Simply Written – Signifyin(g) in the Writings of Langston Hughes
And they asked me right at Christmas
If my blackness, would it rub off?
I said, ask your mama.
– From “Horn of Plenty,” in Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961)
To say that James Langston Hughes was prolific is to make a gross understatement. In the last 41 years of his life, he wrote 16 books of poetry (over 500 poems), two novels, seven collections of short fiction, two autobiographies, five collections of nonfiction, and nine children’s books; he edited nine anthologies of poetry, folklore, short fiction, and humor; he translated the works of Jacques Roumain, Nicholás Guillén, Gabriella Mistral, and Federico García Lorca, and he wrote 30 plays (“Langston Hughes” ix). This earned him the labels “poet laureate of the Negro” and “Shakespeare in Harlem”-an odd comparison, considering the man from Stratford had written only four poems, 37 plays, and 154 .
To say that Langston Hughes was a “race man,” an ardent champion of black people and black culture, is to make another understatement. A charter member of the New Negro Movement, Hughes doggedly and single-mindedly defined a black aesthetic in which to record and interpret the lives of the common black folk, an art form that encompassed “their thoughts and habits and dreams, their struggle for political freedom and economic well-being” (Jemie 95). He set out to do this by writing poetry and prose in the vernacular of the lower-classes, using their language, humor, music, and folk verse. Hughes left no stone of folk matter unturned, incorporating into his work the blues, sermons, spirituals, and even the doggerel utterances of “street poets.” One of his most outstanding contributions to American literature is his ability to reproduce the language of the Everyman – or better yet, EveryNegro.
An iconoclast, Hughes was often at odds with fellow writers over the artistic merit of the vernacular as an art form. This came from contemporary controversy concerning the status of Afro Americans, who were barely one generation past slavery: were blacks wholly Americans, justifying the rejection of “colonial” mores such as dialect, music, and art, or were they Americans of African descent, which would allow their oral and written expressions to surface without shame? The majority chose the former; Hughes opted for the latter, feeling it his personal obligation to be conversant in black idiom in order to transfer into writing what he called the “heritage of rhythm, warmth [and] incongruous humor that so often . . . becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears” (“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain 177).
To Hughes, the oral tradition meant more than a collection of black people’s songs and tales. It was black people, and he felt that any serious black artist should recognize this fact. The “truly great Negro artist,” he writes in his literary policy statement, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” is the one who does not shun black culture, but instead writes as “one who is not afraid of himself” and “accept[s] what beauty is their own without question” (177). In this sense, Hughes distanced himself from his New Negro compeers, not sharing their often shallow, arms-length appreciation of black culture. He immersed himself in the parts of the oral tradition that bourgeois blacks often downplayed-they usually avoided anything that was too “black.” He immersed himself not only in things Negro, but in the Negroes themselves. To Hughes,
even when the most ordinary person sang, or danced, or worked, or suffered, he was likely to be making beauty. Hughes’ absolute faith in the dignity of the lowest human being…. touched him with an optimism which subtly colored all he wrote…. Thus Langston Hughes [and others] were folk artists in that they exploited the wealth of material that was provided by the common people; and for [folk] writers that meant Negroes, workers, farmers, bums, pimps, gamblers, musicians, anyone who lived his life without intentional deceit. Langston Hughes really believed that these people were producing art and culture all the time, rainbows that had to be captured before they vanished. (Huggins 222)
Hence, his writings glorified the tradition, which included “the street language of black boys and their verbal games” like sounding and the dozens (223). Hughes gracefully employed signifyin(g) and other verbal games as story-telling aids, punctuating his love for and knowledge of the language and spirit of the unlettered Negro. In his own way, Hughes spent his life capturing rainbows.
