“Ain’t She Specifiyin?” – Signifyin(g) in the Writings of Zora Neale Hurston
The educated Negro may know all about differential calculus and the theory of evolution, but he is fighting out of his league when he tries to quip with the underprivileged. The bookless may have difficulty reading a paragraph in a newspaper, but when they get down to “playing the dozens,” they have no equal in America, and I’d risk a sizeable bet, in the whole world. Starting off in the first by calling you a seven-sided son of a bitch, and pausing to name the sides, they proceed to “specify” until the tip-top of your family tree has been “given a reading.”
I heard somebody, a woman’s voice “specifying” up this line of houses from where I lived and asked who it was.
“Dat’s Big Sweet,” my landlady told me. “She got her foot up on somebody. Ain’t she specifying?” – From Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), 136, 158
Out of the prose and poetry published during the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston’s writings stand among those that voice the deepest respect for the black vernacular tradition. All of her fiction articulates superbly the voicings of the “bookless” lower classes, incorporating their speech patterns into her prose, as shown in this Black-Englished excerpt from the short story, “The Gilded Six-Bits”:
“All the women’s crazy ’bout ‘im everywhere he go.”
“How you know dat, Joe?”
“He tole us so hisself.”
“Dat don’t make it so. His mouf is cut cross-ways, ain’t it? Well, he kin lie jes’ lak anybody else.” (93)
This dialogue illustrates Hurston’s skill at recreating the tone and timber of contemporary black conversation, a skill honed by a lifetime of association with the people she writes about. Hurston acquired her ability to “talk black”-to quip, cuss, and signify-at an early age. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she writes about being born with the “map of Dixie” on her tongue, and being “raised on simile and invective” (98-99). Eventually Hurston, too, became adept at signifyin(g) , or, as she calls it, “specifying,” “giving a reading,” and a whole host of other terms (136). Her life was filled with people who educated her in the language of signifyin(g). She recalls witnessing her friend “Big Sweet” specify vociferously on a neighbor. Hurston informs the reader of the contextual meaning of this form of signification:
She was giving a “reading,” a word borrowed from the fortune-tellers. She was giving her opponent lurid data and bringing him up to date on his history, his looks, smell, gait, clothes…. [She said] his pa was a double-humpted camel and his ma was a grass-gut cow, but even so, he tore her wide open in the act of getting born…. [Specifying, or putting your foot up on someone,] is another way of saying play the dozens. (136)
Hurston, and people she observed, played the dozens to the point that “when they get through with you, your whole family look like an acre of totem poles” (99). She played the verbal ritual as much as she wrote about it.
An unabashed lover of Negro culture, Hurston tirelessly collected the stories and other folkloric accoutrements of the oral tradition, particularly those of southern blacks, which often provided her with material for her books. Hurston’s prose – especially her causes célèbres, Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God – pedestalled the black vernacular, if not to higher levels of respectability, then to higher heights of noticeability.
Ironically, this was in contradistinction to other New Negroes’ artistic intents and purposes, which were, ostensibly, to uplift The Race.
To Harlem’s up-and-coming, uplifting The Race should not necessarily include forms of blackness like “ungrammatical” dialect and signifyin(g). So, when the mainstream press (i. e. The New York Post and Saturday Review) crowned Hurston and her unabashed negritude as its darling, it was no surprise that her contemporaries begged to differ over her socio-literary coronation. Alain Locke, the godfather of the Renaissance, called her characterizations “pseudo primitives” (Qtd. in Hemenway 242); Sterling Brown was offended by the lack of bitterness in her writing (241). Richard Wright inveighed against Hurston for “selling out,” castigating her for producing writings that reinforced the very stereotypes that blacks sought to eschew:
Miss Hurston can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phyllis Wheatley. Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes.
Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in [Their Eyes Were Watching God] the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. (Rev. of Their Eyes Were Watching God 17, emphasis Wright’s)
Regardless of detractors’ and supporters’ commentary, both of which were legion, Hurston uses the black vernacular as a bridge between the oral and literate traditions. This bridge, especially the bridge made by the oral-to-literate transformation of signifyin(g), figures into her writing as an important rhetorical device, a device that functions not only as a bridge, but as a common ground of understanding for both reader and writer. Having grown up using signification herself, Hurston knew how much more it added to the effectiveness of her prose; because Negro readers were familiar with forms of signifyin(g), she had no problem using it to connect with her black readership. A good example is her second book, Mules and Men.
