The oral tradition has always played an important role in African American literature, ranging from works such as Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God to Toni Morrison's Beloved. These and countless other novels affirm the power of sonance and sound in the African American literary canon. Considering the wide swath of work in this powerful lineage -- in addition to its shared heritage with performance -- Mae G. Henderson deploys her trope of "speaking in tongues" to theorize the preeminence of voice and narration in black women's literary performance through her reconstruction of a fundamentally spiritual practice as a critical concept for reading black women's writing dialogically and intertextually.
The first half of the book is devoted to influential works of fiction, as Henderson offers a series of spirited, attentive readings of works by Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Sherley Anne Williams, Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, and Nella Larsen. The second half shifts gears to consider the world of female African American performance, most notably in the figures of Josephine Baker and the video dancer. Drawing on the trope of "dancing diaspora," Henderson proposes a model of theorizing based on "performing testimony" and "critical witnessing." Throughout the book, Henderson draws on a history of black women not only in the Pentecostal Holiness Church, but also within the traditions of classical, Christian, African, and black diasporic spirituality and performance. Ultimately, Speaking in Tongues and Dancing Diaspora provides a deeply felt reflection on race and gender and their effects within the discourses of speaker/listener and audience/performer.