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

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. | Go to book overview

6
On "The Blackness of Blackness":
Ishmael Reed and a Critique of the Sign

Amongst the Mandingoes there is a cant language, entirely unknown to the women, being only spoken by the men, and is seldom us'd by them in any other discourse than concerning a dreadful bugbear to the Women, call'd mumbo jumbo, which is what keeps the women in awe: And tho' they should chance to understand this language, yet were the men to know it, they would certainly murder them.

I was visited by mumbo jumbo, an idol, which is among the Mandingoes a kind of cunning mystery.

Frances Moore, Travels into the Inland Part of Africa, 1732

Be careful what you do,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Vachel Lindsay, "The Congo"


I. Talking Texts: The Signifyin(g) Revision

If Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God is a paradigmatic Signifyin(g) text because it figures Signifyin(g) both as theme and as rhetorical strategy, then Ishmael Reed Mumbo Jumbo is a Signifyin(g) text for still another reason. Mumbo Jumbo seems to be concerned to critique and to revise the modes of representation fundamental to the canonical texts that comprise the tradition of the Afro-American novel. Mumbo Jumbo attempts this critique by Signifyin(g), by repeating received tropes and narrative strategies with a difference. In Reed's differences lie an extended commentary on the history of the black novel. It is fair to say that The Signifying Monkey, as a theory of criticism and as the shape it has assumed in this

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