The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. | Go to book overview
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1
A Myth of Origins:
Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey

Esu, do not undo me,
Do not falsify the words of my mouth,
Do not misguide the movements of my feet,
You who translates yesterday's words
Into novel utterances,
Do not undo me,
I bear you sacrifice.

Traditional Oriki Esu1

Ah yes!
Edju played many tricks
Edju made kindred people go to war;
Edju pawned the moon and carried off the sun:
Edju made the Gods strive against themselves.
But Edju is not evil.
He brought us the best there is;
He gave us the Ifa oracle;
He brought the sun.
But for Edju, the fields would be barren.

Traditional Oriki Esu2

through Harlem smoke of beer and whiskey, I
understand the mystery of the signifying monkey
in a blue haze of inspiration, I reach to the
totality of Being.

Larry Neal, "Malcolm X-An Autobiography"3


I

The black Africans who survived the dreaded "Middle Passage" from the west coast of Africa to the New World did not sail alone. Violently and radically abstracted from their civilizations, these Africans nevertheless carried within them to the Western hemisphere aspects of their cultures that were meaningful, that could not be obliterated, and that they chose, by acts

-3-

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