Fiction is of great value to any people as a preserver of manners and customs…. – Pauline Hopkins (circa 1900)
You can never really get your point across to a person until you learn how to communicate with him. If he speaks French, you can’t speak German. You have to know what language he speaks and then speak to him in that language. – Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks, 106-107
We played the Dozens for recreation, like white folks play Scrabble . . . the Dozens is a mean game…. Some of the best Dozens players were girls…. Signifying allowed you a choice-you could either make a cat feel good or bad. If you had just [verbally] destroyed someone or if they were down already, signifying could help them over. Signifying was also a way of expressing your own feelings…. Signifying at its best can be heard when the brothers are exchanging tales. – H. “Rap” Brown, “Street Smarts,” 354-356
Signification is the Nigger’s occupation.  – Roger D. Abrahams, “Playing the Dozens,” 303
Commencing in the middle of the 17th century and concluding almost 200 years later, the Africa-America slave trade furnished untold millions of black bodies to fuel the damnable crucible known as American slavery, which in turn manned the economic machine called the American southern cotton industry.
An unfortunate side effect of this institutionalized system of oppression was the cultural rape of slaves brought to colonial America – a rape that replaced slaves’ African traditions with things American. At first glance, one could say that insatiable colonial greed resulted in the mass elimination of a culture, but this is not quite the truth. Instead, it catalyzed the creation of a hybrid, parallel culture – not really American, not exactly African, and yet, having characteristics of both.
Many Africanisms-customs, values, and rituals ostensibly vanished; however, most survived the horrific Middle Passage, fixing themselves onto the foundation of a nascent “African-American” culture. Forced to exist in the hyphenated space between Africa and America, this new culture developed its own social customs, its own institutions, and own way of life. Most importantly, it developed its own language, considered by many to be a corruption of the “good” English tongue: it sounded like English, but was not accepted as such. Nevertheless, a Black-Africa-influenced system of syntax and phonology flourished throughout the years, adopting English words into black parlance, creating its own when necessary.
Some studies of black-American speech patterns have shown that Africa affected its U. S. progeny more than previously believed, helping to create a distinctly black discourse community. A salient feature of this community is “signifyin(g),” the term popularized by literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his seminal contribution to linguistics, rhetoric, and literature, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. Not the sole province of African American, signifyin(g) – or signification – exists as a verbal ritual in the African-American community nevertheless, bearing the indelible stamp of that quality termed “blackness.”
Signifyin(g): A Definition
Defined in its simplest terms, signifyin(g) is the “verbal art of ritualized insult,” writes sociolinguist Geneva Smitherman, in her book, Black Talk (1994), a lexicon of trans-generational, core, in-group lingo (206). When one signifies in the black sense of the word, the person
puts down, needles, or talks about (signifies on) someone, to make a point or sometimes just for fun. It exploits the unexpected, using quick verbal surprises and humor, and it is generally characterized by nonmalicious and principled criticism. (206)
When studying black discourse, many scholars have noted and studied the unique use of and connotations given to this rhetorical strategy. Abrahams, more than any other, gives a more all-encompassing definition of signifyin(g). He says that it can mean “any of a number of things” in a black context. Usually, it means the act of speaking to
carp, cajole, needle, and lie. It can mean in other instances the propensity to talk around a subject, never quite coming to the point. It can mean “making fun” of a person or situation. Also it can denote speaking with the hands and eyes…. Thus it is “signifying” to stir up a fight between neighbors by telling stories; it is signifying to make fun of a policeman by parodying his motions behind his back; it is signifying to ask for a piece of cake by saying, “[a] brother needs a piece of that cake.” It is, in other words, many facets of the smart-alecky attitude. (Deep Down in the Jungle 54)
Signifyin(g) has many meanings, “including meanings that contradict their own glossary listing . . . precisely because so many black tropes are subsumed within it” (The Signifying Monkey 71).
In short, signifyin(g) is stylized wordplay, a “style-focused message . . . styling which is foregrounded by the devices of making a point by indirection and wit” (78). In the African-American community, wordplay is a favorite pastime. The remainder of this chapter delineates this African-American pastime further and gives an overview of its use in the tradition; it also traces signifyin(g) to the folkloric tales of that African-American trickster figure, the Signifying Monkey. Reading these traditional tales reveals signification to be an ubiquitous, inherently-black feature of the African-American speech community; the accompanying literary examples of signifyin(g) show that it is inextricably linked to black Americans and prove that it really is the “Nigger’s occupation.”
The Signifying Monkey
In her 1935 anthropological collection, Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston records scores of Afro-American folktales, or “lies,” as they are called, since most of them are so humorous that they cannot possibly be true (19). These lies are narratives chock full of wit and humor, their sole purpose to help while away the time (Bontemps viii). Usually consisting of personified animals and other trickster heroes, many of these lies have the monkey as a central figure. The monkey is such a reoccurring character that Hurston, with tongue placed firmly in cheek, made the following cogent observation about the black tradition:
No matter where you find the brother in black, he is telling a story about his brother the monkey. Different languages and geography, but that same tenderness. There is recognition of the monkey as a brother. Whenever we want to poke a little fun at ourselves, we throw the cloak of our shortcomings over the monkey. This is the American classic…. (Dust Tracks on a Road 219)
Extrapolating from these comments, one might safely say that Hurston, a veritable student of the oral tradition, had probably heard tales of the Signifying Monkey. Dating back to pre-slavery Africa, the Signifying Monkey can be traced, Gates says, to one of its African progenitors, the trickster god of Yoruba mythology, Esu-Elegbara. In Yorubic culture, Esu, the messenger of the gods, serves as the divine mediator, transmitting information from the gods to man and vice versa. Esu and the Signifying Monkey both embody, according to Gates, “satire, parody, irony . . . indeterminancy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty, disruption and reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty” (The Signifying Monkey 6).
Trickster figures also appear in other cultures – the closest to Esu’s mythological equal probably being Hermes, from which we get hermeneutics, the study of the principles of the textual interpretation. Tales of Esu evolved and came to America, beginning in 1619 when the first Africans were deposited on the banks of Jamestown Harbor. The Signifying Monkey spun off from tales of Esu, eventually establishing his own identity in the African-American tradition (20).
- In Although the word is offensive to some, the word “nigger” has no pejorative connotation when used in an all-black milieu. As Claude Brown asserts in his essay, “The Language of Soul” (Prentice Hall, 1973), terms like “my nigger” are actually terms of endearment. I strive to use interchangeably labels like “nigger” and other words that African-Americans describe themselves with – like the word “black,” which I employ mainly for its linguistic simplicity; I try to use other words like “Afro-American” and “Negro” where historically appropriate.
- When denoting African-American signification, Smitherman drops the terminal “g”
© 1994 NSU Press © 1994-1999 Rodney Lain.
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