To rename is to revise, and to revise is to Signify.–Henry Louis Gates, Jr
In his best known and perhaps best piece of scholarship, The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates traces the development of a distinctly different African American rhetoric. He begins with Yoruba praise songs and traces this development through slavery, many writers and even Mohammad Ali. Indeed he talks about the “trope a dope.” African Americans developed a double voiced rhetoric full of both hyperbole and hidden meaning which was designed to mean one thing in the speaker’s community and another in the wider world. Presumably then Gates knows whites hear certain rhetoric differently than African Americans do.
We can imagine the good professor, tired from his Chinese journey, trying out a little trope a dope on the policemen who missing the irony, as Gates’s theory predicts he would, arrests the professor. Part of my enjoyment of this event has been the way in which knowledge has been rendered useless by “signifying.” For African Americans, including the president, the arrest was an absurd example of what happens too often to African Americans. Its value as a signifier exceeds its value as an individual event.
The white press pretended the event had no “signifying power,” and examined it as a single event. Of course, the president’s remarks were seen as symbolic and “inappropriate.” A similar fate befell Jeremiah Wright whose preaching, or at least the clips I saw on television, were full of signifying and in that sense no different from many other African American preachers. Consistently whites tend to hear only the single voice of a doubled voice and to miss the riffs and syncopation.
This issue ended not by court resolution, not by a journalistic transcript of every word spoken in the Gates house that evening, but in a flury of signifying. The White House garden was turned into that most American of summer places–the patio beer party. The vice president was there to equalize the racial balance and we had that most American of solutions the face to face sit down. All done as a silent movie.
The lack of any honest dialogue about the remaining racial tensions in this country have made us very sensitive to those events, utterances, and acts that signify those differences and tensions with discussing or resolving them. The signifying monkey will be with us along time.