Roxanne Rhode explores the concept of Signifyin(g) in Do the Right Thing.
Spike Lee is one of the most prolific film directors to have come from Hollywood in the last 4 decades. A true artist, who uses his art as a vehicle of expression, Lee’s films highlights social issues that affect the African American community and confronts audience member’s about their own prejudices. Do the Right Thing (1989) is just one of these films that makes use of the linguistic trickery of Signifyin(g) to expose the double consciousness felt by African Americans. It uncomfortably explains this sense of ‘outsider’ to a white audience and calls for black audiences to relate to the themes of the film. This essay will firstly try to explain the term Signifyin(g) and its origins and will then discuss Lee’s Do the Right Thing in relation to this ‘double-ness’.
The Signifyin(g) Monkey is an African folktale passed on through the generations of African Americans (Gates H, 1988). It tells of how the monkey uses his linguistic talents to deceive the Lion into thinking that the Elephant claimed to have undermined his power and vice versa. Although he is confronted in the end, the Monkey shows that the real King of the Jungle doesn’t need to have brutish force but intelligence in order to rule. However, this explanation doesn’t do the story justice. One should look at this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Voxp3ckwJZ0) of Dolemite’s rendition of the folk tale. Dolemite, of course being one of the famous characters to have come out of the blaxploitation era of the 1970s and 1980s which ironically is one of the stereotypes that Lee opposes in his work. (But do look at this video from Doug Hammond which is a more clear description of the poem (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJAusfEalfo).
This Monkey has become a representation of Signifyin(g) in African American culture. Just as the Monkey is known as a trickster so does the rhetoric make use of different techniques to escape and exclude those outside of the culture. Signifyin(g) is essentially a double coded language created and used by peoples who share the same cultural background and present hardships. According to Gates, Signifyin(g) is a specific “vernacular strategy” that makes use of repetition, revision, innuendos, hyperboles and all kinds of language games to convey two meanings (1998). The double coding comes in the two meanings of the same saying. For example in Langston Hughes’s poem Cultural Exchange:
And they asked me right at Christmas
If my blackness, would it rub off?
I said, ask your Mama.
In Standard English not affected by the MTV generation, this passage would read literally as that the child should ask his mother for more information about Hughes’s skin condition. However, if one we’re able to understand the rhetoric of Signifyin(g), we would know that Hughes is insulting the child and his mother with much vulgarity.
This use of language is not just restricted to literature and as a mode of communication. Signifyin(g) has been used in the guitar chords of the Blues Genre and the words uttered by Hip Hop MCs. Signifyin(g) has also been used in fine arts such as the collages from Romare Bearden that makes use of cut-outs to signify the double consciousness and the fragmented identity of the African American (Glazer L, 1994). We can see here that the African American culture is rich in its heritage and it’s passing along of traditions throughout the years. The tradition continues with Lee’s Do the Right Thing which uses Signification to expose the theme of doubles that affect the lives of African Americans.
Du Bois puts it as “… two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body” which “is an effect of the contradictory positioning of African American culture within the dominant social order of “white Americanism” (McKelly C, 1998: 215). The African American has two identities, One which is determined by herself. The other identity has been constructed by his colonial masters – the identity that is formed by the hegemony’s control of societal thinking. There is someone who she wants to be but is trapped by the other’s interpellation of her. Because of this double consciousness the African American leads a double life which he believes may “tempt their mind to pretence or revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism” (McKelly C, 1998: 216).
A shining example of this duality is the lead character Mookie in Do The Right Thing. On one side of the coin Mookie is a good kid working for Sal who will always seem like a son to him. Yet Mookie is also a father and husband, although not father of the year, he still plays a patriarchal role in someone’s life. Mookie’s one identity is defined by the ruling society as just another cog in the system having to please the hegemony in order to get a pay cheque. The other is defined by himself and also his community, that of a father. This example sets the precedent for the rest of the film’s theme of duality.
Duality is a characteristic of Signifyin(g). Words and phrases have double meanings. They can be interpreted differently depending on which side of the race coin one finds themselves on. The character of Mister Senor Love Daddy makes use of this use of language on his radio station, a very fitting medium to broadcast his thoughts. The most fitting quote from him to analyse is his first few lines:
Wake Up! Wake Up! Up ya Wake! Up ya Wake! Up ya Wake…
Here I am. Am I here?
Y’know it. It ya know.
His lines here don’t only call his listeners to wake up in the morning but to wake up in terms of facing their social predicaments. Lee sought to have this film made after School Daze (1988) which ended off in the surrealistic gathering of the students in the college quad who call for the audience to “Wake Up!” It’s a continuation of the theme that he is calling for his people to become alert of the issues that affect them and their community. He is calling for them to take control of their predicaments faced as a community and attempt to solve them.
In the second and third line Senor Love Daddy playfully asks his audience if he is really there and that they should know by now that he is. However, those lines could also mean to ask if he is really there and supportive of the community. Not only in this first monologue but throughout the film he uses his words to describe the climatic heat in the city and the sociological tension that is heating up between the different cultures of the city. This use of language reflects the “two-ness” of the African American culture.
Whoa. Y'all take a chill. You got to cool that shit off. And that's the double-truth, Ruth
Another quote from Mister Senor Love Daddy who says this after four characters, each representing a different race confronts the audience with their own prejudices. We can assume that what Senor Love Daddy said was not necessarily in response to what the characters have said but was part of another monologue he may have given on his radio station. Here he could be commenting, once again, on both the climatic heat and the obvious tension between the different cultures. Senor Love Daddy uses Signification to get the message across to his people who share his culture and who he shares current hardships with.
Lee makes use of the narrative and characters to appeal to the African American community with a story about a neighbourhood’s tensions yet also conveys a deeper meaning to them. He may try to convey the message of thinking before acting. He is not only telling his characters to do the right thing but also his audience. As a whole we see that the film itself is an example of Signification as it has many double meanings and can be understood by Lee’s people. Even according Lee, “only white people” have asked him if Mookie did the right thing (DVD, Director’s commentary). This goes to show that perhaps the meaning of the film is exclusionary of other cultures and is something that only African Americans would understand.
This essay has told the story of the Signifyin(g) Monkey and how it is relevant to African American culture. It has shown that Signifyin(g) can be a communicative representation of the double consciousness felt by the culture. Spike Lee’s attention to detail and knowledge of his own culture has made him one of the most prolific directors of his time. He has used this linguistic trickery indigenous to his culture to relate to his people and also convey the message of his film for his people to Do the Right Thing.
- Gates, Henry Louis Jr (1988) “The Signifying Monkey and the Languae of Signifyin(g): Rhetorical Difference and the Orders of Meaning” in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York Toronto. Pgs 44 – 88.
- Glazer, Lee Stephens (1994) “Art and Race in Romare Bearden’s Projections” in The Art Bulletin vol 76. No 3. College Art Association pgs 411 – 426.
- Lee, Spike (1989) “Do The Right Thing” 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks.
- Lee, Spike (1988) “School Daze” 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks.
- McKelly, James C. (1998) “The Double Truth, Ruth: Do the Right Thing and the Culture of Ambiguity” in African American Review, Vol 32. No 2. Indiana State University Press. Pgs 215 – 218.
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Voxp3ckwJZ0 Dolemite’s rendition of the Signifying Monkey, accessed 19-08-2011
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJAusfEalfo Doug Hammond’s rendition of the Signifying Money, accessed 19-08-2011
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nltkickf | 28/08/2011, 03:40