Updated: Jul 21, 2020
I spent several hours last week interviewing 89-year-old Roy King, a lifelong resident of Evanston's 5th ward, his sister Harriet, his son Bruce Allen King, and Lonnie Wilson, about Black life in Evanston before and right after integration.
Here's an excerpt from that interview where I learn a new word, a concept I'd never heard of before: Signifying (or Signifyin').
We were talking about Foster School, which was located at 2010 Dewey in the 5th ward, where Roy King and his sister went to school before Evanston schools were integrated. The building now houses Family Focus Evanston, which is in danger of being sold, and which has enormous historical significance to Evanston's Black community.
Bruce introduced the subject by telling me that Foster School was a center for Signifying.
Here's more ...
BK: All of the people who came through there [Foster School], and despite the odds, came out way better than they would have under different circumstances. Because ... something we take for granted: Signifying.
DE: What do you mean, "signifying?"
BK: This is a very, very, very Black thing. Signifying is ... calling someone out on a particular thing. It can be anything. But calling them out in a way that causes them to pause. They’re either hurt or they’re spurred on to do greater. It was one of our greatest tools and very much a coping mechanism to lift up those who are ready to walk and put down those who are too arrogant to do anything once they’re up.
LW: Say for instance I don’t shave and my hair is scruffy. Friends of mine would point that out in a large setting. One, to make me understand that I was not at my best; two, to see if I had the substance to withstand this …
BK: Exactly. Either you were gonna grow or you were gonna go. And this man (points to his dad, Roy) was the architect of Signifying. Foster School was known for Signifying. Signfiying was as much part of life as breathing. You were checked at every turn. By your peers. By your brothers by your peers by the people down the street. Oh my, my!
RK: And if the people down the street didn’t know you, or the people around who you were Signifying in front of if they didn’t know you…
BK: … It would be lost on them. When I say it was a Black thing, it was done because we had no other way to be lifted up. We had no other way to get correction. We had no other way to be encouraged. We were "the other."
LW: And we were also the lowest on the totem pole.
BK: We were not considered at all. I mean, in the whole scheme of things, we were necessary for the wealth and wellbeing. But we were tools. And he (Roy) was a real hand-tool. But he was a craftsman.
After learning about Signifying last week, I spent some time Googling. I learned (from Wikipedia and the New York Times) that the term comes from the "Signifying Monkey," a character of African-American folklore that derives from a trickster figure of Yoruba mythology. This character was transported with African slaves to the Americas.
Numerous songs and narratives concern the signifying monkey and his interactions with his friends, the Lion and the Elephant. In general, the stories depict the signifying monkey insulting the Lion, but claiming that he is only repeating the Elephant's words. The Lion then confronts the Elephant, who physically assaults the Lion. The Lion later realizes that the Monkey has been signifyin(g) and has duped him and returns angrily to castrate monkey, rendering him unable to reproduce.
In 1988, Henry Louis Gates wrote a book called The Signifying Monkey A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism in which he discusses the origins of Signifying.
Many Black musicians have covered the song, "Signifyin' Monkey." Two famous versions are by Rudy Ray Moore and Oscar Brown, Jr.
There are a various lyrics to this song. Here's Oscar Brown's "clean" version. Read the lyrics sung by Rudy Ray Moore.
You can hear Oscar Brown, Jr. sing it, too.
LYRICS: SIGNIFYIN' MONKEY (by Oscar Brown, Jr.)
Said the signifyin' monkey to the lion one day: "Hey, there's a great big elephant down the way Goin' 'round talkin' ,I am sorry to say, About your momma in a scandalous way.
He's talkin' 'bout your momma and your grandma, too And he don't show so much respect for you. You want to chat? I sure am glad. 'Cause what he said about your momma, it made me mad".
Chorus: Signifyin' Monkey, stay up in your tree. You are always lyin' and signifyin' But you better not monkey with me.
The lion said "Yeah well, I'll fix him. I'll tear that elephant limb from limb.
Then he shook the jungle with a mighty roar and took off like a shot out of a 44.+ He found the elephant where the tall grass grows Said "I come to punch you in your long nose."
The elephant looked over at the lion in surprise Said, "Boy you better go pick on somebody your own size." But the lion wouldn't listen, he made a pass. Then the elephant slapped him down in the grass.
The lion just roared and sprung from the ground. And that's when the elephant really went to town. He whipped that lion for the rest of the day And I still don't see how the lion got away.
But he dragged on off, more dead than alive. And that's when that monkey started his signifyin' jive.
The monkey looked down and said "Ooo-whee! What is that beat up mess I see?
Is that you lion? Well do tell. He beat your head to a fare-thee-well. He gave you a beatin' that was a run for nothin'. And you s'posed to be king of the jungle? Well ain't that somethin'.
You big overgrown pussycat, don't you roar Or I'll hop down there and whup you some more." The monkey got to laughin' and a-jumpn' up and down But his foot missed the limb, and he plunged to the ground.
The lion was on him with all four feet - Gonna grind that monkey into hamburger meat. The monkey looked up with tears in his eyes Said "Please Mr. Lion, I apologize.
I meant no harm, so please let me go And I'll tell you somethin' you really need to know."
Well the lion stepped back to hear what that monkey had to say And the monkey scampered up a tree and got away
What I want to tell you, the monkey hollered then "If you fool with me I'll sic the elephant on you again." The lion just shook his head and said "You jive. If you and your monkey children want to stay alive
Up in them trees is where you better stay." And that's where they are till this very day.