In December 1933, Langston Hughes sent to publisher Alfred Knopf a manuscript of the book tentatively titled The Ways of White Folks (a slight wordplay on W. E. B. Du Bois’ classic The Souls of Black Folk). This amalgamation of 14 stories, his first such collection, relates his tales of “the ways of white folks, I mean some white folks,” as the book’s epigraph admitted (Qtd. in I, Too, Sing America 282, 89-90). Reviewers heaped praise upon the book’s “spiritual prose style and accurate understanding of human character,” calling it a collection of “some of the best stories that have appeared in years” (Qtd. in I, Too, Sing America 290). Peppered with “biting psychological realism,” these stories made “many white readers wince at his satirical analysis” of white racism (Andrews 365). “Cora Unashamed” is one of those analyses. In this story, Hughes’ use of signifyin(g) augments the effectiveness of this fictional portrayal of the white upper crust.
The story’s protagonist is dirt-poor Cora Jenkins, an unassuming black maid for the Studevants, a white family in the town of Melton. Hughes describes her as an “inoffensive soul, except that she sometimes cussed” (3). Hughes interjects bits of folk speech into the narration, especially when describing her drunkard father who signifies as a pastime; he spends his evenings “telling long, comical lies to the white riff-raff of the town, and drinking licker” (4). Central to the story is Cora’s relationship to the Studevants. After her own child dies of whooping cough, Cora transfers her affections to the Studevants’ “slow” daughter, Jessie. Jessie becomes pregnant by a lower-class, Greek boy, who is despised by the Studevants; to avoid bringing shame on the family name, Jessie’s mother spirits her away to Kansas City for a hasty abortion, from which she subsequently dies. No one in Melton is aware of this, except the Studevants – and Cora. In a pivotal scene, Cora goes to the funeral with the rest of the family as the only black in attendance She distinguishes herself even further when she begins to signify publicly on the Studevants’ guilt in Jessie’s death. As everyone prepares to view the body,
Cora got up from her seat by the dining room door. She said, “Honey, I want to say something.” She spoke as if she were addressing Jessie. She approached the coffin and held out her brown hands over the white girl’s body. Her face moved in agitation, people sat stone-still and there was a long pause. (10)
Cora’s sole comment illustrates signifyin(g), loud-talking in particular: “she speaks as if she were addressing Jessie,” telling her listeners that she is talking, in essence, to the girl, but to the crowd in substance. The impossibility of Jessie’s hearing her defaults the direction of Cora’s comments away from the one addressed. Everyone probably is expecting Cora to express her grief, but instead, she utters the logically unexpected, denouncing those whose hands bear Jessie’s blood, giving the lurid details of the girls’ death:
“Suddenly she screamed. ‘They killed you! And for nothin’…. They killed your child…. They took you away in the Spring-time of your life and now you’se gone, gone, gone!'” (10)
Hughes scripted this scene to portray Cora’s burgeoning independence. Prior to this, Cora exhibits unusual restraint throughout the story. All of her employers’ orders, no matter how cruel, are answered with a humble “yes ma’am.” By the time Jessie dies, Cora has been hardened by life’s circumstances. Jessie’s death catalyzes her surprise rebellion. In her rebellion, Cora signifies on-“gives a reading” about – every aspect of Jessie’s hypocritical mourners, in mocking tones. And once she starts giving her reading, she does not stop.
“They preaches you a pretty sermon and they don’t say nothin’. They sings you a song, and they don’t say nothin’. But Cora’s here, honey, and she’s gonna tell ’em what they done to you. She’s gonna tell ’em why they took you to Kansas City…. They killed you, honey. They killed you and your child…. they didn’t care. They killed it….” (10)
Rhetorically, Cora’s signifyin(g) adds to Hughes’ social critique. One’s reading of Hughes’ oeurve shows a recurring theme of protest; he consistently emphasizes white America’s wrongdoing, along with the psychological or physical scars left in its wake. For this he chooses an effective rhetorical scheme: Cora’s accusatory statements, set up as antitheses, drive home the Studevants’ hypocrisy – “They preaches you a pretty sermon and they don’t say nothin’. They sings you a song, and they don’t say nothin'”; then she uses other repetitive schemes, namely anaphora, to inform the crowd even further: “she’s gonna tell ’em what they done…. She’s gonna tell ’em why they took….”; “They killed you…. They killed you and your child…. They killed it” (10).
