Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In his breakthrough 1988 work, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the foremost African American literary theorists in the United States, describes the goal of his book as "if not exactly to invent a black theory ... to locate and identify how the 'black tradition' had theorized about itself." He demonstrates exactly what he means in trenchant critiques of classic works of AfricanAmerican literature.
Central to these literary works is a shared African American English vernacular in which the concept of "signifyin(g)" occupies a place of primacy. He traces its origins to a mythological figure of Yoruba culture named Esu-Elegbara, whom—in an admittedly speculative leap—he links to the figure of the Signifying Monkey. The latter is a trickster character embedded in the African American oral tradition who manages to gain an advantage over more powerful animals, like the lion and the elephant, through the specific linguistic/literary skill of signifyin(g).
Gates emphasizes the practice of signifyin(g) as a common feature of demotic African American speech, which he defines variously as "repetition with a signal difference" and "a metaphor for textual revision." This can be as simple as street-level boasting, insulting, or goading in a slyly indirect style or as complex as a major literary figure improvising upon dominant tropes in African American culture.
In the second part of the book, Gates elaborates further on this latter literary development of the concept of signifyin(g) in close readings of African American classics: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and several slave narratives. Adding the work of Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, Ralph Ellison, and W. E. B. Dubois to the discussion, he comments on the intertextuality of African American literature and the manner in which various authors are signifyin(g) upon others.
In sum, Gates's landmark work provides a unifying concept derived from the African American vernacular possessed of great explanatory power, which in its indeterminacy also offers the possibility of post-structural and semiotic analysis.