“The Signifyin’ Monkey”
By Kyra Brue
For several decades, African American scholars have progressed substantially, making their voices heard. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is no different. Gates’ success comes from the accomplishments of the other great Black scholars who came before him, such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. Gates came from humble beginnings but he grew to become a graduate of Yale, the recipient of multiple prestigious awards, and lecturer at Yale University, Cornell University, Duke University, and Harvard University. Gates is an accomplished man who has made many important discoveries in several aspects of African American literature. One of his most intriguing works is that of his rhetorical and linguistic critique, The Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin(g): Rhetorical Difference and the Orders of Meaning. This work is where some of his most interesting discoveries on African American discourse come to light. Gates looks at “the distinctive qualities of Black language and literature” in order to help create a conversation and gain insight into what it means to speak Black (Bizzell and Herzberg 1549).
Gates’ The Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin(g): Rhetorical Difference and the Orders of Meaning (AKA The Signifying Monkey) analyzes Black rhetorical methods to better understand the different “forms of experiences and interaction[s] embodied in Black speech and writing” (Bizzell and Herzberg 1544). By looking closely at Black English, Black Rhetoric, African American discourse, tropes, etc. he deciphers how these elements impact African American literature, speech, and overall life. In The Signifying Monkey Gates focuses on certain elements like signification, black vernacular vs standard English, the signifying monkey, deconstruction/binaries, black tropes, etc., with signification being the topic that his essay revolves around. Gates uses these elements to ultimately strengthen his argument, how many African American tropes are understood and used, that many renowned linguists are still baffled by and in disagreement of today.
Two of the most important terms in Gates’ essay are “signifying” and “Signifyin(g)” (or “signification” and “Signification”), which, according to Gates, “have everything to do with each other and, then again, absolutely nothing” (Gates 1552). Gates says this because although they appear to be spelled the same, and even look like they are the same word, they have different meanings and specific connotations to certain groups of people, distinctly black or white. “signifying”/ “signification” references the white culture side of language that ascribes and assigns meaning. This word implies that there is a relationship between the signifier and the signified. In his essay Gates explains that “’signification,’ in standard English, denotes the meaning that a term conveys, or is intended to convey” (1553). The word, when it appears this way, means exactly what a word means, and is considered to be part of the standard way of speaking. “Signifyin(g)”/ “Signification” is the Black cultural side of language, where the creative use of language becomes open to the idea of creating multiple realities instead of ascribing to solely one reality. There is a greater acceptance of multiple outcomes with this spelling. Gates explains that the “g” is in brackets in “Signifyin(g)” because more often than not, black vernacular negates the “g” when speaking the word aloud, making it sound like signifyin’. He states that “the absent g is a figure for the Signifyin[g] black difference” (Gates 1553). By depicting the words in this way, it is also easier to differentiate the two from one another. The meaning of “signifying/Signifyin(g)” changes depending on the dialect you are referencing, whether it be the “black” or “white” way of speaking, when you use it.
Along with the obvious black and white binaries that this word has, there are others present as well. For example, “signifying” also groups itself with Eurocentric ideals, dominant/hegemonic discourse, and denotative/literal meaning, while “Signifyin(g)” is grouped with Afrocentric studies, subaltern discourse, and connotative/alternative meaning. Eurocentricity relates to the idea that some scholars believe Europe and European ideals to be superior to those of other cultures around the world (Abadan-Unat 218). This idea can be seen in the way that some Americans view white culture as the best and more dominant culture of the country, through literature, music, the entertainment industry, etc. Unlike its opposed, Afrocentricity is the idea that African culture is superior to the other cultures around the world. However, the study of this idea looks closer at the agency that people of African descent have in the world. Akin to Eurocentric beliefs is hegemonic discourse, which is the idea of superiority in reference to a country’s economy, military, and politics (Schenoni). American hegemonic ideals can be seen in the way that the country speaks of its political and military prowess, compared to most other countries. America is very proud of the country’s strengths that we oftentimes think and project that we are better than every other country in the world. On the other hand, subaltern discourse includes a discussion that is more casual, which focuses on non-western regions like Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East. Subaltern discourse can be compared to stand-up comedy’s more casual way of relaying information, while hegemonic discourse can be compared to the professionalism of a standard debate. One is more low stakes and informal, while the other presents itself as a more legitimate way of presenting speech. Similar to Eurocentricity, the denotative, or literal, meaning of something is what many people consider to be the correct and best definition of a specific word. For example, this type of definition can be used to define the word “lit” as being the “past tense and past participle of light” (Miriam-Webster). On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the connotative definition of something, which falls under “Signifyin(g).” If you were to define “lit” using the connotative definition, it would be defined as “when something is turned up or popping” (Urban Dictionary). Unlike the denotative definition of a word, the connotative definition is more of a slang/colloquial version of the word. By looking at these binaries, it is easier to lay out and understand the true differences that Gates is trying to explain, between “signifying” and “Signifyin(g).”
