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  1. 1. The Signifying Monkey Will Get All Over You Deep down in the jungle so they say There's a signifying motherfucker 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 shit."
  2. 2. As the African American toast cited above clearly shows, a trickster figure such as the Signifying Monkey enjoys stirring up trouble for its own sake. All trickster figures, however, are rather wise too. Perhaps they know that laughing at trouble (and even creating trouble just to laugh) has a special kind of transformative power. Tricksters can level the playing field in a flash and make it possible for burdened and uptight people to suddenly feel lighthearted and playful. Tricksters show up in the folklore and creation myths of a number of cultures worldwide, including African, Haitian, Native American (or American Indian) and African American. (Hanuman, for instance, is a sort of Hindu trickster figure. You can read about him elsewhere on this site.)
  3. 3. The Trickster Tale Trickster tales are a type of folktale in which animals are portrayed with the power of speech and the ability to behave like humans. The dominant characteristic of the trickster is his or her ingenuity, which enables the trickster to defeat bigger and stronger animals. A variant of the trickster tale is the escape story, in which the figure must extricate himself from a seemingly impossible situation. Closely linked to the rhetorical practice known as "signifying," trickster tales generally serve satirical or parodic purposes by poking fun at various types of human behavior. In African and African American trickster tales, the trickster figure is often a monkey, a hare, a spider, or a tortoise. One of the first African American writers to present the trickster figure in literature was Charles Waddell Chesnutt. His story "The Goophered Grapevine," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1887, features a white northern couple who move to the South and meet former slave Julius McAdoo, an adept storyteller. McAdoo regales the Northerners with "conjure tales," or supernatural folk tales, designed to entertain them and influence decisions they are making. Chesnutt's conjure stories are often tragic, providing indirect
  4. 4. commentary on the injustice and cruelty of the slavery system. The trickster figure has been adapted to modern literature by a number of black writers. For example, Ashley F. Bryan's books for children The Adventures of Aku (1976) and The Dancing Granny (1977) feature Ananse, the spider-trickster. Louise Bennett has written several books about the adventures of the same figure, whom she dubs Brer Anancy. Ishmael Reed has taken the adaptation a step further in his character PaPa LaBas, the voodoo trickster detective in his mystery parody The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974). [Excerpted from The Essential Black Literature Guide, by Roger M. Valade III, in Association with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Visible Ink Press, 1996.] The Trickster as Masking Device Africans themselves assume humor exists everywhere, even in the highest levels of existence. In Yoruba belief, two of the principle gods are comic figures. The supreme god, Oludumare, instructs Obatala, the god of laughter, to create the earth, but the latter gets drunk on palm wine and, as a result, botches the job, producing, among other
  5. 5. things, albinos and hunchbacks (Awoonor 71ff.). Esu-Elegba, in many ways the most important deity, operates as agent between God and humans, thereby playing the same role as the trickster does around the world, particularly coyote and raven of the North American Indians but also Brer Rabbit and his cronies. Like most of them, Esu, famous for his ravenous appetite (especially for sex), his wandering, his vanity, and his unpredictability, delights in transgressing boundaries of all types. He and all other African tricksters, including the Signifying Monkey and Anancy the spider, figure in endlessly varied plots and possess a playful unpredictability (Edwards 156). Often, as an African American toast suggests [see above], a trickster starts trouble for the sake of it. ... Humor, however, does not necessarily operate in a positive manner, and various ethnic groups have always used humor to cast aspersions on others, particularly through stereotyping. Many of the stereotypes of African Americans that existed in (Zora Neale ) Hurston's day unfortunately remain with us even today, albeit in muted form. During the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, however, they constituted a veritable staple of American culture. This mode of racial representation very directly presented black people as naive, childlike, and just plain
  6. 6. stupid. Surveys of this tradition in the United States show how pervasive such patterns were at every level of society and how they were related to general patterns of oppression applied to other ethnic groups and often to women of all races. The nineteenth century's appetite for "Negro" folktales and folk humor proved insatiable, especially after the Civil War, when new cultural modes were sought to deal with white psychological fears caused by emancipation. Collections of "negro humor," plantation tradition short stories and novels, and, above all, the minstrel show and popular stage productions solidified the image of the "comic darkie." . . . American minstrel shows . . . [with white actors in burnt-cork makeup] . . . complemented down-home-on-the-plantation stereotypes with a new one depicting the gaudy African dandy of New York's Broadway, "Jim Dandy." As Nathan Huggins has demonstrated, these "types" were anything but simple and had little basis in African American culture. The rough, plain-talking, "country" Jim Crow figure was obviously an avatar of white culture's backwoods and riverboat characters and, I would add, of "Brother Jonathan"/"Uncle Sam" figures. "Jim Dandy," by contrast, effeminate, urban, and
  7. 7. fast-talking, was Yankee Doodle's parallel and, in comic opposition to Jim Crow, provided a smiling mask for the deep struggle between U.S. pastoral romanticism and onrushing urban industrialization. In another avatar he became "Zip Coon," a crafty urbanite who frequently preyed upon greenhorns come to the city from "down home." . . . Dualities were, in fact, the staple of minstrelsy and signifiers of the genre's ambivalence and fluidity. Black on white disguise, later complicated by blacks acting out whites acting out the part of blacks, was accompanied by males dressed as females as well. Minstrelsy often gets dismissed as a vile phenomenon of American popular culture, but its long-lasting popularity was partly due to its constantly evolving nature, its ambiguities, and its invitation into the world of the ethnic "Other." . .. Finally, minstrelsy also included "straight" love songs for both sexes, and handsome leading men became "matinee idols"; serious themes such as poverty, family, and race were dealt with under the mask of shrewd folk proverbs, riddles, and idiom so the shows went beyond both humor and stereotypes at times (Stowe and Grimsted 82-86). Over the years, the humor gained in subtlety. . . . Even when authentic material such as the spirituals
  8. 8. became the vogue, black performers felt they had to wear the mask in other ways, especially in talking about themselves. . . . Some might castigate Hurston for her pandering to Godmother [the nickname for Charlotte Mason, a white woman, who acted as patron to Zora Neale Hurston and a few other Harlem Renaissance writers] . ... But we should be cautious in judging a humor and a cultural situation that still had the motivation of the legendary High John de Conquer [another trickster figure who is featured in stories that show him outsmarting Ole Massa]. It facilitated African Americans' survival. Hurston, like so many other great writers in the African American tradition, in the body of her work attempts to provide outsiders with an inside view of the culture she so loved. But she knew to do so would take cunning masking stratagems and enticing devices, and humor was chief among them in terms of its ability to promote human understanding. "Cuttin' the monkey for the white folks" sometimes seemed worth it. As Janie says in Their Eyes, " 'Tain't no use in me telling you somethin' unless Ah give you de understandin' to go 'long wid it. Unless you see de fur, a mink skin ain't no different from a coon hide" ... For Hurston, her culture was mink, not coon, and humor, masked and unmasked, frequently expressed
  9. 9. in such utterances, helped her show the world the difference. [Selections from Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy, by John Lowe, University of Illinois Press, 1997.]