Hughes impresses upon the reader, and Cora impresses upon the funeral attendees, the callousness of the Studevants. Hughes reveals them to be extremely machiavellian, and he does this through a rhetoric cloaked in the speech patterns that his readers, black and white, understand easily.
Ask Your Mama
Although he wrote and experimented with other genres, Langston Hughes was first and foremost a poet, unerringly imitating the black vernacular, especially when he uses it to ape the music forms known as jazz and the blues (Jemie 95; Huggins 9-10). Hughes’ poetry resembles the blues by illustrating the emotive disturbance that signals the oxymoronic happy despair and desperate happiness of the black masses: “When your shoestrings break/On both of your shoes/and you’re in a hurry-/That’s the blues” (Qtd. in “Death of Simple” 104).
A large amount of Langston Hughes’ poetry has the unmistakable flavor of the blues, the music style characterized by angst, sadness, and ironic humor. None of this is untintentional. “Many of his poems,” writes Huggins, “are nothing more or less than blues lyrics, which cannot be properly sensed without familiarity with the blues patterns and rhythms” (223). Hughes takes these sad songs, which reflect the sad state of the Negro, and writes from that perspective. When reading his “blues poetry,” one “often can detect falsetto breaks and other blues characteristics” (223). The blues rhythm that Hughes perfected surfaces in the style that Hughes perfected:
Sometimes when I’m lonely,
Don’t know why
Keep thinkin’ I won’t be lonely
By and by. (Qtd. in Nichols 9)
When describing his attempts to express the longing and agony of his people, Hughes, in an interview, called himself a “documentary poet”: “I kinda document the happenings of our time in relation to myself and my own people” (Qtd. in Nichols 9). Not restricting himself to one style, Hughes molds each part of the oral tradition to his literary purposes. As well as the blues, he uses the jazz structure as another scaffold for his poetry, a rhythm that goes with the ebb and flow of the music, a combination of structure and nonstructure. Actually a jazz leitmotif dominates his verse just as much, if not more than, blues themes. Hughes’ close friend, collaborator, and fellow folklorist Arna Bontemps once called him “the original jazz poet” sometime during the 1940s, when Hughes began reading his poetry with jazz accompaniment (Qtd. in Ask Your Mama 93). One poetry collection, Ask Your Mama, makes use of not only the jazz lyric, but also some light signification.
Ask Your Mama is an eclectic work, taking its form from jazz and some of its wording from the dozens, as its title implies. Gates cites this work as the “most well-known, and one of the most subtle, representations of the dozens as a mode of discourse” (The Signifying Monkey 100). The dozens pervade the book, which is actually one extended poem. Hughes uses the constraints of the dozens to structure his book: the poem consists of a dozen sections, and it has as its refrain variants of the phrase “ask your mama.” Written as a poetic history of Afro America from a black jazz perspective, this poem makes mention of scores of people and places germane to Afro-American history. Hughes permeates this history with the accompanying racial tensions, venting his frustrations by signifyin(g):
I MOVED OUT TO LONG ISLAND
EVEN FARTHER THAN ST. ALBANS
(WHICH LATELY IS STONE NOWHERE)
I MOVED OUT EVEN FARTHER FURTHER FARTHER
ON THE SOUND WAY OFF THE TURNPIKE –
AND I’M THE ONLY COLORED
GOT THERE! YES, I MADE IT!
NAME IN THE PAPERS EVERY DAY!
FAMOUS – THE HARD WAY –
FROM NOBODY AND NOTHING TO WHERE I AM.
