Lawd Today! – Signifyin(g) in the Writings of Richard Wright
Yo mama don wear no drawers….
Clearly, the voice rose out of the woods, and died away. Like an echo another voice caught it up: Ah seena when she pulled em off….
Another, shrill, cracking, adolescent: N she washed em in alcohol….
Then a quartet of voices, blending in harmony, floated high above the tree tops: N she hung em out in the hall…. – From “Big Boy Leaves Home,” in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), 17
During the waning years of the New Negro Movement, as some literary careers flashed in the proverbial pan, other were beginning to shine. Black writers were just beginning to flex their authorial muscles, not only in the Afro-American literary enclave known as Harlem, but in other places where Negro artists had coalesced. Chicago, for example, was a hotbed of black artistic expression, according to author Arna Bontemps (Yarborough xv). Rosters at Chicago Federal Writer’s Projects read like Who’s Who lists of Afro-American literature: Theodore Ward, Margaret Walker, Frank Yerby, Richard Wright, and others.
“No other writer’s project in the country,” Bontemps writes, “produced comparable Negro talent during the depression. Chicago was definitely the second phase of Negro literary awakening” (qtd. in Yarborough xv-xvi). Margaret Walker says it is “a mistake to call the writers of the 1930s and 1940s members of the Harlem Renaissance or even an extension of it” (77); hence the mild argument with people like Robert Bone on one side calling it the “Chicago Renaissance” and Richard Wright its leader, while William Andrews represents the other pole, asserting Wright’s Harlem ties (Walker 77; Andrews 6). In the midst of this “second generation” New Negro Movement, or whatever historians decide to call it, Richard Wright embarked on a career that eventually spanned four decades.
Famous for his “protest” fiction, Wright’s contributions to American letters, most notably Native Son and Black Boy, extend beyond the impressions conjured by the well-documented realist, Freudian, and existentialist themes in his writings. His oeuvre also contains long and short fiction that pays homage to the Afro-American tradition, epitomized by signifyin(g) and other linguistic elements of black culture (Black Talk 29-30). By using such devices as the dozens, the blues, and the folk sermon as integral narrative schemes, Wright shows a “profound understanding of the psychological function and the irrational nature of ritual as well as an ability to use ritual to develop his theme and reveal the motives of the characters” (Thomas 123). Each use reveals Wright to be a writer sensitive to, and well aware of, the inner workings of the African-American tradition, a sensitivity that solidifies and amplifies the strength of his works.
Because Native Son, Wright’s most-popular novel, takes place in Chicago, some have erroneously placed him outside the realm of southern letters – ignoring his southern upbringings and assuming apparently that he is someone who merely writes about the South (“Wright’s South” 77; Walker 45). Walker, a Wright biographer and an old friend of his, says this is understandable: he rarely returned to Dixie after fleeing at age 19, giving the impression that he rejected everything southern. Walker says he could not have rejected his southern influences, even if he wanted to.
Although Richard Wright spent his last years far from Mississippi . . . it was in those first 19 years in the South that he found fodder for his most powerful and passionate writing. The violent impression of southern racism marked his personality and his literature. All the rest of his life he would struggle to express the need for man to reject the bigoted notions of race, class, creed, or any other prejudice and to embrace the humane values that ennoble the human spirit and release the human intelligence. (50)
Wright spent his formative years in the South, not only suffering man’s inhumanity to man, but absorbing the vibrant culture around him. That culture contained a cornucopia of folklife that shaped and formed his views of black life in the South. Walker, in her sensitively-crafted biography/memoir, Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius, tells us that Wright’s childhood was influenced by, and we could even say immersed in, the black tradition, which was “full of the expressions of black folk” culture (21).
Although he fled the South, Wright, like other Afro-American migrants, brought the South’s “folkways, folk sayings, and folk beliefs” with him, using many of them in his literary expressions (79). Throughout his career, Wright drew from a well of various ideologies as material for his writings (the thematic existentialism in The Outsider, for instance), refining his ever-expanding weltanschauung or worldview; but, in his earlier works, he reveals the folkloric influences that permeated his humble beginnings. These writings underscore the fact that he was well-acquainted with, and had even embraced at one time, the southern black tradition. Signifyin(g), as a part of this tradition, stands out as a chief ingredient in the folkloric flavor of these works.
