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  • The Urge to AdornGenerational Wit and the Birth of The Signifying Monkey
  • Houston A. Baker Jr. (bio)

What ever the Negro does of his own volition he embellishes. His religious service is for the greater part excellent prose poetry. Both prayers and sermons are true works of art. The supplication is forgotten in the frenzy of creation. The prayer of the white man is considered humorous in its bleakness. The beauty of the Old Testament does not exceed that of a Negro prayer.

—Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934)

It was, however, in a folklore molded out of rigorous and inhuman conditions of life that the Negro achieved his most indigenous expression. Blues, spirituals, and folk tales recounted from mouth to mouth, the whispered words of a black mother to her black daughter on the ways of men, the confidential wisdom of a black father to his black son, the swapping of sex experiences on street corners from boy to boy in the deepest vernacular, work songs sung under blazing suns, all these formed the channel through which the racial wisdom flowed.

—Richard Wright, “Blueprint for Negro Literature” (1937)

If Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston had not existed, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and his magnum opus, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, would not exist.1 Wright and Hurston are signally brilliant elders who made Gates possible. In her canonical essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Hurston offers an anecdote to illustrate an African American “urge to adorn.”2 She describes a room in a black residence of Mobile, Alabama, as follows: “an over-stuffed mohair living-room suite, an imitation mahogany bed and chifferobe, a console victrola. The walls were gaily papered with Sunday supplements of [End Page 831] the Mobile Register. There were seven calendars and three wall pockets” (1022). Hurston observes that to the jaundiced eye the scene may appear grotesque. But to the practiced eye of the African American cultural initiate, the room is the quintessence of beauty. Hurston sums the matter as follows: “We each have our standards of art, and thus we are all interested parties and so unfit to pass judgment upon the art concepts of others” (1022). Henry Louis Gates, Jr., offers personal testimony to his instruction in the linguistic adornment and grace of the black vernacular as follows:

My fascination with black language stems from my father’s enjoyment of absolute control over its manipulation. My father has mastered black language rituals, certainly; he also has the ability to analyze them, to tell you what he is doing, why, and how. … It is amazing how much black people, in ritual settings such as barbershops and pool halls, street corners and family reunions, talk about talking. Why do they do this? I think they do it to pass these rituals along from one generation to the next. They do it to preserve the traditions of “the race.”


Vernacular adornment and adorned black talk, as Hurston notes, transcend summary judgments. In their deployment and effects both enhancement and verbal exchange are vehicles for the transmission of what Richard Wright calls “racial wisdom” (“Blueprint”).3 Such wisdom is spoken, inscribed, and performed in a genealogy of preservation and passage. Wright would refer to the adornment noted by Hurston and black verbal mastery recalled by Gates as “forms of things unknown.” For Wright, “unknown” signifies not absence, but a subtly ubiquitous presence of black initiation rites. The ever-morphing protocols of vernacular “forms” are all citations of African American tradition. They are anagrammatic whispers, street-corner boasts, and kitchen table corrections. Hurston’s astute characterization of the vernacular and Wright’s emphatic championing of the “forms of things unknown” secure their legacies as critical instruction. Their critiques mark a double-gendered and engendered wisdom of vernacular mother and father wit. Who has not been captivated by Hurston’s catalog of double descriptors such as “high-tall,” “kill-dead,” and “hot-boiling”? Who has not been drawn into the fictive world of Wright by his bald and skillful representation of vernacular speech? In wisdom and style, Wright and Hurston provide indispensable conditions of possibility for the [End Page...


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