THEY KNOW ME, TOO, DOWNTOWN,
ALL ACROSS THE COUNTRY, EUROPE –
ME WHO USED TO BE NOBODY,
NOTHING BUT ANOTHER SHADOW
IN THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES,
NOW A NAME! MY NAME – A NAME!
YET THEY ASKED ME OUT ON MY PATIO
WHERE DID I GET MY MONEY!
I SAID, FROM YOUR MAMA! (43)
Taken from the poem’s sixth section, “Horn of Plenty,” this passage depicts one of the most easily-recognizable forms of the dozens-the ritual maternal insult. After chronicling his route to fame, the narrator must answer the question commonly posed by anyone who doubts a successful black’s ability to amass wealth: to imply that he or she stole it or acquired it through some other illegal means. To this, the signifyin(g) response “from your mama!” is given. Rudi Blesh, in a book review of Ask Your Mama, says this retort is “half-derisive, half-angry-to the smug, the stupid, the bigoted, the selfish, the cruel, and blind among us” (41). The comment signifies on the hearers, leaving them taken aback, since they were probably expecting a straight answer.
Hughes’ rhetorical devices are straightforward, but worth examining, since the whole piece of discourse contributes to the rhetorical effect produced by his signifyin(g). The only discernible rhetorical feature present is the use of alliteration (“FARTHER FURTHER FARTHER” and “NOTHING . . . NEGROES . . . NOW A NAME! MY NAME – A NAME!”), emphasizing his having to move a great distance to make a name for himself, only having to face familiar racially-tinged questions. Also, since this is a jazz poem, it is not surprising to see certain musical devices (the rhyming pattern of “DAY” and “WAY”).
Following his aforementioned sarcastic statement, Hughes continues the thought, explaining his rude response given on the patio:
THEY WONDERED WAS I SENSITIVE
AND HAD A CHIP ON SHOULDER? . . .
AND WHY DID RICHARD WRIGHT
LIVE ALL THAT TIME IN PARIS
INSTEAD OF COMING HOME TO DECENT DIE . . .
AND ONE SHOULD LOVE ONE’S COUNTRY
FOR ONE’S COUNTRY IS YOUR MAMA. (44)
Here, Hughes demystifies his signifyin(g) comment. These comments could be interpreted as his using mother as a metaphor for country (motherland), seen when juxtaposing his patio comment with “one’s country is your mama.” This could be a simple metaphor, or the comment could be taken at face value as a put down. Most of Hughes’ readers probably opted for the latter.
The phrase “ask your mama” is repeated throughout the poem, exemplifying what jazzmen call a “riff,” which Dillard defines as “a short phrase repeated over the length of a chorus, more or less like an ostinato in classical European musical notation” (Qtd. in The Signifying Monkey 105). The riff exists mainly in jazz improvisation, and by Hughes’ own admission, that is the effect he intended; actually the poems were first read with jazz accompaniment before they were published in book form (Bontemps-Hughes Letters 414). He sought an innovative poetic strategy and found it in his novel fusion of jazz and the dozens; to his knowledge, this was the first time the dozens was used in poetry form (Letters 407). He may have been the first, but Hughes certainly was not the last – other poets followed suit, like Maya Angelou’s “The Thirteens,” a poem that signifies on the very name given to the verbal ritual (see Appendix B). Angelou’s poem, like the dozens, “gives a reading” on someone’s relatives, going on to include friends when the family list is exhausted. Hughes’ poem, on the other hand, uses signifyin(g) in a lesser poetic role than Angleou’s; he takes the reader through a day in the life of black America, cataloguing items from the black experience and signifyin(g) on the idiotic assumptions verbalized by white America, like the following request for black janitorial help.
AND ELECTION TIME
IS ALWAYS FOUR YEARS
FROM THE OTHER
AND MY LAWN MOWER
NEW AND SHINY
FROM THE BIG GLASS SHOPPING CENTER
CUTS MY HAIR ON CREDIT.
THEY RUNG MY BELL TO ASK ME
COULD I RECOMMEND A MAID.
