The Signifying Monkey

by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Prevalence and Nature of the Trickster Figure

The Trickster was one of the major figures that appeared throughout the traditional tales of numerous African societies. Henry Louis Gates Jr. traces this figure throughout history, paying special attention to its appearance in the cultures that most directly influenced American culture. Among the Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria, the important figure known as Esu-Elegbara has numerous qualities in common with the Trickster as it appears in the New World in monkey form.

Among many unique qualities, the use of language is a distinguishing feature of the form of the Trickster that Gates identifies as the Signifying Monkey. For the Fon people of Benin, command of all languages is Esu’s privilege. Cleverness is often a crucial aspect: the Monkey operates from a lowly position to gain superiority by fooling his unsuspecting targets. Gates emphasizes the creative ways in which the Monkey utilizes language—and, therefore, intellect—rather than physical actions or force. In addressing ordinary language, or the vernacular, the author itemizes particular kinds of language use, such as repetitive patterning, that characterize African speech and oral tradition.

Connections between Traditional African Stories and African American Literature

Beyond paying specific attention to the Trickster, Gates explores a wide range of connections between traditional storytelling in numerous African cultures and the literary contributions of African American authors. Within this literature, he includes fiction, especially novels, and nonfiction, such as slave narratives. The significance and renown that African American authors have attained, Gates shows, are deeply indebted to African origins and bear witness to the creativity of authors—such as Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison—who expanded on those antecedents.

Among the language patterns that he explores, riddles and rhythm are especially important. The question-and-answer patterns, as well as the assumption of the questioner’s knowledge, are notable elements of the riddles. Gates also traces rhythmically patterned language through poetry into twentieth-century rap.

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