Black Boy and Uncle Tom’s Children
Two of Wright’s earliest writings, Uncle Tom’s Children and Black Boy (1945), contain several scenes involving the dozens. In these scenes, all of the participants are adolescents, adding an obviously juvenile air to the enactment of this verbal insult ritual. In one novella from Uncle Tom’s Children, “Big Boy Leaves Home,” four boys alternately sing lines from a “muted form of the dozens,” – the folk song quoted in this chapter’s epigraph (Uncle Tom’s Childen 16; Thomas 124). They intone the song’s first four lines before reaching a collective memory lapse, forgetting the rest of the song.
“Ah wished Ah knowed some mo lines t tha song.”
“Yeah, when yuh gits t where she hangs em out in the hall yuh has t stop.”
“Shucks, what goes wid hall?”
They threw themselves on the grass, laughing.
Yuh know one thing?”
“Yuh sho is crazy!”
“Crazy bout whut?”
“Man, whoever hearda quall?”
“Yuh said yuh wanted something t go wid hall, didn’t yuh?”
“Yeah, but whut’s a quall?”
“Nigger, a qualls a quall.”
They laughed easily, catching and pulling long green blades of grass with their toes.
“Waal, ef a qualls a quall, whut is a quall?”
“Oh, Ah know.”
“Tha ol song goes something like this:
Yo mama don wear no drawers,
Ah seena when she pulled em off,
N she washed em in alcohol
N she hung em out in the hall,
N then she put em back on her QUALL!”
They laughed again. (17-18)
Several observations can be made from this lengthy excerpt. The first is obvious: this scene illustrates the dozens, since the whole verse revolves around someone’s mother, the ultimate insult in the dozens. As shown in chapter one, this piece of discourse can be deemed signification by Smitherman’s definition – it has some rhythmic fluency; it is inherently humorous; and the punning and play on words come from the boys’ impromptu creation and insertion of the word “quall” (Talkin and Testifyin 121; Uncle Tom’s Children 19). The boys’ conversation also emphasizes Abrahams’ previously-discussed assertion that blacks love to “talk about talk” (Talking Black 36). Big Boy and company seem to revel in the meta-discourse and rhetorical manipulation they take part in – laughing at their attempted assonance (discussed below) involving the word hall, for example.
Four years later, in a cogent observation entitled “My People!” Zora Neale Hurston, albeit facetiously, echoes Abrahams’ findings about blacks’ love of language, especially the tendency to create new, often humorous words.
If he can’t find that big word he’s feeling for, he is going to make a new one. But somehow or another that new word fits the thing it was made for. Sounds good, too…. Somebody didn’t know the word total or entire so they made bodacious. Then there’s asterperious, and so on. When you find a man chewing up the dictionary and spitting out language, that’s My People. (Dust Tracks on a Road 218)
And to Her People’s list of new words and phrases, one can add “quall.”
In addition to observing the wordplay at work in “Big Boy Leaves Home,” it is also necessary to examine the rhetoric in the text. Within the realm of rhetoric, we can look at this excerpt in many ways, but one of the obvious uses of language in this passage is simply to produce “pleasure and gratification in the audience,” which James Murphy says defines rhetoric in many cases (17). In other words, the scene was written merely to show four boys having a good time; this tranquil mood actually serves as a good setting for the tragedy Wright has in store for the adolescents in the rest of the story.
This signifyin(g) piece of discourse also shows the use of assonance, a rhetorical scheme in which consecutive words have the same root, but different initial or medial consonants (Corbett 494). This occurs when the boys search for a word that rhymes with hall and come up with the minimal pairs call, fall, wall, and the newly-created quall (Uncle Tom’s Children 18). This passage also incorporates the use of anaphora – the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of successive clauses. We see this in “N she washed em . . . ” and “N she hung em . . . ” (18). These schemes are common rhetorical manipulations seen throughout Wright’s writings.