“Big Old Lies”; “Lies Above Suspicion”
Published amid critical acclaim, Hurston’s anthropological collection comprises the first serious attempt to record Black-American folklore. Cited as both a testament to the ability of the Afro-American intelligentsia known as the “Talented Tenth” and as a bane of black cultural pride, Hurston’s second book showcases artfully the language of the black proletariat. Mules and Men, says Hurston biographer Robert Hemenway, “represented oral art functioning to affect behavior in the black community” (164); other writers say it pulls back the rent curtain and offers “the intimate setting in the social life of the Negro” (Qtd. in Hemenway 164). Written as a first-person narrative, Mules and Men is a true “insider’s” job: Hurston enters black communities and records their folklore, be it song, dance, or tale. This she does quite well, attested to by those who discovered her work years after it was all but totally forgotten.
As she recounts her earliest readings of Hurston’s book, writer Alice Walker observes the connection made between the book and its readers; in no uncertain terms, she calls Mules and Men the “perfect book!” for evoking positive feelings of Afrocentrism, which was much needed since the turn of the century (“A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View” 64). Noting the familial pleasure and cultural pride her relatives derived from reading the folkways that Hurston gathered, Walker recognizes the secret behind its appeal:
This is my first indication of the quality I feel is most characteristic of Zora’s work: racial health – a sense of black people as a complete, complex, undiminished human being, a sense that is lacking so much in black writing and literature. (64)
Walker’s implication that good black literature consists of that which touches cultural sensitivities and strengthens ethnic solidarity sums up the spirit of Hurston’s use of signification in both Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God. One can see these books, in one sense, as tacitly reaffirming the cultural self, celebrating Negro culture, and promoting racial health; Hurston, through the rhetorical strength of her writing, improves upon that health.
The success of Mules and Men can be expressed in one word: familiarity. Hurston wrote a book that her readers could easily identify with. They could relate to characters placed in a milieu where blacks are “being as natural as they can never be when white folks are literally present” (Rev. of Mules and Men 13). In this context, we find the Negro “speaking the language of his tribe as familiarly as if it came straight of his own mouth” (14). This touches upon a little-known cultural fact concerning signifyin(g): there are some aspects of American sub-culture that rarely reach the ears and eyes of the mainstream. By its mere existence, Mules and Men breaks many of these taboos by publicizing them. As Langston Hughes explains it, many things, like in-group jokes and the humor exhibited in telling lies, have been around for years, but did not cross racial lines, and if they did, much of the humor was sometimes lost. Hughes writes that certain
aspects of humor of minority groups are often so inbred that they are not palatable for outside consumption. There are thousands of Jewish jokes that rarely reach the ears of Gentiles, and if they did they might be embarrassing to the ears of both groups. So it is with Negro humor – a part of it is intended only for Negroes. (“Jokes Negroes Tell on Themselves” 641)
In addition to humor, other aspects of Afro-American discourse, like signifyin(g), have “nuances . . . too subtle for alien comprehension” (641). Although signifyin(g) is not totally alien to non-blacks, it does have esoteric features that add more meaning to particular utterances and writings, meanings that non-blacks just do not understand at times.
Mules and Men also contains the first-recorded mention of the term “signify” in a literary work (124); here, Hurston says it means “to show off.” There are several ways that she incorporates it into her writings. One way is via the “big old lies” that she records (Qtd. in Moon 10), most of which Hurston hears in the impromptu boasting sessions that come about whenever she requests tales to be told. The following lie, “What Smelled Worse,” results from one of these encounters:
Once they tried a colored man in Mobile for stealing a goat. He was so poorly dressed, and dirty – that the judge told him, “Six months on de country road, you stink so.”
A white man was standing dere and he said, “Judge, he don’t stink, Ah got a nigger who smells worser than a billy goat.” De judge told de man to bring him on over so he could smell him. De next day de man took de billy goat and de nigger and went to de court and sent de judge word dat de nigger and de billy goat wuz out dere and which one did he want fust.
The judge told him to bring in de goat. When he carried in de goat he smelled so bad dat de judge fainted. Dey got ice water and throwed it in de Judge’s face ’til he come to. He told ’em to bring in the nigger and when dey brung in de nigger de goat fainted. (Mules and Men 80)
Replete with colloquialism, this type of signification is mere storytelling. Within the context this story is excerpted from, the participants of this storytelling contest attempt to top one another with the most audacious lies (Talking Black 53). Telling lies is a staple form of repartee in Hurston’s work, epitomizing the verbal wit and creativity of southern blacks. Mirroring what and how the average Negroes spoke, this rhetorical scheme easily stirs the readers’ imagination, and like Walker has said, it enhances cultural self-esteem.
Hurston’s lies employ chiefly epideictic speech, rhetoric with the intent to entertain. This is seen in the playful mood of the speakers, many of whom are flattered that someone is asking them to tell lies. They more than oblige: “Zora . . . you come to the right place if lies is what you want. Ah’m gointer lie up a nation…. Now, you gointer hear lies above suspicion” (19). The men then proceed to heap lie upon lie, covering a variety of subjects, ranging from the humorous to the pointed. These lies – many of which are self-deprecating – are used to poke fun at either blacks or whites; Hurston later recounts a disparaging one herself, expressing her dismay over incessant intrablack quarreling. She signifies on her frustration by telling a lie about a man who knelt down to pray.
