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Caribbean Poetry - ENGL 733, Dr. Monifa Love

Towards an Understanding of Anglophone Caribbean Poetry

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Theory of Signifyin’

Henry Louis Gates Jr’s theories on Black Vernacular and Caribbean Literature

Black rhetoric has had a long, arduous history as it was a byproduct of black and brown slavery. Creating a language that sounded like the master tongue, but with its own unique adages was pivotal to many factors within Black Caribbean and American life, as it helped save many lives during a time of great oppression and back breaking, deadly work. These languages have lasted for hundreds of years and have developed to even more unique tongues spanning across the Pan-African Diaspora. Being influenced and having vast knowledge in both the American black history and Caribbean black history, Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the leading scholar in black rhetoric across the Diaspora. Gates introduces the theory that Signifying is the “master trope” due to the fact that all other tropes of black speech can be utilized to signify. When analyzing literature across the black/ Pan-African Diaspora, there is always some element of signification from the writer to the audience who can immediately draw connections to the work.

His in-depth analysis in understanding the overall tropes of Black Vernacular and why they came to be is essential in understanding the histories and structures of these languages. In his essay, the “The Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin(g): Rhetorical Difference and the Orders of Meaning” Gates theorizes that all black language works to signify some meaning to the audience that the white people who may be present do not understand. He does an analytic graph on how the art of signifying works. He illustrates how the words or phrases being signified exists on two planes, one of standard English and one of Black Vernacular. These two intersect to signify to both linguistic groups of some intended message whenever a black person speaks. Within Caribbean folk songs such as the examples used on this, “Sly Mongoose,” and the dance hall song “Bam Bam,” there are examples of this practice.  Both works consist of lines that read like standard English, however, they speak to something that black people understand. Within the explications of both, an analysis of how these songs worked to signify to the audience a message that is not completely clear when read or written is shown. Gates explains that these elements in language are utilized to help keep black conversations private, to speak on black life freely, and for hundreds of other reasons that language is used for.     

Gates also does a historical exploration of where the term “signifying” came from, as it has persisted in the folklore of the many different people’s among the Diaspora. He discusses the mythical character, The Signifying Monkey, the folk story in which the term derived from. Gates writes, “The Esu figures, among the Yoruba systems of thought in Benin and Nigeria, Brazil and Cuba, Haiti and New Orleans are divine: they are gods who function in sacred myths, as do characters in a narrative. Esu’s fictional equivalent in Afro-American, probably derived from Cuban mythology which generally depicts Echu-Elegua with a monkey at his side" (Gates 1557). Gates is theorizing how this linguistic constant and piece of folklore has grown and changed within the Black vernacular to represent a predominant trope in black language. Giving this history shows a connection of the languages along the Black Vernacular speakers. Furthermore, he discusses how the term, “to signify” originally meant to “lie or start something” amongst the people, i.e. to stir up trouble. As the word has grown, it has inherently changed in meaning where it is now used to denote or “signify” coded black language. It can be harmful or helpful, but it is coded language that is used to move a person to do something. In the American folk story, The Signifying Monkey, the monkey signifies to the Lion, the king of the jungle, by hurling insults purportedly told to him by the Elephant (who never said anything). He then gets the Lion to beat up the Elephant. The reasoning was so that he could safely climb down the tree he was nestled in. With this analysis, Gates shows how the monkey was able to do this with his words, using the tropes of black speech such as name calling and playing the dozens (yo mama jokes). The use of this language is exhibited in most of black literature, especially black literature that speaks on black life and culture, albeit fiction or nonfiction. It is a part of black life. Most importantly, it moves black people into action of some sort. 

Gates has done ground breaking work in this area. His theories and analysis on Black Vernacular are leading in a field where black intelligence is always challenged. Gates illustrates that Black Vernacular is as much a language as any other. His work in black rhetorical traditions has created the genre in the field of linguistic studies and has helped many scholars research the Black Vernacular traditions of the Pan-African Diaspora. His work in signification was not only groundbreaking, but it gave a starting point for other language scholars to begin analysis.

Gates, Jr. Henry Louis. “The Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin(g): Rhetorical Difference and the Orders of Meaning.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings From Classical Times To The Present, edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001, pp. 1543-1580.