The use of the folk song in “Big Boy Leaves Home” implies Wright’s having a working knowledge of Negro folklore. Walker, who worked with Wright during his Chicago FWP years, frequently discussing writing and writing techniques, testifies to this knowledge. They talked at length about their shared interests in the dozens, Negro dialect, spirituals, and work songs as storytelling aids (76). Also, they discussed the novel Lawd Today! and other early works (76). This interest in folk culture manifests itself in Wright’s earlier works like Uncle Tom’s Children. Throughout his early work, Wright interspersed songs, sayings, and expressions, all familiar linguistic trappings to most of his readers. Wright’s use of folk materials contributes to what Robert Scholes calls Wright’s textual power: “the ability of those who create texts to present . . . ideas, [and] to mold . . . human experience” (Qtd. in Bogumil 801). This textual power results in a text that engages the reader on the level of shared personal experience; these experiences consist of common language in the form of idiom and song, which are not too far removed from signifyin(g).
Black Boy, Wright’s classic autobiography, also has several signifyin(g) scenes. In one, a young Richard Wright encounters a group of boys who attempt to goad him into fighting on the first day of school. This scene shows the rhetorical strength of signifyin(g) – on the playground, at least:
At noon recess, I went into the school grounds and a group of boys sauntered up to me, looked at me from my head to my feet, whispering among themselves. I leaned against a wall, trying to conceal my uneasiness.
“Where you from?” a boy asked abruptly.
“Jackson,” I answered. (106)
The question seems innocent enough, but through this simple question, the boys take Wright to task, buffeting him with rapid-fire questions, trying to incite his anger. Immediately, his questioner begins to tease Wright, and tries to goad him into a fight by “sounding,” a form of signifyin(g) that consists of direct insults (Bizzell and Herzberg 1189).
“How come they make you people so ugly in Jackson?” he demanded.
There was loud laughter.
“You’re not any too good-looking yourself,” I countered instantly.
“You hear what he told ‘im?” (106)
One can deduce from the crowd’s responses that the verbal attack and counterattack could define a sounding session. This also brings up a point to notice about audience participation in this type of signifyin(g): audience response is a salient characteristic of sounding, since the audience is the ruler by which the players measure the effectiveness of their quips. Linguist William Labov says the participants’ goal is to evoke laughter or a similar response from the crowd, but a “really successful [remark] will be evaluated by overt comments: ” . . . ‘Oh!’ . . . or ‘Oh, Lord!'” (325). Wright’s exchange contains both laughter and commentary from the audience. The traded insults are limited to comments about each other. It is not long, however, before the boys begin to play the dozens – talking about mothers:
“You think you smart, don’t you?” the boy asked, sneering.
“Listen, I ain’t picking a fight,” I said. “But if you want to fight, I’ll fight.”
“Hunh, hard guy, ain’t you?”
“As hard as you.”
“Do you know who you can tell that to?” he asked me.
“And you know who you can tell it back to?” I asked.
“Are you talking about my mama?” he asked, edging forward.
“If you want it that way,” I said. (106)
Here, Wright uses the dozens to depict the acid test in intrablack peer confrontations: one’s (un)willingness to fight. This tentative round of the dozens serves as Wright’s initiation into the school’s social sphere. Wright passes his test, rhetorically proving his mettle and eventually fighting the boy; he is then accepted by his classmates: “In the classroom the boys asked me questions about myself; I was someone worth knowing” (107).
This also depicts a characteristic of the rhetoric of African-American males: black social situations, especially those involving men, have situations where men make fun of each other with acerbic, phallocentric statements about one another, or family members, all done in pure jest. In a combative situation, like the aforementioned peer confrontation, the same statments are insults. If the offended party asks “You talkin bout my mama?” a fight could follow, depending on the response. This alludes to another unwritten rule of the streets: verbal virtuosity is a sign of adulthood, and no one is to let people verbally best him or her (Bizzell and Herzberg 1188). In Wright’s autobiography, each boy involved has his social identity at stake – they must either save face or lose it.
Another sampling of signifyin(g) in Black Boy also warrants our attention. Here, Wright takes a novel approach to signifyin(g): He presents the conversation with accompanying narrative detail that enlightens the reader about the mood and manner of delivery of each speaker. It begins with a group of neighborhood boys gathered on a street corner, small talking. Their small talk leads to a jestful spate of loud-talking. This illustration is self-explanatory:
“You eat yet?” Uneasily trying to evoke conversation.
“Yeah, man. I done really fed my face.” Casually.
“I had cabbage and potatoes.” Confidently.