I SAID, YES, YOUR MAMA. (46)
The next two instances where variants of this signifyin(g) phrase are used show a pattern that is familiar to the reader by now. As in the above excerpt, he goes through a scene showing the despondency of being black in America and closes with his pat response when confronted with meaningless questions. The following is from part eight, “Is It True?”
BUT SCRIPT WRITERS WHO KNOW BETTER
WOULD HARDLY WRITE IT IN THE SCRIPT –
OR SPORTS-WRITERS IN THEIR STORY.
YET THE HORSE WHOSE BACK IS BROKEN
GETS SHOT RIGHT INTO GLORY.
THEY ASKED ME AT THE PTA
IS IT TRUE THAT NEGROES – ?
I SAID, ASK YOUR MAMA. (58)
And the next one, the last signifyin(g) section in this poem, aptly entitled “Ask Your Mama,” typifies again Hughes’ innovative use of the dozens. Keeping with the poem’s theme, Hughes angst-riddled verse is couched in black parlance.
FROM THE SHADOWS OF THE QUARTER
SHOUTS ARE WHISPERS CARRYING
TO THE FARTHEST CORNERS
OF THE NOW KNOWN WORLD
5TH AND MOUND IN CINCI, 63RD IN CHI
23RD AND CENTRAL, 18TH STREET AND VINE,
I’VE WRITTEN, CALLED REPEATEDLY,
EVEN RUNG THIS BELL ON SUNDAY, YET
YOUR THIRD-FLOOR TENANT’S NEVER HOME.
DID YOU TELL HER THAT OUR CREDIT OFFICE
HAS NO RECOURSE NOW BUT TO THE LAW?
YES, SIR, I TOLD HER.
WHAT DID SHE SAY?
SAID, TELL YOUR MA. (61-62)
The “signifyin(g) riff” continues, calling the reader’s attention to another humorous break in the narration. The riff serves as a type of comic relief: showing the idiocity of the questions asked and the narrator’s refusal to dignify them with any response except his standard insult. Signifyin(g) functions here, just as it does throughout the poem, as a purely rhetorical device. In the spirit of the rhetorical question, Hughes’ use of “ask your mama” appears to be no more than a rhetorical answer.
Jess B. Semple, Please
Beginning Feb. 13, 1943, and continuing for almost 25 years, Jesse B. Semple (a.k.a. “Simple,” as in “Simple Minded Friend”-not to be confused with his given name, Jesse B. Semple), the folkloric creation of Langston Hughes, articulated Harlem wit and wisdom, first as a regular feature in the black-owned Chicago Defender, and eventually in scores of black and white newspapers across the nation. “It is highly probable,” says Blyden Jackson, “that Langston Hughes reached his most appreciative, as well as his widest, audience with a character whom he named, eponymously and with obvious relish, Jesse B. Semple” (Qtd. in Mullen 20). Providing common-sense commentary on everything from colored folks to collard greens, Simple is undoubtedly Hughes’ most easily recognizable contribution to American letters.
Writing within the constraints of the newspaper column, Hughes constructs the stories in a formulaic fashion: compact in length, sentence structure, and plot. The typical story goes like so: in the form of a dialogue, Simple converses with “Boyd,” one of many Harlemites who frequent the Wishing Well Bar, where most of the stories take place. Akin to a vaudeville skit, the dialogue is banter consisting of Simple’s Black-Englished comments, juxtaposed with Boyd’s erudite – or as Simple would say, “colleged” – diction. One of Simple’s endearing traits is his speech, replete with malapropism, as shown in this scene from the play “Simply Heaven”:
Simple: I was also at Niagara Falls, after I were at Grand Canyon.
Joyce: I don’t wish to criticize your grammar, Mr. Semple, but as long as you have been living around New York, I wonder why you continue to say, “I were,” and at other times, “I was”?
Simple: Because sometimes I were, and sometimes I was, baby.
