Happy Birthday, Rudy Ray Moore!

Shepherd
March 21, 2022

Happy Birthday, Rudy Ray Moore!

The Creator of Dolemite
and
The Signifying Monkey

On March 17, we celebrate the birthday of Rudy Ray Moore, the pioneering Black filmmaker who in a seminal Blaxploitation film retold the traditional Signifying Monkey tale to a mostly Black audience, an audience who recognized, cheered on,, and eventually brought greatness to Dolemite, his groundbreaking made-on-a-shoestring film. The Signifying Monkey is the New World sidekick to the West African Trickster god Eshù[1]. In this excerpt from my new book, Tricking Power into Performing Acts of Love, I share the tale:

The Lion thinks that he’s the king of the jungle, but really, it’s the Elephant. The Monkey—a natty dresser in an esquire hat[2]—knows that he cannot beat the Lion, but the Elephant can. So he taunts the Lion. He convinces him that the Elephant’s been talking smack, low-rating him behind his back. The Lion falls for it. Angered, he goes after the Elephant and demands an apology. The Elephant refuses—after all, it was a lie—and trounces him nonstop—wham! wham! wham!—for TWO DAYS.

The Lion realizes he’s been conned by the Monkey. Bedraggled, broken, and defeated, he heads back, determined to give the Monkey a beating. But the Monkey’s climbed up high in a tree, out of the Lion’s reach. Still, the Lion can hear the Monkey signifyin(g), adding insult to injury, reveling in his little victory:

“Now the Lion come back more dead than alive,

That’s when the Monkey started some more of his old signifying.

He said, ‘King of the Jungle, ain’t you a bitch,

You look like someone with the seven-year itch.

When you left, the lightnin’ flashed and the bells rung.

You look like something been damn near hung.

Whup! Motherfucker, don’t you roar,

I’ll jump down on the ground and beat your funky ass some more.

While I’m swinging around in my tree,

I ought to swing over your chickenshit head and pee.

Everytime me and my old lady be tryin’ to get a little bit,

Here you come down through the jungle with that old ‘Hi Ho’ shit.’”[3]

But then the boasting Monkey gets a little careless, slips, and falls to the ground. The Lion’s got him! Like Bugs Bunny fake-pleading with Elmer Fudd, the Monkey begs for mercy and apologizes. The Lion’s not angry about the con or the beating he took from the Elephant—he’s furious that he got signified.

Monkey, I’m not kicking your ass for lyin’,

I’m kicking your hairy ass for signifyin’.[4]

Now this sample of signifyin(g) is full of insults and is associated with the origins of the street game Dozens, and it evokes the trickster-like boasting and trash talking…like Muhammad Ali, for example. But signifyin(g) is not merely trash talk, it’s a fully formed and complex means of discourse and trickster god-consciousness. It can be the ability to talk with great innuendo; to carp, cajole, needle, and lie; to talk around a subject, never quite coming to the point; to make fun of a person or situation; to speak with the hands and eyes; to employ the language of trickery; to be the Monkey (the signifier) or the Lion (the signified). Signifyin(g) even includes honoring the signified. Gates proposes the Signifying Monkey tale as the basis of African American literature, its Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, Epic of Gilgamesh; its Beowulf, or The Iliad and The Odyssey. As such, it plants the flag of an independent and unique literary origin . . . and it’s a trickster tale.

A partial list of the trickster’s signifyin(g) qualities includes “individuality, satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty, disruption and reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, closure and disclosure, encasement and rupture.”[5]

When John Coltrane takes a particularly sentimental and almost silly Broadway tune like “My Favorite Things” and turns it into a tour de force of celestial improvisation, that’s signifyin(g).[6] When Rudy Ray Moore as Dolemite retells the tale of the Signifying Monkey in his nightclub to an admiring audience, that’s signifyin(g). When Octavia Butler takes the racist raping of Black women and transmutes it into a science fiction playground where extraterrestrial species crossbreed with humans, that’s signifyin(g). When the gospel preacher’s rhythms find their way into a hip-hop dressing down, boast, or call to solidarity, that’s signifyin(g).

I have previously characterized Trickster as amoral, neither good nor evil. Gates, in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, improves on that, using the term “moral indeterminacy” to define Eshù Elégba.[7] He constructs his theory of African American literature as a meshing of oral and written text that continues that state, a state that creates more than it resolves the moral dilemmas.

In 2019, Eddie Murphy staged something of a comeback by portraying Rudy Ray Moore in the award-winning movie Dolemite is My Name. On Netflix, check it out. But to watch the original, what the New York Times called “…the Citizen Kane of kung fu pimping movies” see if you can’t locate Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite from 1975. And for a G-rated version of the tale, tune in to Oscar Brown Jr.s debut album Sin and Soul (1961), which features his sung version of The Signifying Monkey.

[1] He is called Esu-Elegbara in Nigeria and Legba among the Fon in Benin. His New World figurations include Exú in Brazil, Echu-Elegua in Cuba, Papa Legba (pronounced La-Bas) in the pantheon of the loa of Vaudou of Haiti, and PaPa LaBas in the loa of Hoodoo in the United States, i.e., New Orleans. Gates settles on Esu and Esu-Elegbara; Robert Farris Thompson and this author use Eshù or Eshù Elégba.

[2] This site has an image of how one artist renders Eshù Elégba as Papa Legba: https://www.rickjacobiart.com/portfolio-viewer?#lg=1&artworkId=2622888

[3] Bruce Jackson, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry from the Black Oral Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), 164-165.

[4] Bruce Jackson, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, 172.

[5] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, 7.

[6] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, 113.

 

 

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