“I had buttermilk and black-eyed peas.” Meekly informational. (91-92)
The narrative commentary implies that the last speaker really does not really want to inform the crowd of his dinner; he does so anyway, probably expecting jokes about his diet (“meekly informational”). His friends do not disappoint him.
“Hell, I ain’t gonna stand near you, nigger!” Pronouncement.
“How come?” Feigned innocence.
“‘Cause you gonna smell up this air in a minute!” A shouted accusation.
Laughter runs through the crowd. (92)
Whomever this is being signified upon (Wright conceals this fact) has to put up with comments from several boys in this group. All of the comments are shouted at him with increasing severity. It goes on for several minutes.
“Nigger, your mind’s in a ditch.” Amusingly moralistic.
“Ditch, nothing! Nigger you going to break wind any minute now!” Triumphant pronouncement creating suspense. (92)
Wright tells the reader that this exchange is quickly approaching its climax, that the comments are about to reach a denouement, and that the poor lad can try to change the subject.
“Yeah, when them black-eyed peas tell that buttermilk to move over, that buttermilk ain’t gonna wanna move and there’s gonna be war in your guts and your stomach’s gonna swell up and bust!” Climax.
The crowd laughs loud and long.
“Man, them white folks oughta catch you and send you to the zoo and keep you for the next war!” throwing the subject into a wider field.
“Then when that fighting starts, they oughta feed you on buttermilk and black-eyed peas and let you break wind!” The subject is accepted and extended.
“You’d win the war with a new kind of poison gas!” A shouted climax.
There is high laughter that simmers down slowly. (92)
A closer reading of this passage reveals another characteristic of black rhetoric, of which signifyin(g) is an integral part: “the effort of the speaker to stir the audience to verbal response” (Bizzell and Herzberg 1188). Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg rightly say that street conversation is a complex “conversation-performance,” where the interlocutors are informants and orators. If a crowd is present, they seek not only to transmit information, but to gain communal admiration. They achieve this through their linguistic skill, even at one another’s expense, if necessary.
Continuing with Wright’s autobiographical encounter with his bullying peers, the subject now shifts from a discussion of the boy’s G. I. tract to race relations. Loud-talking all the way (with shouted comments), the boys vent their raucous humor and racial hatred. All of this can be seen as an extension of the signifyin(g): they retain use of the “gas” metaphor; this is crucial to the signification, since, as Gates tells us, figurative language is part and parcel of signifyin(g) (The Signifying Monkey 80). Wright uses signifyin(g) first as an instrument of insult. Before this passage ends, it metamorphoses into a catalyst for solidarity, helping relieve the tensions created from the daily frustrations of living in 1930s Jim Crow South.
“for the other to Maybe poison gas is something good to have.” The subject of white folks is associationally swept into the orbit of talk.
“Yeah, if they hava a race riot round here, I’m gonna kill all the white folks with my poison.” Bitter pride.
Gleeful laughter. Then silence, each waiting contribute something. (Black Boy 92)
This exchange also shows us the use of tropes and schemes in Wright’s narration. The gas metaphor is used to the point of hyperbole, and one boy personifies the contents of his friend’s stomach (peas telling buttermilk to move over). Wright masterfully scripts this scene, knowing he has communicated the scene in such a way that it represents familiar situations and concepts that his readers – 1945 Afro Americans – can relate to.
These examples from Black Boy and Uncle Tom’s Children show a more subdued form of signification, compared to how it is commonly used. In contrast, a raucous and sometimes bawdy use of signifyin(g) is found in Wright’s first novel Lawd Today! (1963). Here we see an even more detailed depiction of vernacular wordplay. This posthumously-published book is Wright’s largest single collection of folk-speech in one work. He uses more depictions of signifyin(g) in this book than in any other he has written.
Lawd, Lawd, Lawd….
Scholarship on Lawd Today! deems it an experimental work, since it is his first completed novel, and it contains many artistic flaws and techniques absent from his later works (Rampersad xiv; Burrison 98). In spite of its weaknesses, this book is a study in Wright’s knowledge of the black vernacular tradition. He inundates the story with the highly-expressive language of black America. Even the title that he chose pays homage to the tradition.