I was at Niagara Falls and I were at the Grand Canyon – since that were in the far distant past when I were a coachboy on the Santa Fe. I was more recently at Niagara Falls.
Joyce: I see. But you never were “I were”! There is no “I were.” In the past tense, there is only “I was.” The verb to be is declined, “I am, I was, I have been.”
Simple: Joyce, baby, don’t be so touchous about it. Do you want me to talk like Edward R. Murrow?
Joyce: No! But when we go to formals I hate to hear you saying for example “I taken” instead of “I took.” Why do colored people say, “I taken,” so much?
Simple: Because we are taken – taken until we are undertaken, and, Joyce, baby, funerals is high!
Joyce: Funerals are high.
Simple: Joyce, what difference do it make?
Joyce: Jess! What difference does it make. Does is correct English.
Simple: And do ain’t?
Joyce: Isn’t – not ain’t.
Simple: Woman, don’t tell me ain’t ain’t in the dictionary.
Joyce: But it ain’t – I mean – it isn’t correct. (277-278)
In addition to differentiating between colleged and uncolleged people, he humorously constrasts “mens” and “womens” (of course the womens are always too “touchous” and emotional), and he is always telling Boyd how he is being “Jim Crowed” or asking him to “listen fluently” while he reads his “poetries.” The stories’ leitmotif is Simple’s ongoing tirade against white racism. Seeing himself as the underdog, he fights racism the only way that he can – with his mouth.
Signifyin(g) provides Simple with the wherewithal to lash back at society, albeit verbally. His rapid-fire wit signifies on his condition in such a way that all who read his stories immediately relate to what they read, since his speech is phrased the way they themselves would speak, down to the last idiom and verbal idiosyncracy. With Jesse B. Semple, Hughes is the reporter who got the story right.
An example of signifyin(g) in the Simple tales occurs in the story “Simple Stashes Back,” in which he “stashes back” on white folks, which means “‘I . . . rear back and tell them off,’ said Simple” (231). As he begins with his usual complaint of white racism, Boyd tells him that no whites are within earshot to hear his rant. This prompts Simple to spin a yarn about preaching to the United Nations, “taking his text” from the word Mississippi – “which is spelled M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i” (232). He then proceeds to perform an acrostic that signifies on Mississippi’s infamously blatant racism: “Let us continue with the next I after the double S. That I means Idiots – which some folks must be to behave the way they do in Mississippi” (232). Now Simple signifies on white Mississippians, quipping on them with an amusing spate of double entendre:
Now I will go on to the P – which is what I plan to do as soon as I reach heaven, attach my wings, and learn to fly. As soon as I get to be an angel, that very first day, I will fly over Mississippi and I will P all over the state. After which I will double the P, as it is in the spelling. Excuse the expression, but right over Jackson, which is the state capitol, I will P-P. As I fly, I hope none of them Dixiecrats has time to get their umbrellas up.
Now I come to the final letter which is I – I meaning me – who will spell as I fly, Miss-iss-yes-I-P-P-i!” (232)
Here Hughes puns on his acrostic, namely by antanaclasis, which is the repetition of a word, with two different connonations (Corbett 482). The signification is his vow to “P-P” over Mississippi. The double-entendre works nicely as a double meaning created by Simple’s signifyin(g).As a folk character, Simple is the perfect organ through which Hughes mouths his social commentary. Simple personifies the black folk tradition, speaking its lingo, signifyin(g), and “talking trash” incessantly. Simple shows his cognizance of the tradition, commenting on in-group jokes like “CP Time” or his sardonic etymology of the upbeat music form, “Bop” (“Temptation” 101). Here, he signifies by parodying the meaning of the term in order to rail against the Establishment once more.
“You must not know where Bop comes from,” said Simple, astonished at my ignorance.
“I do not know,” I said. “Where?”
“From the police,” said Simple.
“What do you mean, from the police?”
