African American history is an elaborate illustration of the past life they had lived on the expansive slave plantations. Mostly associated with trickster animals, such as monkeys and rabbits, these animals dominated over a paradigm of folktales. The black art aesthetic has become the main channel by passing a message to the masses, in what some scholars have critiqued as a source of identity. This one degraded the African-Americans even after the end of slavery. While such scholars as Henry Louis Gates saw the use of monkeys to entrench his scholastic ideology on the historical aspect of people of the African heritage, other scholars have seen this approach as a source of problems in the categorization of African-Americans as disadvantaged. The “blackness” of African-American people is not only used in monkey tales but among other animals that seem to use trickeries to survive the hard environment of the jungle. In other words, for the animals to survive, they had to find ways of tricking and cheating the superior animals (ostensibly the Anglo-Americans) into submitting to their demands. While this notion can be accepted as common thinking among many scholars, some have seen it in a different light. They have stated that the use of such tricksters in folktales entrenched the belief that African-Americans had been at the lowest point of the pyramid, i.e. the self-inflicted psychological limitations. In other words, these historical literary works inflicted a wrong mindset for the African-Americans. Although these folklore tales representing the African American culture are humorous in nature; they constantly critiqued to entrench some serious signs of inequities in America, contrary to the promise of a free country known as the father of democracy and equality. Sometimes, the actions of animals are immoral, as they give no significance to whether their action is right or wrong in the moral sphere.
The African American culture has an illustrious history as far as the use of tricksters or animal figures is concerned. The blackness as depicted with the aesthetic tone of many of the African American arts has been considered the source of a “monkey” paradigm. While other literary works have used animals such as monkeys to portray the trickster nature of the African American communities, others have maintained a folk tradition in depicting the landscape, the wildlife, and the rugged terrain of the African continent. The latter offers some significant challenges that they must overcome to survive. In other words, the monkeys’ ability to survive in such extensive jungles as the Congo forest is a portrayal of the African American ability to survive in a tough environment or under difficult situations. Ironically, the endless depiction of the trickster nature of monkeys and other animals synonymously with the African Americans is ostensibly applied for portraying African Americans. They are displayed as disadvantaged and weak in terms of wills or resources to compete with the more powerful and dominant white counterparts (Wolfe 526). That is, the trickster must use all the means to survive.
The black art aesthetic is rampant, with many artists in crafts, arts, political folklores, films, and many other genre-specific productions. This all is driven towards the theme of blackness and the survival of the fittest theory. According to Wolfe (527), the literary pattern has changed as soon as the black community gained some literacy after winning the war against slavery. That is, from the oral narratives that had been told during the dark ages of slavery, the literate African American community’s members applied their literary skills to write about their personal experiences. Some scholars have even presented an argument that most of the literary works emanated from the oral traditions of the historical life of African Americans. It is also significant to note that the performative and expressive style of signifying is divergent, as far as the traditional middle-class African-American literary criticism is being concerned. The earliest literary critiques from distinguished scholars such as Sterling Brown (1901-1989), Sounders Redding (1906-1988), and Arthur Davis (1904- 1996) have emerged as an important phase in the conversation between various voices as defined by the distinct cultural and social views (Fox-Genovese and Lasch-Quinn 39). The distinguishing nature of this literary perspective is based on the tendency of contemporary scholars to question various ideological constructs on moral and political perspectives. According to Fox-Genovese and Lasch-Quinn, these criticisms have managed to sustain those literate social understandings that must be revived every now (39). This is done in order to sustain the historical changes in the American community.
However, the expressive rhetorics that is the mantra of these literary works signify a trend. This makes it difficult to form an outright inquiry or an analysis required by the process of intellectual renewal. Adell has observed that the vernacular deconstructive literary criticism is more inclined towards self-justification and ideological constraints that tend to obstruct self-consciousness in the African-American intellectual discourse (189). For instance, a more exemplified rigorous intellectual conversation has been witnessed in the early works of Sterling Brown than it is seen in the contemporary literary world. Scholars concur that these early literary critics have allowed some early intellectual conversations exposing the true nature of the state of affairs. In other words, the earlier black criticism has allowed contemporary critics to call their bourgeoisie’s own presuppositions and cultural associations.
