Gates and the Signifying Monkey
While pondering the case of Professor Gates, I recalled that his breakthrough publication was “The Signifying Monkey” (1988), in which he argues that the Signifying Monkey is the central metaphor, “the trope of tropes,” in African-American literature. The Signifying Monkey is a trickster, an archetypal figure that enjoys stirring up trouble for its own sake or to rattle the powers that be.
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In “Black Literature and Literary Theory,” Gates describes some of the Signifying Monkey’s antics. It seems that the professor may feel a strong affinity for the object of his study. For example, “The monkey, fed up with the lion’s roaring, decides to do something about it. He insults the lion publicly and at length—-his “mama” and his “grandmama, too…” (That sounds familiar from the police report.)
Gates also writes that “black rhetorical tropes subsumed under signifying would include ‘marking’, ‘loud-talking’, ‘specifying’, ‘testifying’, ‘calling out’ (of one’s name), ‘sounding’, ‘rapping’, and ‘playing the dozens’.” I have no idea what some of these terms mean but certainly “loud-talking” and “calling out” were demonstrated by Gates before his arrest. Gates also gives as an example of signifying, “to make fun of a policeman by parodying his motions behind his back.”
Perhaps most helpfully, Gates provides the following rhyme, which he describes as a popular African-American toast:
Deep down in the jungle so they say
This may help clarify Gates’s motives.
There’s a signifying monkey down the way.
There hadn’t been no disturbin’ in the jungle for quite a bit,
For up jumped the monkey in the tree one day and laughed,
“I guess I’ll start some sh*t.”
The quotations suggest the extent to which “African-American culture,” the black American identity, is about resentment (of whites), parasitism (off whites), and the hustle (directed at whites). There are virtuous elements within the black population, but they will only be able to come to the fore in a society in which the white majority has suppressed the black hustler element, because the virtuous blacks can’t do that on their own.
I ought to read this book.
Paul K. replies:
I haven’t read it. But from what I have read I know that Gates’ writing is impenetrable, like that of most contemporary academics who rely on jargon and obfuscation.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 22, 2009 11:28 PM | Send