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  • The Signifying MonkeyInterdisciplinary Ripple Effects and Six Degrees of Separation
  • Jenna Gibbs (bio)

I live in Miami, Florida, where one of my favorite restaurants is a Haitian restaurant, Tap Tap, in South Beach. Tap Tap—named after an iconic form of Haitian shuttle bus, on the window of which one must “tap tap” to request disembarkation—features a dizzying kaleidoscope of vibrantly colored folkloric paintings, tapestries, and murals that cover the floors, walls, ceilings, doors, tables, and even chairs of this uniquely intercultural locale. The restaurant’s “tap tap” shuttle bus (used for “to go” deliveries) sits out front, itself an art piece adorned all over with Haitian motifs. Inside the restaurant, as patrons eat their Haitian Creole dishes—diri kole (mixed rice and beans), banann peze (fried plantains), kabrit nan sos (stewed goat), and griyo (fried pork)—they are surrounded by artwork that prominently features the Esu pantheon of tricksters and also boasts a Black Madonna, evoking the Egyptian Isis tradition. In this roughly ten-foot painting, she towers over an altar lying at her feet, on which a rooster and a pack of cards are symbolic signifiers of Yoruba-derived Santería sacrifices. In The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., theorized “signifying” as an African American vernacular oral tradition, rooted in pan-Africanist Esu topes, which, he argued, inflected African American literary production and should be pivotal to its criticism. His intercultural premises are, however, highly pertinent not only to literature but also to varied modalities of African American expression ranging from Haitian art to Afro Caribbean and African American dress, dance, and music. His work has had far-flung interdisciplinary ripple effects, impacting not only literary studies but also history, cultural studies, musicology, and performance studies.

Indeed, both in the original and the anniversary edition, Gates explores music and performance as forms of signifyin(g), a black vernacular oral [End Page 901] tradition that entails repetition, revision, and transformation through “marking, loud-talking, testifying, calling out (of one’s name), sounding, rapping, playing the dozens” (52). In the original publication, he claims jazz as a distinctive form of signifyin(g) because of its “principle of repetition and difference, this practice of intertextuality, which has been so crucial to the black vernacular forms of Signifyin(g,)” (70). Gates explores afresh the interdisciplinary implications of his seminal literary theory in the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition with a new introduction, titled “Hip-Hop and the Fate of Signifying.” In it, he concedes that he is “a self-confessed Old School devotee” who believes “hip-hop as a genre had nothing on rhythm and blues, Motown, and soul music of the late fifties and sixties, not to mention America’s most original, most sublime, and most sophisticated contribution to world civilization, jazz.” He emphatically restates his conviction, originally articulated in 1988, that jazz is “based on the art of riffing, on repetition and revision, the very definition of signifying in the [black vernacular] tradition” (xxx). His aesthetic preferences notwithstanding, in this new introduction Gates goes on to unequivocally place contemporary hip-hop and sampling—and sampling’s origins in the Jamaican immigrant community of New York city—in the signifying tradition, and deems the genre “as original and as innovative as any intertextual literary relationship I have explicated in this book” (xxxii). Gates’s inclusion of hip-hop and sampling as part of the black expressive tradition is also an obvious acknowledgment of the now sizable body of scholarship on African American nonliterary expressive traditions—performance, visual media, and sartorial self-expressions—scholarship only made possible by the original publication of The Signifying Monkey.

The interdisciplinary implications of Gates’s theories—namely, a black expressive tradition writ larger than literature—reverberate in particular facets of my own work on the relationship between the signification of black dress and performance as figurative self-representation, on the one hand, and white parodies of black self-expression, on the other. My work is thus indebted to Gates’s genitive work on white parodies of blackness, discussed in his chapter 3, “Figures of Significance.” But, I must concede, my work is related to The Signifying Monkey only by “six degrees of separation.” The...


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pp. 901-920
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