“From police beating Negroes’ heads,” said Simple. “Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club says ‘Bop! Bop!. . . Be-bop!. . . MOP!. . . BOP!’. . .” (104)
Simple leads Boyd to the logically unexpected, an imprompu lambast of white police officers. Simple’s characteristically black experiences, revealed through his beer-in-hand musings, inevitably culminate in racial indignation and disgust. Simple, the EveryNegro, utters what he considers to be the conventional wisdom on the Race Problem. He signifies on his situations, either through his comments or by singing his frustrations through the blues:
My feets achin so’s I cn hardly stan,
My feets achin, yeah, so’s I cn hardly stan,
But ah ain’t gonna trade em
Cause they done saved me from the man. (Qtd. in Klotman 187)
Again, he puns on the unexpected insertion of a comment against white society, epitomized by “the man” (Black Talk 158).
Simple and Boyd are well aware of other verbal rituals of black folk and often indulge in them. In the short story “That Word Black,” Simple engages in meta-discourse when Boyd tries to ease a friendly jab at Simple’s mother in middle of their continuing discussion of race relations. Simple laments the fact that the word black has only negative connotations: black cat, black list, black ball, and black mail. He deduces that white society thinks negatively of Negroes whenever people hear the term “black man.” Boyd commiserates with Simple, but also tries to keep the discussion light, by poking fun at his friend’s “Simple” logic:
“All you say is true about the odium attached to the word black,” I said. “You’ve even forgotten a few. For example. . . . [in] Chicago, if you’re a gangster, the Black Hand Society may take you for a ride. And certainly if you don’t behave yourself, your family will say you’re the black sheep. Then if your mama burns a black candle to change the family luck, they call it black magic.”
“My mama never did believe in voodoo so she did not burn no black candles,” said Simple.
“If she had, that would have been a black mark against her.”
“Stop talking about my mama. What I want to know is, where do white folks get off calling everything bad black? (208-209)
If Boyd’s comment had surfaced while talking with other people, chances are high that his comment about the “black mark” against someone’s mother would not have been perceived as a slur against one’s mother. But Simple, attuned to the ebb and flow of meta-discourse, catches any potentially-signifyin(g) comments, whether real or imagined.
Hughes uses the dozens sparingly, unlike Hurston and Walker, who often depict it in long and detailed scenes. He employs it chiefly in his Simple tales as short exchanges of quips. In “Feet Live Their Own Life,” Boyd illustrates this when he tries to play the dozens on Simple after hearing a tirade about the injustices done to Simple’s “great-great-grandpa”:
Just then Zarita came in wearing her Thursday-night rabbit skin coat. She didn’t stop at the bar, being dressed up, but went straight back to a booth. Simple’s hand went up, his beer went down, and the glass back to its wet spot on the bar.
“Excuse me a minute,” he said, sliding off the stool.
Just to give him pause, the dozens, that old verbal game of maligning a friend’s female relatives, came to mind. “Wait,” I said. “You have told me about what to ask your great-great-grandpa. But I want to know what to ask your great-great-grandma.” (7)
People who do not want to play the dozens usually respond with a simple “I don’t play that,” or some other declining statement Recognizing Boyd’s attempt to goad him into an argument, Simple responds with a variant when he has, typically, the last word: “‘I don’t play the dozens that far back,’ said Simple, following Zarita into the smoke juke-box blue of the back room” (7). With this he rejects Boyd’s verbal parry, while outlining his personal limits of dozens playing. This is signifyin(g), or intergroup signifyin(g). Intergroup signifyin(g) calls for all members’ being aware (meta-discourse) that signifyin(g) is being attempted; if this awareness is not present, the attempt is futile (Signifying Monkey 77-78). Simple’s response to Boyd serves as his acknowledgement of Boyd’s signifyin(g).