Playing, Not Joking, With Language


Explications of Caribbean Literature

Explication Black Language of Sly Mongoose

The folk song “Sly Mongoose” is one that warns of a shifty character that exists within Caribbean culture, one who is power hungry, preachy, and conniving. Utilizing the symbol of the imperialist, the mongoose, he is a sneaky creature. He is described as a thief, one who is able to move unencumbered by rules because he has the “white man’s “trust. However, the folk song repeatedly states that the mongoose’s actions are being noticed by the “dog,” or the slaves in the Caribbean. The dog reminds the mongoose that he is of the same people and that the mongoose should not forget that he and dog are brothers. The singer repeatedly reminds the mongoose that his actions are being seen and the dog knows the truth. With the use of common black linguistic tropes such as signifying, naming, and hyperbole, the description and the sentiments about the Imperialist Supporter are clearly explained. 

The folk song is metaphorically about the black Caribbean people who helped slavers and those who spoke in support of imperialism. The folk song highlights how, in real life, these people who wish for power are sneaky people with the opportunity to take advantage of being a slave as well as taking advantage of the slaves, all while supporting the  overall ideologies of slavery and imperialism. The folk song begins with the declaration that the mongoose is sly, meaning sneaky and cunning. The speaker admits that the dog knows his ways, that the slaves are watching and they see him using his opportunity to steal and profit just as he had learned from the white masters. The mongoose enters “de master’s kitchen” and steals the master’s fattest chicken by tucking it in his waistcoat pocket. The slaves see this and know that the “mongoose” is able to do this because he is sly and sneaky. The speaker notes that he can see what the mongoose is doing because he knows him, he knows that mongoose is just working for the master to gain his own security and wealth and profiting off the backs of slaves. In the second stanza, the sly mongoose’s physical appearance is described. He is detailed as dressing like an old crusader, i.e. the old British settlers who came to claim the lands and enforce slavery. The Mongoose is described as talking like a “soap box preacher,” which means he imperatively speaks to the people on his beliefs, as if they are “platforms” on which his ideologies rest. He speaks to the people as if he has the best way to succeed, but he is reminded again by the speaker his true actions are being seen despite his ways. The speaker tells the mongoose that he cannot claim they are not brothers, because there is a deeper, familial understanding between them. He understands that the mongoose’s actions are due to him trying to denounce this familial connection for a status like the British imperialists, while actually stealing it from under them. In a sense, the mongoose is profiting off of the slaves and the white colonizers. 

With the third stanza, the speaker reminds the mongoose that he has disconnected from his people for the sake of seeking the white man’s power. The speaker tells the mongoose that he dresses like a cunning lawyer comparing him to a charmer, and pushes this understanding by saying he talked like a ”Young Pretender,” referring to Charles Edward Stuart,  leader of the Jacobites, a political movement to restore the British throne to the Roman Catholic Stuart line. With this assessment, the speaker is commenting on the mongoose’s want and understanding he should have his own power and leadership showing forth through his preaching, exuding white imperialism and capitalistic ways to achieve his status. He is trying to persuade the people to listen and follow him, and the mongoose uses familial ties to do this. He talks of the speakers mother, to which the speaker tells him that he does no longer knows his own people anymore. He is disconnected and the speaker illustrates this with the line, “Don’t tell me you know my mother” denouncing the mongoose’s little knowledge of his own familial ties.
Within the short folk song, many tropes of black speech show forth to the audience in multi layered language. Tropes are defined as “a turn,” meaning it turns words away from their literal meanings to metaphoric ones. The master trope utilized is called signifying, which can turn any word or phrase and imply an intended meaning that is used by the speaker to be inherently understood by his audience. Within “Sly Mongoose,” the speaker signifies that the person he is talking about works with the white colonizers that came to the Caribbean, stole the land, and enforced slavery. He signifies that the Sly Mongoose is a colonizer supporter, though he is related to the slaves which means he is a black person who supports the European Invasion and British imperialism. The speaker signifies this support of the British with the symbol of the mongoose, a symbol often used for the British colonizers by Indian peoples. 