The political, ethical, and persistent influence of the early criticism was shared by other scholars such as Lionel Trilling. His notions of the spirit have played a critical role in shaping a perspective of moral as well as an aesthetic inquiry. This kind of interpretation has placed more attention on professional moral politics, thereby suggesting that the ability of the African-Americans in the intellectual and professional spheres. It is linked to their disorientation, academic incapability, ethnic culture, and moral standings. These ideologies would later form a central theme within the discussions of affirmative actions in the school system. Less surprising is the fact that some of the ideologies presented by contemporary scholars dismiss the myths about the primal black selfhood and society. In this aspect, the ‘signifying’ plays an important ritual function in identifying a person’s ability to excel in certain areas of interest.
Other scholars have also made signifying and trickerism in the perspective of a ritual that formed a critical part of the lower-class black culture. Also, in the middle-class appropriation of trickerism, one can raise a question of the relative power of the rebellious middle-class, contrary to the true despair of the powerless poor. In other words, one can question if these literary works formed the true sense that represented both the poor and middle-class African-Americans. For instance, Roberts has questioned what would be the gestures or responses from the poor African-Americans towards their middle-class counterparts (279). These ones were fighting for their mobility upwards against the tough competition for the integrated community members dominated by Anglo-Americans. This is even more complex and confusing considering the fact that these middle-class African-Americans have been identified by their historical self-consciousness of the lower-class slave life. Thereby, this has become difficult for literary critics to dissociate their minds when judging their ability and changing social status. For instance, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man has narrated about the therapeutic pride in the primal state of African-Americans, signifying the black community groups (Ellison 11). Moreover, there was a literary strategy that enforced a level of the moral and social discrimination between political and social situations of the bourgeoisie and lumpen that contemporary scholars have emphasized.
The history of Africans who live in the United States and other parts of the western world has come as slaves and not as literary icons. They were shipped to America to provide the physical labor. They were deemed strong in the physical sense. As the authorities have established laws and customs that would not allow the slaves to get access the education, African Americans resorted to oral storytelling sessions after the long hours of labor works in plantations. According to Bell, most of these tales revolved around animals and mysterious creatures or human actors. Researchers have found out that while these characters were told in oral formats, the slaves did not want to talk about them outside their circles (299). They feared the repercussion it would create from their masters viewed as protagonists. Levine has claimed that the slaves believed that the tales contained tricks they used to dupe the slave masters, thus, telling them to the “outsiders” to put them in awkward positions (70). What Gates has described as the history of signification considered an important aspect of the contemporary understanding of literary works (685). The black cultural matrix as depicted by literary works depicting monkeys as tricksters, for example, has simply reflected the life of slaves. They were involved in lies, cheating, theft, feigning of illness, and pretending not to hear what the masters had said so as to avoid responsibilities. Some slaves even mixed rocks with their cotton harvests in order to meet a threshold put by the masters, burned property to show disapproval of masters. They broke their tools to avoid work, mistreated the animals they pretended to care for, and ensured the crops harvested were wasted as much as possible. This is why it is felt that tricksters, as represented by monkeys in tales and slaves, in reality, used the tactics that would later form the core of tales. These tales were told by illiterate ones, and the later ones were written by the educated African Americans.
When Henry Louis Gates wrote The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey, he has shown a broad image as a literary icon. The themes border on some political, social, and cultural issues. Displaying the awareness and understanding of the concept of tradition, rationality, and charisma, Gates has conceptualized an African American literary roadmap based on the concept of “signifying” with specific historical narratives, critiques, and conceptualization of the African American literary works. This approach has given an image that African American literary works were a counterculture to Anglo-American literature. However, some critics of Gates’ work state that the language of signifying has never addressed the deepest concerns of the African American middle class, which is alluded to be targeting. For instance, Roberts has suggested that if the literary criticism in relation to historical commentaries is how educated people discuss their status or rather conditions, one can rightly worry about the sterility of vernacular criticism as a discourse for confronting such interracial crises (1). Of more concern, there is the fact that interracial crises are entrenched by the black bourgeoisie’s competitive disadvantage in the upper-class American society, the significance of the increased social mobility, and how it relates to the ‘lumpen’ poor (Roberts 1). In true meaning, signifying is used to denote an argument, with an indirect assertion through a figure of speech (Roberts 1). In other words, the use of figures of speech in the conditions of the signifying statement a reader or a receiver to comprehend a statement by the means of interpretation. That is likely to take him beyond the literal meaning of the statement. For example, Gates’ The Signifying Monkey has an important display on the footnote. There Gates asks a black colleague, Dwight Andrews, whether he has ever heard of signifying. In response, Andrew is ironic when he states, “I never heard of the signifying monkey until I came to Yale and read about him in a book” (Gates 690). This asserts on Gates’ approach which may be interpreted to mean he is trying to condition the idea of signifying into people’s minds. Ironically, Gates views it as having been dignified by that answer, as a pioneer of a signifying literary theme.