Several times, Hughes, puts his characters “in the dozens.” Matching wits with each other consistently ends with amusing results. In Hughes’ Simple stories, Boyd’s “Simple-Minded Friend” never fails to show himself to be far more discerning than his moniker suggests. In the short, “A Word from Town and Country,” Simple and Boyd engage in a little semantic tete-a-tete, reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s “who’s on first?” routine. Simple starts off, using the word “bitch” to describe “a woman who acts like a hound” (174). Boyd’s argues that the term is improper in any situation; Simple adamantly stands behind his statement, justifying his comment by citing the same connotation of the word in the “white” journal, Town and Country, “which my boss’s wife reads” (174). Their banter continues. Boyd tells Simple that his use of the word makes a sweeping generalization of women. Simple counters by saying that he does not mean all women, mentioning his mother as an example of exclusion from his generalization. This leads to an exchange reminiscent of the dozens.
“. . . you are using it in its profane sense,” I said, “and you are insulting womankind.”
“My mother was a woman,” said Simple indignantly, “and I would not insult her.”
“But you would insult my mother,” I said, “if you applied that term to womankind.”
“I do not even know your mother,” said Simple.
“Well, I would appreciate it if you did not talk about her now,” I said, “in the same breath with female hounds.” (174-175)
Boyd and Simple are typical of the men who dare to play the dozens on each other’s mothers. They make such comments, but never approach the use of fisticuffs. But they do manage to frustrate each other. Simple, intentionally or not, manages to irritate his fellow barfly.
“You must be drunk,” said Simple. “I did not mention your mother.”
“You just got through mentioning my mother,” I said, “so how can you say that?”
“I did not say she was that word I saw in Town and Country,” said Simple.
“You’d better not,” I said.
“But women in general are,” said Simple.
“My mother is a woman.”
“I mean, not including your mother and mine,” said Simple. (175)
Boyd and Simple continue to argue the semantics of the word bitch, with neither yielding their position. Simple lists his complaints against and problems with his wife, which, of course, are blamed on a word that he saw in white magazine. Armed with that justification, he tells why he inveighed her with his word from Town and Country:
“And when a man is tired, sometimes the only word he can think of to say is the one that white folks use for dogs. I don’t know why we can’t use it, too.”
“Because it is disrepectful to women,” I said, “that’s why.”
“But that is what they is,” said Simple. (175-176)
Again, Boyd expresses sensitivity to the use of any disparaging remark towards women. Now, in the context of this story, he may seem to be genuinely offended by Simple’s use of the word. But faithful readers of the Simple columns – remember, they were first in newspapers – know that Boyd is always the rational one, and anything he says is to make Simple think and defend his positions, or, as in this case, to stir up a friendly argument. The last lines from this episodic encounter reveals, finally, that the men’s friendship is not in any jeopardy. They merely have engaged in a tentative argument that verges on a spate of the dozens, which, as the ending of the story shows, almost becomes full blown, if not for our simple friend’s retaining his decorum.
“Be careful! My mother is a woman,” I said.
“I am not talking about your mother, neither about my mother,” said Simple. “I am just talking about women.”
“Your mother was not a man, was she?”
“I do not play the dozens when I am drinking,” said Simple. (176)
Although he was adept at writing in the language of the streets, as in the above, Langston Hughes did not limit himself to any singular part of the tradition to affect his readership. Employing Afro-American lyrics, speech patterns, and in-group terminology, he used the vernacular and other speech features, like signifyin(g), to convey the black experience. When he did use signifyin(g) as a rhetorical device, it added a greater depth to his characterizations. From his scathing social indictments (“Cora Unashamed”) clothed in artfully-written prose, to his Simple commentaries couched in Simple malapropism, he gives convincing reproductions of Negro verbal wit. Readers recognize Hughes as one who masterfully reproduces his culture, preserving blackness on paper. His writings are timeless representations of how his contemporaries spoke, representations as true to life as any other writer’s efforts have been or ever will be.
Chapter 5 is missing. Return to index.
© 1994 NSU Press © 1994-1999 Rodney Lain.
Keywords: #signifying #rodneyolain #rodneylain