Along with Gates’ analysis of the two fundamental types of vernacular that make up American culture, he also spends a lot of his time looking at genealogy and the surprise that comes from finding out where you truly come from. By looking at one’s genealogy, you can see just how fluid and complex history really is. It’s not as black and white as it seems, similar to his linguistic and rhetorical analyses. Looking at something like genealogy, which doesn’t seem like it has anything to do with rhetoric on the surface, actually includes more of those properties than it appears. In his PBS show, Finding your Roots, Gates helps celebrities find out their true origins, while getting to explore all of the different ethnic roots that make up the American people. The country truly is a melting pot. In order to fully understand it, it is important to understand what genealogy is. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, genealogy is the study of familial lineage, with the use of family pedigrees, to figure out lines of descent. This type of research is similar to what Gates talks about in The Signifying Monkey, in that his ideas of “signifying” and “Signifyin(g)” are similar to the ways in which he uses historical context to figure out people’s origins. Opposite of the way that “signifying” and Signifyin(g) present binaries, genealogy brings these binaries together, in the cases of most people. For example, when completing his own genealogy, he found that he was “50 percent sub-Saharan African and 50 percent European,” meaning he was an even combination (give or take) of the two binaries that he so passionately divided in his essay (Gross). In The Signifying Monkey, Gates basically splits up American vernacular into two distinct categories: black and white. By doing this, he is separating two ideas and further analyzing both of them, individually; he does this too, when looking at genealogy.
When Gates looked into his own family’s lineage, he found that it was much different than he had thought it would be, prior to his discovery. After figuring out his heritage, he broke it down between his Black side and his white side to figure out how everything fit together, like he did in The Signifying Monkey. Even though he wasn’t rhetorically breaking down his family pedigree, he was separating the two main parts of himself to further understand his ancestors, similar to how he separated the two “(S/s)ignifiers” in order to further understand them, both individually and as a whole in American society. John Wideman States in his article that “rather than growing closer, standard English and black vernacular seem to be splitting farther apart. Blacks and whites find it increasingly difficult to understand one another.” This idea is why Gates was able to use the knowledge of his two sides and look at his great-great grandmother, a Black former slave, and her connection and marriage to a white man. On the surface it is assumed that the relationship was not consensual, but after looking further into it, he found that the two actually ended up legally married and buried next to one another in a cemetery, after they died (Gross). They came from opposite ends of the spectrum, one being of African descent and the other European, but they ended up coming together in the end. Gates’ view of two binaries (black and white people), as established in his essay, cause him to assume that the relationship between his great-great grandmother and her slave owning husband, couldn’t have been consensual because of the differences between them. Wideman questions this age-old idea of separation between blacks and whites, through a linguistic lens, by asking “Are we part of the problem? Why is it that the more we learn, the more difficult it is to share it without retreating to arcane, specialist vocabularies?” He is basically questioning why blacks and whites must be on opposite ends of the spectrum, causing them to not understand one another. There is already this idea that blacks and whites are too different that they can barely understand each other, so the initial confusion that Gates has towards his ancestors having married one another, even though they were different skin tones, makes sense because it is assumed that blacks and whites couldn’t have loved each other back then.
Gates wrote The Signifying Monkey in 1988, and completed his genealogy during the 2010’s, therefore he had spent much of his time, prior to the discovery of his familial roots, focused on the differing viewpoints between black and white people. He is also a product of an era that enforced strict segregation laws and the struggles brought by the Civil Rights Movement. Gates has been surrounded by the ideas of separation since he was a child and his conception of the ideas behind The Signifying Monkey derive from that mindset. However, while his analysis of several African American tropes may drive his essay, there are people who felt as if Gates’ argument was extremely Afrocentric, filled with circular logic, and very dependent on other people’s definitions of “Signification” (Myers 61). It is easy to see Gates’ claim as being Afrocentric because his focus is on the black point of view of “Signifyin(g).” He compares and contrasts the standard English definition of “signifying,” but his work mainly focuses on African American vernacular because that is the focus. That is the point of his argument. He aims to look at the definition of “Signification” from the black perspective. That doesn’t make his work Afrocentric, in the negative way that this author critiques him as being but raises awareness and educates people on the vastness that is black vernacular. The other points that the author raises, against The Signifying Monkey, include the circular logic present throughout and Gates’ use of other people’s definitions. Gates’ use of other scholars/authors definitions are included in the essay because they are important for the credibility of what he is saying, just like a writer uses outside sources when trying to support their argument. In fact, Wideman states that in the section where Gates mentions The Color Purple, he actually leaves out pertinent information that could have helped him to support his argument even more, further proof that Gates’ use of other authors didn’t take away from the flair of his work. As for his circular logic, I wouldn’t say that he was being repetitive with his ideas, so much as he was putting emphasis on the important points in his work.
Henry Louis Gates’ ability to create a work that focuses on black vernacular wouldn’t have been possible without the scholars who paved the way for him to do so. His analysis on the definition of “Signifyin(g),” allowed him to bring forth information that many people wouldn’t have had the chance to learn, or begin to understand, without his input. In “Playing, Not Joking with Language,” the author states that “In black vernacular, Signifying is a sign that words cannot be trusted, that even the most literal utterance allows room for interpretation, that language is both carnival and minefield” (Wideman) This way of looking at the definition of the word is great because it gives insight into what Gates was going for, but in a more accessible way. The way that Gates brought forth his ideas made it easy to predict his thought process, when it came to his opinions on the discovery of his genealogy. By looking at how his mind worked when writing The Signifying Monkey, it was easier to compare his ideas in the essay to his ideas on the genealogy of himself and others. In all, Gates’ interesting and complex way of looking at African American discourse allows the reader to gain insight into how Black speech differs from standard American English, and how these two vernaculars may seem similar on the surface but are actually much different than they appear.
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Gross, Terry. “Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. On DNA Testing and Finding His Own Roots.” npr, 21 January 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/01/21/686531998/historian-henry-louis-gates-jr-on-dna-testing-and-finding-his-own-roots.
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