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Signifyin’

from Wikipedia “The trickster’s literary role”

Modern African American literary criticism has turned the trickster figure into one example of how it is possible to overcome a system of oppression from within. For years, African American literature was discounted by the greater community of American literary criticism while its authors were still obligated to use the language and the rhetoric of the very system that relegated African Americans and other minorities to the ostracized position of the cultural “other.” The central question became one of how to overcome this system when the only words available were created and defined by the oppressors. As Audre Lorde explained, the problem was that “the master’s tools [would] never dismantle the master’s house.”

In his writings of the late 1980s, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. presents the concept of Signifyin(g). Wound up in this theory is the idea that the “master’s house” can be “dismantled” using his “tools” if the tools are used in a new or unconventional way. To demonstrate this process, Gates cites the interactions found in African American narrative poetry between the trickster, the Signifying Monkey, and his oppressor, the Lion. {…} the Monkey is able to outwit the Lion continually in these narratives through his usage of figurative language. According to Gates, “[T]he Signifying Monkey is able to signify upon the Lion because the Lion does not understand the Monkey’s discourse…The monkey speaks figuratively, in a symbolic code; the lion interprets or reads literally and suffers the consequences of his folly…” In this way, the Monkey uses the same language as the Lion, but he uses it on a level that the Lion cannot comprehend.

{…} Brer Rabbit is the hero with a “fragile body but a deceptively strong mind” that allows him to “create [his] own symbols in defiance of the perverted logic of the oppressor.” By twisting language to create these symbols, Brer Rabbit not only was the “personification of the ethic of self-preservation” for the slave community, but also “an alternative response to their oppressor’s false doctrine of anthropology.”

from “Signifyin'”

Signifyin(g) (vernacular) is a practice in African American culture, involving a verbal strategy of indirection that exploits the gap between the denotative and figurative meanings of words.

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Categories: metaphor, trickster
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