The book’s title, Lawd Today, is a slang folk expression popular among blacks during the late twenties and early thirties – a comment on contemporary society: Lawd! Today! (What a mess!) (Walker 62)
As folklore, this book helps “legitimize” the oral tradition by making it a part of the literate tradition; it helps preserve black culture that would perish, if not for writers who essayed to record it, either wholly (like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes’ folklore works do) or partially, like Wright does. In his artistic manifesto, “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” Wright addresses the tradition and says it is the responsibility of the black writer not only to create black literature, but to actively protect the roots of black letters: the black folk heritage that is in danger of being erased by the march of time.
In the absence of fixed and nourishing forms of culture, the Negro has a folklore which embodies the memories and hopes of his struggle . . . Not yet caught in paint or stone, and as yet but feebly depicted in the poem and novel, the Negroes most powerful images of hope . . . still remain in the fluid state of daily speech. How many John Henrys have lived and died on the lips of these people? . . . Negro folklore contains . . . the collective sense of Negro life in America. (41)
During the same period that he penned these words, Wright was trying to sell Lawd Today! to publishers. Although the book did not reach readers until after his death, it does exist, coupled with his “blueprint” writing, as a testament to his belief in the importance of the oral tradition, and the need to preserve it.
Patterned after James Joyce’s Ulysses, all of the action depicted in Lawd Today! takes place over the span of 24 hours. Lawd Today! is the story of Jake Jackson, a black Chicago postal worker, who spends most of his time gambling, partying, and chasing women – never mind his job, wife, and unpaid bills. Wright paints an intimate portrait of Jake Jackson, fleshing out all of his idiosyncracies. A staple of Jake’s speech patterns is the idiomatic expression. He also exhibits the characteristically-black ability to perform meta-discourse, which he shows in the following by analyzing his wife’s sly comment about his hair:
“Where’s my stocking cap?”
“Yeah, stocking cap! Stocking cap! Stocking cap! Can’t you never understand nothing?”
“I don’t know, Jake. I ain’t had it. I don’t need no cap like that nohow.” Complacently she patted her own smooth and kinkless hair.
“What you trying to signify?”
He advanced a step.
“I ain’t trying to signify nothing,” she said quickly.
“Well don’t, if you know what’s good for you!” (25-26)
Actually, in this context, she was signifyin(g), shown by the detail given to us by Wright: Her words (“I don’t need no cap . . . “) coupled with her actions (“Complacently she patted her . . . kinkless hair”) constitute a signifyin(g) response, which Jake notices. He accuses her, rightly so, of smart-talking, trying to make fun of his “bad” hair.
As Jake goes on to begin his day, he meets a friend, with whom he begins to talk. Their conversation, rich in metaphor, outlines another signifyin(g) discourse:
“If it ain’t old Jake Jackson, the big leaguer!”
Jake felt a hard clasp on his right shoulder.
“Well if it ain’t old Streamliner!” said Jake, shaking hands with a small . . . bareheaded man…. (55)
“Streamliner” is a curious fellow. He has a baseball fixation, and his speech is full of baseball references. These humorous references carry on throughout the dialogue:
“Yeah, it’s been a long time,” said Jake.
“How you hitting these days?”
“Oh, soso. I ain’t complaining. How’s it with you?”
“Can’t even see the ball, boy! . . . “
“What’s the matter?”
“They throwing that ball too fast for me, Jake.”
“I reckon it’s tough on everybody,” said Jake.
“Tough ain’t the word for it. Man, sometimes I can’t even get to the plate.” (55)
Here we see an example of extended metaphorical signification (Talkin and Testifyin 121; Corbett 495). Streamliner uses the baseball metaphor every imaginable way: He discusses the war – ” . . . wasn’t that too bad about old Mussellinni going over into Ethiopia and knocking old Haile Salassie for a home run?” (56); He depicts race relations – “‘You know,’ said Streamliner seriously, ‘it looks like we black folks is just about to be shut out . . . ‘” (56); and he even uses it to beg for a handout – “Say, Jake, couldn’t you be a pinchhitter for a poor guy that’s down and out? I hate to ask you, but I ain’t eat today . . . ” (56).
This dialogue, replete with Streamliner’s baseball references, adds much-needed dry humor to the men’s talk. It’s also interesting to note the indistinction between performance and conversation here. Metaphor is verbal dressing, yet Streamliner uses it as if it were second nature. His ability to speak metaphorically intimates his being a more complex character than a casual reading would suggest.
Later, Jake, Bob, Al, and Slim catch an “L” train; while they’re sitting, a white woman sits across from them and she props her feet up, exposing the curved ascent of white thighs…..
“Al, look at the woman! . . . “
“Wheeeeeeeee!” he whistled softly.
They moved in their seats as though on pins, looking alternately at the woman and out the window. (111)
The four men sit, leering at the woman, unbeknownst to her. Their minds, and eyes, roaming over her, they begin to signify on the woman, indirectly expressing their desire:
Finally, Jake rolled his eyes heavenward and sang in an undertone:
“Oh, Lawd, can I ever, can I ever? . . . “
Bob screwed up his eyes, shook his head, and answered ruefully:
“Naw, nigger, you can never, you can never . . . “
Slim sat bolt upright, smiled, and countered hopefully:
“But whenever there’s life, there’s hope . . . “
Al dropped his head, frowned, and finished mournfully:
“And whenever there’s trees, there’s rope . . . “
Jake grabbed his sides, threw back his head, and let out a long laugh…. They kept up so much noise that passengers turned and stared, wondering what on earth was the matter with those four black men. (111)
Fraught with machismo, the chauvinistic musings exhibited here are both hilarious and poignant. The humor is in Jake’s wistful plea and the responses it provokes: Bob and Al’s remarks remind everyone that Al and Slim shouldn’t even dream of what they’re contemplating. Their comments signify on each other: Bob signifies on Jake’s comment, which is rife with epistrophe and alliteration. Bob’s retort is a parody on Jake’s comment; his also contains epistrophe and alliteration. Slim comes up with a folk saying, which has anaphora; Al parodies Slim’s speech, also using anaphora. His comment underscores the poignancy of race relations: that they could be lynched for the very act of looking at the white woman. In addition to the use of rhetorical schemes, Al’s signifyin(g) comment has a “teachy, but not preachy” element: to remind them that the thoughts they’re entertaining should be shelved, since they may never be realized, and if they were, they could prove potentially dangerous.
Lawd Today! is frequently attacked for stereotypically chronicling four rough-and-ready black men who are not shy about articulating their desire for almost every woman they see (Burrison 98). They signify on feminine physical attributes throughout the novel. Usually their comments are a series of signifyin(g) one-liners, exemplified with this encounter with their waitress at a diner.
The girl swung around so that the flesh on her oversized buttocks trembled.
“Now, ain’t that something!”
“The stuff’s here!”
“She’s at the post!”
“She’s a winner!”
“By five lengths!”
“Without a call!”
“That’s a Packard Chassis,” said Jake. “And I bet my bottom dollar it can run.”
“You’s wrong! That’s a Rolls Royce chassis, the kind I likes to drive,” said Slim.
“She’s built for service, all right,” said Bob. (102)
One thing that’s easily noticed about this scene is the cumulative signifyin(g) (“woofing” and “talking trash”) they take part in. One man starts of by saying “She’s at the post!” which is combined with the comments “She’s off!” “She’s a winner!” “By five lengths!” and “Without a call!” (102). This is also seen when Bob takes Slim’s “Packard” evaluation and extends it to “Rolls Royce” quality (there could also be some discussion on the meaning of the horse and car references). Their signifyin(g) again brings to mind H. “Rap” Brown’s observation that signifyin(g) “can make a cat feel good or feel bad” (“Street Smarts” 355). They emotionally manipulate the waitress both ways, negatively and positively: on the heels of their lumping favorable comments on the woman, she tries to flirt with them, to which they respond by cutting her down rhetorically. First they lead her into their flirtations:
“Make it snappy, Sweetstuff!” called Jack. “We’s working men and we’s got a clock to punch.”
“Oh, yeah?” asked the girl, bringing the malted milks.
“Yeeeeeah,” said Jake.
“Working mens is sure hard to find these days,” said the girl.
“We knows it,” said Bob. (103)
The woman begins signifyin(g) herself, indirectly letting the men know that she’s available. In light of Wright’s bawdy characterizations, the waitress’ comment about “working mens” could also be signifyin(g) male sexual potency or prowess. Regardless of her motives, the men play dumb, snubbing the lady, later labelling her as a “gold digger.”
“In fact, I just can’t seem to find [a working man],” said the girl, lifting her eyebrows.
“You telling us?” asked Bob.
They laughed and the girl’s face fell and her lips pouted.
Seeing they would not flirt, she went to the rear of the store and turned on the radio. (103)
The men continue their traipse through the city, and come across a parade. True to character, they quickly notice the first nubile female in the crowd – a baton twirler.
Immediately in front marched a young girl twirling a long, brass baton…. she had thick red lips and deep, dark eyes. Her shoulders were thrown back . . . exposing a bosom full enough to spill…. Her uniform fitted her snugly, and her body jerked in answer to every twist of the music…. Suddenly, she stopped, cut a few steps from the Charleston, Balled the Jack, crooned snatches from a popular blues song, and tipped off softly in perfect time to the music, her face severely militant, her baton held high, her buttocks trembling delicately. The men in the crowd went wild, smiting their thighs and striking one another in the back with the palms of their hands.
“Now, ain’t that something!”
“The hottest stuff in town!”
“Strut your stuff, woman!”
“Don’t give ’em nothing, gal; keep everything!” (106-7)
This time, Jake and company are not the only ones talking trash and voicing favorable commentary on this shapely lass. Verbal one upmanship abounds as the crowd tosses out descriptions of the majorette.
Jake and his three friends spend most of the day walking and woman-watching. They eventually end up lounging at Bob’s place, plotting their next move before going to work at the post office. After playing cards, the men sit around, each lost in his own thoughts. Jake looks around and notices that Al is wearing a new shirt,
a light green one with delicate white pencil stripes running vertically. Al’s fat face rested in smug repose, and Jake wanted to disturb it, possess it, make some of the strength of that repose his own.
“So you got a new shirt, hunh, Al?” asked Jake quietly, tentatively, sucking his teeth and throwing his leg over the arm of the chair.
Al modestly stroked the collar of his shirt with his fingers.
“Yeah, I picked it up yesterday.”
Flattered that someone noticed his new shirt, Al loosens up, leaving sufficient room for a verbal jab. By now, we see that the four men are severely juvenile, so it is not surprising when Jake attempts to agitate Al. He makes his move by complimenting Al. This leaves sufficient room for a verbal jab; Jake does so by following his acknowledgement of Al’s new attire with a criticism of how he acquired it.
“Where did you steal it from?”
“Steal it? Nigger, you can’t steal shirts like this!”
“You didn’t buy it!”
“How come I didn’t? Ain’t I got money?” said Al. He was sitting upright, his round black face flushed with mock indignation. (89)
Here we see that Al knows Jake is merely trying to make him angry, hence his “mock indignation.” Nonetheless he responds to Jake’s accusation. What follows is a long, heated exchange, with Al defending his ability to buy clothes. Slim and Bob look on, providing an audience for this lengthy sounding session:
“What did you ever buy?” asked Jake.
Al rose, rammed his hands deep into his pockets, and stood in front of Jake.
“You go into Marshall Field’s and steal a shirt! It takes kale to wear clothes like this!”
“Yeah. Marshall Field’s!”
“The closest you ever got to Marshall Field’s was the showwindow,” said Jake
“That’s a . . . lie!” said Al.
Slim and Bob listened silently, hoping for a bout of the dozens between the two. (90)
Slim and Bob, as we shall see, are not disappointed, for they will get to witness a rollicking verbal joust between Al and Jake. Jake begins by loud-talking, ostensibly talking to himself, yet speaking loud enough for the others to hear.
“Whoever heard of a nigger going into Marshall Field’s and buying a green shirt?” asked Jake, as though to himself.
“Aw, nigger, quit signifying! Go buy you a shirt!”
“I don’t need no shirts. I got a plenty!”
“This nigger setting here wearing this purple rag around his throat talking about he’s got a plenty shirts. Somebody wake ‘im up!”
Slim and Bob laughed.
“Listen, nigger,” said Jake. “I was wearing shirts when you was going around naked in Miss’sippi!”
Slim and Bob opened their mouths wide and slumped deep into their seats.
“Hunh, hunh,” said Al. “that was the time when you was wearing your hair wrapped with white strings, wasn’t it?”
“White strings?” Aw, Jake . . . Hehehe!” Bob could not finish for the idea tickled him so. (90)
Al sounds on Jake, conjuring the image of the stereotypical Negro, dark skinned and hair braided with each braid ornamented with a white string. Up to this point, their barbs are directed at each other, but it is not long before they began to pick from each other’s family tree.
“Yeah,” said Jake. “When I was wearing them white strings on my hair old Colonel James was sucking at your ma’s tits, wasn’t he?”
“Jeeesus,” moaned Slim, pressing his handkerchief hard against his mouth to keep from coughing. “I told a piece of iron that once and it turned redhot. Now, what would a poor meat man do?”
Al glowered and fingered his cigarette nervously.
“Nigger,” Al said slowly, so that the full force of his words would not be missed, “when old Colonel James was sucking at my ma’s tits, I saw your little baby brother across the street watching with slobber in his mouth . . . “
Slim and Bob rolled on the sofa and held their stomachs. Jake stiffened, crossed his legs, and gazed out of the window.
“Yeah,” he said slowly, “I remembers when my little baby brother was watching with slobber in his mouth, your old grandma was out in the privy crying ’cause she couldn’t find a corncob . . . “
Slim and Bob groaned and stomped their feet.
“Yeah,” said Al, retaliating with narrowed eyes. “When my old grandma was crying for that corncob, your old aunt Lucy was round back of the barn with old Colonel James’ old man, and she was saying something like this: ‘Yyyyou kknow . . . Mmmister Cccolonel . . . I jjjust ddon’t llike to ssssell . . . my ssstuff . . . I jjjust lloves to gggive . . . iiit away . . . ‘”
Slim and Bob embraced each other and howled.
“Yeah,” said Jake. “I remembers when old aunt Lucy got through she looked around and saw your old aunt Mary there watching…. And old aunt Lucy said, ‘Mary, go home and wash your bloomers!'”
Slim and Bob beat the floor with their fists.
Al curled his lips and shot back:
“Hunh, hunh, yeah! And when my old Aunt Mary was washing out her bloomers the hot smell of them soapsuds rose up and went out over the lonesome graveyard and your old greatgreatgreat grandma turned over in her grave and said: ‘Lawd, I sure thank Thee for the smell of them pork chops You’s cooking up in Heaven . . . ‘”
Slim grabbed Bob and they screamed. (90-91)
Their repartee continues, with each man “specifying” back to each other’s African ancestors, with increasingly far-fetched statements. Although both men are making insults that would cause major altercations elsewhere, it is understood that their insults are made in jest. One reason that their traded insults do not raise each other’s ire is that their “slanders” border on ludicrousness: the names of relatives employed may be imaginary, to lend to the falsity of their statements; also it would not be a wild assumption to say that neither man knows their “greatgreatgreat grandma.” This explains the result of the whole scene – showing that the whole dialogue was just for show:
Jake screwed up his eyes, bit his lips, and tried hard to think of a return. But, for the life of him, he could not. Al’s last image was too much; it left him blank. Then they all laughed so that they felt weak in the joints of their bones. (92)
One thing to note from the beginning is that this is a performance. Bob and Slim, Al and Jake’s audience, are the main reasons this session lasts so long. Sounding and the dozens are audience driven. As long as the audience responds favorably, the contest will continue, until someone either quits, or, as Jake does, cannot think of an equally-effective rejoinder.
Black Boy and Uncle Tom’s Children were both intended as media of social criticism; Lawd Today! seems to be merely an entertaining novel about everyday black life, since nothing in the novel presents itself as being didactic in nature. All three books are informative: they express the culture of lower- and middle-class blacks by showing them in their element – the language they revel in. Wright’s books portray people “talking that talk,” performing linguistic gymnastics in order to help the author entertain and confront, but most importantly, inform the masses. Each book connotes the black experience by showing how its language use, its black language use, reveals a way of communicating that articulates aptly and ably the metaphysical aspects of a culture that by its very existence has contributed a prodigious amount of variety to the American English language.
© 1994 NSU Press © 1994-1999 Rodney Lain.
Keywords: #signifying #rodneyolain #rodneylain