He got down and said, “Oh Lord, I want to ask you something, but I know you can’t do it.” Then he took a long pause.
Somebody got restless and said, “Go ahead and ask Him. That’s God you talking to. He can do anything.”
The man who was praying said, “I know He is supposed to do all things, but this what I wants to ask.”
“Aw go on and ask Him. God A’Mighty can do anything. Go on, brother, and ask Him and finish up your prayer.”
“Well, alright, I’ll ask Him. O Lord, I’m asking you because they tell me to go ahead. I’m asking you something, but I just know you can’t do it. I just know you can’t do it, but I’ll ask you. Lord, I’m asking you to bring my people together, but I know you can’t do it, Lord. Amen.” (Dust Tracks on a Road 217)
Hurston signifies by having the character drag out his prayer, making his “request” the last line of the tale. This last line constitutes the signification of the lie that she tells. Also included is the in-group humor referred to by Hughes, an understanding of which is necessary for recognizing Hurston’s satire in the “prayer.” She uses many of these tales to signify how, she believes, blacks rarely trust one another enough to achieve any semblance of unity (217-218).
Telling lies rhetorically strengthens the cultural commonality of the black community, as asserted by Susan Willis in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Willis tells us that lie telling is conducive to comraderie and self-affirmation (44). The resulting group definition and affirmation facilitates a theme of racial solidarity throughout Mules and Men:
“Ah seen a man so ugly till he could get behind a jimpson weed and hatch monkies.”
Everybody laughed and moved closer together. Then Officer Richardson said: “Ah seen a man so ugly till they had to spread a sheet over his head so sleep could slip over him.”
They laughed some more, then Officer Ulmer said: “Ah’m goin’ to talk with my mouth wide open. Those men y’all been talkin’ ’bout wasn’t ugly at all. Those was pretty men. Ah knowed one so ugly till you could throw him in the Mississippi and skim ugly for six months.” (Qtd. in Willis 44-45)
These men’s lying and signifyin(g) “allows each participant to experience the force of cohesion. But, it does so on the basis of derision . . . ” (45). Telling lies seizes the negative and turns it into the positive. Disparaging comments become comforting discussions.
Mules and Men provides ample illustration of lie telling as a mode of signification. Alice Walker, who led the resurgence in Hurston criticism, sums up the effectiveness of Hurston’s collection of lies when she says they enhance cultural self-esteem (“Cautionary Tale” 64). Try as they might, many blacks could not ignore nor be ashamed of their linguistic heritage, as portrayed in Mules and Men. Readers saw that they were
descendants of an inventive, joyous, courageous, and outrageous people: loving drama, appreciating wit, and most of all, relishing the pleasure of each other’s loquacious and bodacious company. (64)
While most of the New Negroes were “infatuated with things European – everything European” – “Zora was interested in Africa, Haiti, and Jamaica” (64-65). This shows in her writing; hers is closer to the souls of black folk than that of most of the ersatz bourgeois writers of the Renaissance. Mules and Men, through the use of Negro verbal strategies like lie-telling, relates to the reader. So did Hurston’s other works, especially Their Eyes Were Watching God.
In Their Eyes
In a 1937 New York Times Book Review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lucille Tomkins simply describes the novel as “beautiful,” saying that “the images it carries are irresistible” (18,19). Nearly all of the positive commentary on Hurston’s third book centers on the imagery her prose evokes; invariably, readers are struck by the rich language that is Hurston’s hallmark; and the literary criticism also leads us, sooner or later, to discussions about the imagery produced by her use of signification in the story (“Language, Speech, and Difference in Their Eyes” 207; Rev. of Their Eyes 20). Signifyin(g) functions not only as a descriptor, but serves as a valuable tool in the task of rhetorical manipulation.
Their Eyes is the life story of Janie Crawford; her life is marked by three marriages: the first is arranged by her grandmother; the second results from her fleeing the previous one; and the third, her only fulfilling one, occurs after her second husband dies. First and foremost, Their Eyes is a love story. The story’s romantic element endears the book to the hearts of its readers; Hurston’s metaphorical style impresses the story onto its readers’ minds. Readers laud Their Eyes constantly for its rich imagery; many give notice to its use of signifyin(g) rituals. Scholars cite Their Eyes more than any other work for examples of signifyin(g) – Carol Lee, for example, has identified 140 statements as signifyin(g) utterances (13-14). The remainder of this chapter looks at some of these, with the intent of showing that Hurston uses signification as a means of connecting with her readership.
