Signifyin(g) Metamorphosis in Thylias Moss's Slave Moth

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In Slave Moth, a narrative poem, Thylias Moss signifies upon two major slave narratives (by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs) and one lyric poem (by Emily Dickinson). Her response to these earlier writers is to honor and update their work by extending their ideas and plots, much in the way Henry Louis Gates has argued that Jelly Roll Morton pays homage to Scott Joplin in his rendition of “Maple Leaf Rag.” As important, Moss’s protagonist, Varl Perry, is a slave who ironically challenges and reverses the meanings of her slave masters in the poem. Hence Slave Moth reflects two forms of the revision Gates describes in The Signifying Monkey. On the one hand, the poem depicts its protagonist as growing in freedom and self-knowledge through her rhetorical flourishes and verbal combat with others (revision as reversal). At the same time, the poem also provides a way of reflecting upon its story in terms of the literary traditions of slave narrative and American poetry (revision as extension). Moreover, through recourse to scientific diction and metaphors, Slave Moth critiques American democracy as an incomplete yet necessary experiment.


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