanhood.