The Signifying Monkey

The Signifying Monkey, the major scholarly work of Henry Louis Gates, influential scholar of African-American literature, has long been a gap in my education. Gates left Yale in ’85 as a rising star – eventually to build the African-American studies practice at Harvard – before I could take his class, but some of the ideas in the book were deja vu familiar to me from lectures in other classes on related topics.

The book is an attempt to create a theory of African-American literature based on African-American cultural traditions. The first part describes African-American traditions of conversational rhetoric – clever, indirect, often-competitive “Signifying” (the “dozens”, a traditional game of insult is a subset of Signifying.) Gates illustrates these traditions with examples and analysis from anthropologists, evaluating their explanations with his own experience as a native speaker. Gates connects these oral traditions with artistic techniques of variation, parody and pastiche in Jazz and various other African-American art forms. Gates connects the origin of these practices to West African religion – the trickster deity Esu-Elegbara, who mediates between other gods and humans through divination practices yielding cryptic messages for the seeker. The connection from the African to African-American tradition comes via the still-told folktale of the “Signifying Monkey”, in which a trickster Monkey outwits a braggart Lion. The second part of the book seeks to use the theory of Signifying to explicate a series of texts – a set of slave narratives, and then several novels from the canon, by writers including Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, and Tony Morrison.

The section on theory seems very Yale-of-the-time in its strengths and flaws. The African-derived tradition is explained to convey truths from Ifa, the guide of determinate meanings, in the voice of Esu, the god of indeterminate meanings, through the oblique messages from the oracle. In seeking an origin myth, Gates finds predecessors to post-modern literary interpretation. But this reading strategically omits characteristics of the African situation. In Yoruba religion, the word from Esu/Elegbara was transmitted through the mediation and heirophantic practices of a priest, after the seeker attempted to propitiate the deity through sacrifices. And the seeker was not expected to revel in the ambiguity of the answer (and the infinite possible answers of the divination ritual), but to understand the answer as destiny and to apply it to the situation for which advice was sought. EIther Gates is suggesting that the professor of literature is playing the role of the priest (which I don’t think he is), or he is positing a kind of new age protestant version of the African ritual, in which the reader has the ability to observe and revel in the multiple meanings of the text, and to choose the appropriate combination of simultaneous meanings that apply.

In the Yale postmodern tradition, Gates repeats the homiletic tropes used to introduce deconstructive ideas that I heard retold in class after class – text comes from the latin “tissus”, to weave. Repeated and distorted images appear as a hall of mirrors. A “copula” – a grammatical connective element – enables parts of the text to “copulate.” Gates occasionally engages in original postmodern-style wordplay – in some places more effective to my taste than others. One example is core to the book – Gates uses the term Signifyin(g) for the African-American oral tradition of clever indirect expression, parenthesizing the “g” to refer to the African-American pronounciation; the African-American Signifyin(g) is contrasted to Western signification, the supposedly direct mapping from signifier to signified; and he uses the capitalization to Signify on the pretensions of the Western sense to authoritativeness. Is there a connection between the French “signe” (sign) and “singe” (monkey)? Gates briefly speculates – a high post-modern trickster would swing with that joke. Gates’ language is nowhere near as dense, but also not as witty as Prof Derrida.

One aspect that’s troubling to me about Gates’ reading is his claim that the Lion is outwitted because he takes the Monkey’s figurative language literally. What the Monkey does in the folktale is to falsely allege that the more-powerful Elephant has been talking trash about the Lion behind the Lion’s back. Now, if the Monkey had directly insulted the Lion in terms familiar from the “dozens” tradition of ritual insult – “your momma is so fat…” then the Lion would be at fault for taking the mock-insult literally. But the Monkey puts the insult in the mouth of the absent elephant – he wasn’t using figurative language, he was lying. (Native speakers reading this please let me know if the listener is also supposed to detect insults attributed to third persons).

