A Relation of Difference: The Politics of Black “Signification”

Louis Gates, Jr’s examination of the “the tropes of tropes” in Afro-American literature is a pioneering account of the vicissitudes of a movement of difference. As a critical response to The Signifying Monkey, the essay would seek to reveal the idiosyncrasies of Gates’ literary criticism with relations to the idiosyncrasies of black literary tradition of difference.

The Discreteness of Black Difference

The second chapter of Louis Gates, Jr.’s famous book The Signifying Monkey has a wonderful analysis of the rhetoric system and Afro-American signification traditions.

The black concept of signifying, quite differently from the standard English, is inherently difficult to comprehend as it (re)doubles itself at every attempt of closer examination. Gates (1988) forcefully argues that parallel to the “classic confrontation between Afro-American culture and American culture, there is a political and metaphysical, “relationship that black “Signification” bears to the English “signification” is, paradoxically, a relation of difference inscribed within a relation of identity” (p.45).

It is important to note the organic relations black literary traditions have with the identity of blacks, which are again (re)constructed through these traditions themselves. The discreteness of Black difference emerges from its status of being parallel to the white American literary universe.

Intertextuality is also a discrete feature of the Afro-American literature as “each poem refers to other poems of the same genre” (Gates, 1988, p.60). Here, the repetition and revision of structural elements are something common and shared.

It must bee seen as a narrative technique for emphasizing the common signifier which is a de facto priority for the community. Therefore, Gates asserts that “value, in this art of poeisis, lies in foregrounding rather than in the invention of a novel signified” (p.61). Needless to say, the common signified in black literature as a shared meaning is diametrically opposite to the white American idea of new signified as authentic.

Moreover, it is possible to argue that the Black English itself is a different language and the blacks do not speak the same language of the whites. For Gates, the language of blackness encodes and names its sense of independence through a rhetorical process that we might think of as the Signfyin(g) black difference. For Blacks, language and its discreetness is a question of (re)inventing themselves as creative, as opposed to the white imposed idea of being imitative.

In addition, for blacks, a new language with their own jargons is a tool for ultimately defining themselves.  The black life is more about the living poetry in the streets than the taught poetry in the class rooms.  The question of black Signifying is a question of another way of life that is not centered on the literary paradigms of white male Europeans.

The assertion of the politics black difference by Gates is not an attempt at molding a difference for a new zone of engagement. But, it is the simple assertion of what really exist as the difference of both living and creating since slavery as “black people have been Signifyin(g), without explicitly calling it that” (Gate, 1988, p.67).

As it is in the white language, black Signification is not merely a form of indirect signification; on the contrary, it is a way of identifying with one’s true identity. Most importantly, Black Signification is a complex rhetorical device that is heterogeneous and multiple.


The Signification in black literature is closely related to the discreteness of their way of life. The Black Signifyin(g) is closely linked to the identity and collective belongingness of the blacks. The Significations stands not with its meaning, but with its utterance itself.


Gates, H. L, Jr. (1988). The Signifying Monkey: a Theory of Afro-American

Literary Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 44-89