The usage of hyperbole and naming work together to imply what makes the mongoose a) sly and cunning and b) express the gravity of his actions. The speaker explains that the mongoose was able to take the fattest chicken and conceal it in his jacket pocket, which is physically impossible for a person to do. However, the speaker is using this hyperbole to indicate that the mongoose is very good at being sneaky and conniving, so good that he is able to do what seems impossible. Along with the signification of the mongoose, the speaker calls the antagonist a “Young Pretender,” and a  “soap box preacher,” which is noted above as the speakers assertion that the mongoose is a power hungry, politicking leader. 

“Sly Mongoose” is a folk song of warning for both the speaker and the antagonist, as well as any person in the audience who resonates with either side. For the speaker, it warns of people who are like the sly mongoose who may try to gain support from them. It also warns the sly mongoose that his actions are pegged, the people see him for what he is and he is not as powerful as he seems. 

Explication of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”

Since its creation in 1982, Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” has been noted as one of the greatest Reggae songs of all time. Sampled over seventy-five times, It is heard in most Reggae clubs and many American playlists, even though many people do not know the language she is speaking, patois, another linguistic system created by the black people of the Caribbean. In the song, Sister Nancy discusses her MC prowess and how it is a situation that she is emerged in a career where, at the time, mostly men dominated the sound. She addresses that her want to do this may seem foolish because it is seemingly impossible, but she knows she can. She spoke to the fact that she was so talented that her song was a hit, using a term known in the dance hall scene as a an indicator for the DJ to “run” a good song back, i.e. to repeat it. In her song, she says they doubt her and do not believe that it is actually her talent, but she attests this by declaring that it is “from creation,” she was born with it. She represents herself and where she is from proudly, telling the audience that she is going to go far in her career because she has the chops to contend against the men in the music genre.  She declares that she “come fi nice up Jamaicans,” or to represent Jamaicans in the best way for the world. To express these ideas, she speaks in patois, her native language and uses the tropes of hyperbole and signifying to speak to the audience. 

Patois has grown and changed since the days of “Sly Mongoose,” becoming a language that is not as closely similar to the European language, so much so that it is nearly indecipherable to the ear of  other black language speakers among the Diaspora. In this language, many words and phrases are spelled differently than the traditional English spelling, such as “mek” which is make or “nuh” for not. These words are spelled more phonetically than other English words in different languages, where words from languages are adapted, the traditional spelling kept, but the pronunciations may change. Patois changes the spellings and even sentence structures. For instance, in this particular song, Sister Nancy sings, “I tell yousel’ fi go, Sister Nancy, mek you go” which translates to “I tell you to go for Sister Nancy, [I] make you go,” which shows a sentence structure where the action word is used after a conjunction, where as in the English translation the conjunction comes after the action word. 

With the use of hyperbole and signifying, Sister Nancy discusses her situation and how she deserves to be an MC in the male dominated world. She says that her talent is “from creation,” another way to say from birth, or from a higher power, as in she is blessed with it. Obviously, it is a talent she has honed over time, especially because children are not born with a talent such as hers. She uses hyperbole to express how her talent is unique and naturally hers. She speaks to her lyrics saying that they are the “crissiest lyrics” or the craziest lyrics, signifying that she has some of the most unique and far-fetched lyrics that no one else has been able to create. She lets it be known through hyperbolic phrases that she not only deserves her place in the genre, that she also will stand out amongst the men in the genre because it is her fate. She then discusses how her lyrics are not soft, using the term “Miss Prissy Biscuit,” a known biscuit brand in Jamaica. She uses this term to signify that she has the ability to be just as “hard” as the men in the business, meaning that her lyrical content will not be perceived as “dainty” or “ladylike.” 

Sister Nancy’s song, though fun and always played at a party, still had a very thought provoking and important message. She uses this song as a placement in the male dominated music genre and business. She takes her business seriously and she lets it be known that she has the talent and ability to stand up against a system that does not readily support her or her talents. Sister Nancy uses her black language tropes such as hyperbole and signifying to let her audience know that she is here to stay and they will love her contributions to the genre. 

"Sly Mongoose"

“Sly Mongoose” - Lord Invader: Calypso in New York

"Bam Bam"

Sister Nancy - "Bam Bam" 


References/ Resources

Gates, Jr. Henry Louis. “The Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin(g): Rhetorical Difference and the Orders of Meaning.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings From Classical Times To The Present, edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001, 1543-1580