What’s worse, Gates then uses Signifying to stand for all use of figurative language. While traditional insults use figurative language (Your momma lives in a tin can), those images are a strange and limited analog for all of figurative language. Gates stretches the application of Signifying to cover a wide range of literary rhetoric, while only minimally describing the patently obvious characteristic, which is the use of trickery and indirection to cope with situations where the speaker has less power than the listener. I’ll get back to this issue in a bit.

In the second part of the book, Gates uses the idea of Signification in his characterization of an African-American literary tradition. As in the first part, some parts of the argument seem more effective to me than others. In Signifying Monkey, Gates was building an argument in favor of the existence of a tradition of African-American literature, with tropes and rhetorical strategies that repeated and were deliberately varied by writers in the tradition. For example, in early slave narratives, the Talking Book (the naive impression of one who can’t read that a book must be talking to its readers) was a common trope that writers used to illustrate their transition to literacy and freedom. Reading Gates’ argument in favor of the existence of a tradition, it takes effort to assimilate the fact that not long ago there were arguments that such a thing didn’t exist. Racist ideology held that black writers could not create original work, but could only imitate; as a consequence black writers including Charles Chesnutt (who hadn’t read predecessors, who were admittedly hard to find), Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison (who had a much less strong case) asserted that they were only mildly influenced by other black writers.

But in making an indisputable case in favor of a tradition, Gates argues too strongly at times. In a review not long after Signifying Monkey was published, writer and academic John Edgar Wideman observed that Gates’ argued a little too strongly that each author of a slave narrative – Gronniosaw, Marrant, Cugoano, was deliberately reading and revising specific prior works – without evidence that the influence was so direct. It is enough of an argument that the genre of narrative used common conventions, and each practitioner in the tradition varied the conventions for his ends.

The more serious weakness is the way that Gates uses the concept of Signifying to stand for the notion of literary influence itself. Each writer that varied the tropes of the genre was Signifying on their predecessors. Meanwhile, one of the narratives was the story of a John Marrant, a Black man who fell captive to a Native American tribe, avoided execution by demonstrating his literacy and Christian piety, and eventually thrived with his captors. The narrative, published in 1785, draws at least as strongly on other narratives of Indian captivity and of religious piety. If Signifying means a distinctive African-American literary form of influence and variation, how to explain the way that Marrant also used and varied the conventions of these other common narrative genres.

The argument for tradition and influence is even stronger, and the argument against Signification as a distinctively African-American method of literary influence is weaker, when Gates reads several works of modern African-American novelists. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston uses the social practices of Signifying as an important plot and thematic device, and uses an “free indirect” rhetorical technique that at once captures the African-American style of speech and illustrates the divided and evolving consciousness of her main character. Gates shows how Ishmael Reed uses parody and pastiche to critique traditions of the black novel, including the confessional mode, representative realism, orderly plots, blackness as natural transcendent presence, and mystical Afro-centrism (this last critique is me reading Reed following Gates’ argument, and not necessarily Gates himself). Finally, Gates shows Alice Walker in the Color Purple modifying Zora Neale Hurston’s use of a different sort of free indirect rhetorical style to convey the voice and emerging identity of her narrator.

Gates makes powerful cases that these writers are working in tradition, building and extending and critiquing each others’ work. But it is not at all clear to me that Signifying in this theoretical sense represents a special sort of African-American literary influence distinct from other sorts of literary influence. Writers always build on the work of earlier writers. Later parts of the bible modify earlier parts, and the Hebrew bible reworks earlier Semitic traditions. Dante rewrites and modifies Virgil. Cervantes parodies chivalric romances in Don Quixote. It’s how writing works, and how art works, how culture works. African-American writers respond to other African-American writers, and other predecessors (Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is obviously also in the broader tradition of modern/postmodern literature). Is Reed’s response to Black writers Signifying, and to other writers not? Or is the way that African-American writers respond to predecessors Signifying, as distinct to the way other writers respond? I don’t think so, and Gates doesn’t even try to make the case. He does not look at Hurston in the context of other writers using “regional” narrative conventions to parse out ways that her use of tradition is Signification, in a way that is distinct from how white writers use regional conventions. He does not look at Reed in the context of other modern/postmodern narrative and parse out different strategies of influence with African-American vs. other predecessors. Without this argument, it all looks like influence, variation, and intertextuality to me.