One of the first instances of ritual signification occurs during Janie’s second marriage, to Joe (Jody) Starks. Starks takes Janie to the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, where he immediately positions himself to become mayor. His and other men’s days are spent on the porch of Starks’ general store, exchanging lies and signifyin(g) on current events. Usually, Matt Bonner and his “yellow mule” provide fodder for the men’s collective signification. Regularly, “the porch,” Hurston’s metaphorically-collective label for the men, teases Matt about his pitiful beast of burden.
“Mighty glad you come ‘long right now, Matt. Me and some others wuz jus’ about tuh come hunt yuh.”
“Whut fuh, Sam?”
At this point, the other “mule-talkers” who are sitting on the porch move to the edges of their seats, knowing that Matt is being drawn into an extended signifyin(g) exchange.
“Mighty serious matter, man. Serious!”
“Yeah, man,” Lige would cut in, dolefully. “It needs yo’ strict attention. You ought not tuh lose no time.”
“Whut is it then? You oughta hurry and tell me.”
“Reckon we better not tell yuh heah at de store. It’s too far off tuh do any good. We better all walk on down by Lake Sabelia.”
“Whut’s wrong, man? Ah ain’t after none uh y’all’s foolishness now.”
“Dat mule uh yourn, Matt. You better go see ’bout him. He’s bad off.”
“Where ’bouts? Did he wade in de lake and uh alligator ketch him?” (49)
Profoundly gullible, Matt takes the men’s “sober” tones seriously. His concerns sufficiently raised, the porch men proceed toward their punchline.
“Worse’n dat, de womenfolks go yo’ mule. When Ah come round de lake ‘ bout noontime mah wife and some others had ‘im flat on de ground using his sides fuh uh wash board.”
The great clap of laughter that they have been holding back bursts out. Sam never cracks a smile. “Yeah, Matt, dat mule so skinny till de women is usin’ his rib bones fuh uh rub-board, and hangin’ things out on his hock-bones tuh dry.”
Matt realizes that they have tricked him again and the laughter makes him mad, and when he gets mad he stammers. (49)
This exchange, like all of those that take place on the porch, consists of talk that builds to a hilarious crescendo, culminating in the introducton of the logically unexpected – unexpected to hapless Matt, if anyone. Signification also occurs, since the exchange is rife with indirection and circumlocution, as seen by the statements that lead Matt to believe that his mule is in jeopardy. All of the men signify by contributing to Matt’s misinformation.
Rhetorically, this scene works quite well. Matt Bonner, although Hurston does not reveal it, is apparently a young man, one of those that Aristotle says “look on the good side, rather than the bad…. They trust others readily” (Aristotle 176). The porch men exploit Matt’s trust in them, duping him for the duration of their conversations. They signify on him, leading up to their humorously metaphorical descriptions of the mule, with the intent of humiliating him. Through Matt Bonner, signifyin(g) becomes a staple activity for the men of Eatonville:
Late one afternoon Matt came from the west with a halter in his hand. “Been huntin’ fuh mah mule. Anybody seen ‘im?” he asked.
“Seen ‘im dis mornin’ over behind de schoolhouse,” Lum said.
“‘Bout ten o’clock or so. He musta been out all night tuh be way over dere dat early.”
“He wuz,” Matt answered. “Seen ‘im last night but Ah couldn’t ketch ‘im. Ah’m ‘bliged tuh git ‘im in tuhnight ’cause Ah got some plowin’ fuh tuhmorrow. Done promised tuh plow Thompson’s grove.” (52)
Immediately, the porch spots an easy chance to signify on Matt again. Lige, one of the leaders in the verbal shenanigans, baits Matt once more for the butt of their humor.
“Reckon you’ll ever git through de job wid dat mule-frame?” Lige asked.
“Aw dat mule is plenty strong. Jus’ evil and don’t want tuh be led.”
“Dat’s right. Dey tell me he brought you heah tuh dis town. Say you started tuh Miccanopy but de mule had better sense and brung yuh on heah.”
“It’s uh l-l-lie! Ah set out fuh dis town when Ah left West Floridy.” (52)
The men successfully fluster Matt once more, but before he “got huffed and walked on off,” the men give him a few more jabs.
“You mean tuh tell me yuh rode dat mule all the way from West Floridy down heah?”
“Sho he did, Lige. But he didn’t mean tuh. He wuz satisfied updere, but the mule wuzn’t. So one morning he got straddle uh de mule and he took and brought ‘im on off. Mule had sense. Folks up dat way don’t eat biscuit bread but once uh week.” (52)
Unfortunately, chapter 2 ends here in the archived version of Rodney’s thesis.
© 1994 NSU Press © 1994-1999 Rodney Lain.
Keywords: #signifying #rodneyolain #rodenylain