The tales depicted the transplanted rituals of the lower-class life for the African-Americans, as compared to that of Anglo-Americans. In retrospect, the signifying dramatized literary traditions have formed the black speakers’ basis for a certain attitude towards Anglo-Americans. Put differently, signifying was the constituent of the way in which black authors had revised the rhetoric of their literary predecessors as well as projected the ironic attitude towards the Anglo-American society. Levine has stated that as much as African Americans appropriated the literary world, they did not fully inhabit the notion among the white American society (98). They subconsciously used to draw signifying as a means to describe the beginnings of the autonomous black public expression. Through such adaptations of a signifying paradigm, the social historians or literary scholars have indicated that literate blacks had exercised their freedom of literary works in restraints of the acculturation to the American life (Wolfe 12).
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In his view, Gates’ anecdote suggests that signifying can be figurative judo in which the weighty intention of the superior party is turned against itself. In other words, signifying demands that its social function is geared towards a form of communication and a particular meaning. Andrew’s answer to Gates’ question is not just an ironic statement but also a reflection of the social meaning of the question. From these aspects of signifying, Gates’ theory has just promoted the common street ritual of the lower class culture of African-Americans, as well as a gesture of the black self-consciousness in comparison to the Anglo-American culture.
By the reference of a therapeutic theme, there is a certain psychological and social ethos that has been an object of discussion in contemporary African American literature. In his book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud, Philip Rieff has asserted that a modern man has found the overarching social and cultural meanings. They do not appear in the external institutions but are conspicuous in themselves. In simple terms, society is seen not as a platform for human experience and meaning. However, this is rather a cage that restricts them from self-realization of the true meanings of their lives. The ethical thinking of therapeutic inculcates honesty as a norm. That advocates for the sincere expressions of feelings as well as cultivates and expresses the feelings in a free manner. Considerably, signifying in this perspective allows the middle-class African-American critics to express the alienation as an assertion of self that transcends the racist restrictions of the Anglo-American society (Wolfe 588). In a cathartic expression of the self, however, signifying has the possibility to create a therapeutic adjustment in the Anglo-American society to white society. This challenges a black writer’s sense of worth to a level deeper than the expression they illustrate.
In a rejoinder, other scholars have interpreted the Signifying Monkey figurative tales put in the written text by the African-American scholars to suggest a historical world. One would, thus, ask whether the writers were simply recounting the actions of the African-Americans against their masters, the Anglo-Americans, or were just an entertainment venue. Although scholars like Gates posit that the use of monkeys and other animals signified the historical meaning of the kind of life of African Americans during slavery. Others have a strong belief that the use of these animals in folk tales was purely a reflection of the life of slaves and the tricks they had to apply to survive. For instance, Wolfe has a firm belief that the actions of animals as depicted in the African-American folklore had been meant to depict human beings in their true survival form (528). In his work, Uncle Remus & the Malevolent Rabbit highlights the ideas behind the use of animals such as rabbits and monkeys in the African-American literary works. He, thus, has identified the scramble for food and cross-racial social interactions as the core drivers of their actions. According to Wolfe, the fact that African-Americans were denied several things such as interracial relationships, basic commodities, and general freedom to have luxuries. They have found it easy to change the status through folktales. From this perspective, a key concept that Wolfe displays is that in this world the only thing real and that matters in this life is “who is on top, and nothing else” (Wolfe 530).
The probable controversy surrounding the use of a monkey phenomenon and a signifying theme is obviously the difference between morality and amorality as well as political and social clashes that are exceedingly creating controversies. The use of a universal concept of the black typification seems to justify the ideology that the habits and characters of an individual African-American, whether anti-social, is considered and termed as heroism. Ironically, this kind of appropriation is based on the ideology that the African-American man must play dirty in real life to get what he deserves in society, including trickeries and cheating. This signifying monkey and other versions of categorization based on an ethnic background in the folk-tale is the source controversy. Although the interpretation of many scholars may vary in the contexts and comprehension, the approach made by many of these scholars signifies a major objective of understanding the historical, social and political inclination of tales. This kind of communal Balkanization would later form a basis for literary works. This later informed such actions as affirmative ones. In other words, the social classification is entrenched by the African-American community’s members themselves.