Getting back to the issue of power in the practice of Signifying, one of the main themes that Hurston and Walker have in common is a female main character finding her voice and her identity by telling off an abusive man.In this book, and throughout his career, Gates has focused on finding and emphasizing the work of female writers (and in the footnotes, Gates cites insights from a variety of female colleagues, so he’s respecting peers, not just valorizing dead people and written texts). But in the book, Gates goes light on Signifying as a tool for the less-powerful to confront the more-powerful. Perhaps he’s working in the Signifying tradition of implication and indirection, and the critiques of power are left as exercises for the reader.

In summary, the Signifying Monkey makes a complex argument, some parts of which seem to me more persuasive than others. There is an African-American tradition of spoken rhetoric, emphasizing cleverness and indirection, which has roots in African tradition, and exists in continuing practice. There is a tradition of African-American literature, characterized by tropes and rhetorical strategies that are repeated and varied, including Signifying as a trope and a represented practice and a rhetorical resource. Strong arguments, well-defended with interesting readings that yield insight into the tradition as a whole and important writers in particular. I liked the book and recommend it for these strengths, if you enjoy literary analysis.

But Signifying as a Afro-centric roots of post-modernism? A nice origin myth, with the strengths and weaknesses of other origin myths for contemporary ideas. And Signifying, in a theoretical sense, as a distinctively African-American form of literary influence? I don’t see it. Although, if anyone reading does, please let me know and make the case.

Parenthetically, Gates’ search for and discovery of pre-modern ethnic sources for postmodern literary ideas reminds me a bit of parallel efforts finding traditions of polyvocal truth in Rabbinic rhetoric. There’s an interesting parallel in the strategy to search for alternatives to ideologies of unitary truth in non-Western traditions. In order to read Rabbinic rhetoric as a resource for post-modern thought in this way, one needs to abstract it, in a manner analogous to the way that Gates does, from built in mechanisms of authority.

p.s. Disclosure: Reed’s Mumbo-Jumbo is the only one of the novels that Gates treats in depth here that I haven’t read yet. Have you? Should I? And did you read the Signifying Monkey at some point in your education? What did you think?

4 thoughts on “The Signifying Monkey”

  1. Thank you for such a beautiful analysis of SIGNIFYING MONKEY. I am a graduate student, and I’ve just completed Part One. I also struggle with the concept that signifyin(g) is purely afro-centric–and perhaps heavily male engendered, as noted in the practical applications Gate refers to? I recently read Claudia Tate’s DOMESTIC ALLEGORIES OF POLITICAL DESIRE: THE BLACK HEROINE’S TEXT AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY (1992), and I see many qualities of Gates’s signifyin(g) in the works Tate identifies as FEMALE TEXTS. These Victorian Black Women’s novelists use domestic settings and “language” to insult and subvert males, male texts–in the broadest sense–and male-centered language. When I asked whether this was an instance of gender signification (as opposed to racial signification), I was told by my professor that signification has nothing to do with gender. It is always Afro-centric by definition. I buy into the traditions, but not the exclusivity of the Signifyin(g) club.

    You might enjoy Tate’s perspective.

  2. Beth, thanks! I will take a look at the Tate. “Nothing having to do with gender” is absurd – how does he read “Eyes Were Watching God”?

  3. I’m actually very late to this, but future web denizens: The Monkey doesn’t “lie,” to the Lion; he insults he attributes to the Elephant are invariably outlandish (in one case, the Monkey tells the Lion that the elephant cursed on his grandmother’s name–who would do that? why would he do that?). The Lion should have been able to understand the Signification. For example, if someone were to say, “well, that’s not what your girl said last night…” the statement is attributed to the absent third party, but it’s clearly false.

  4. Hi , First it is my pleasure to write here and leave a comment. I am Egyptian researcher and I am writing my M.A thesis about the playwright , Suzan-Lori Parks. In my analysis of her plays , I should take Henry Louis Gates’s two theories which are Race and Signification. Can you help me with some ideas!!! Thanks

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