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Signifying Monkeys, Donald Trump, and Trickster Gods

Signifying Monkeys, Donald Trump, and Trickster Gods
Copyright©2017 by Wilson J. Moses

I was just an ignorant black boy on Detroit’s East Side, when I got to know the real life counterpart of the Signifying Monkey, an expert at playing the dozens, the master of “lyin’and signifyin.” Leotis Stubbs is not his real name. I am not going to reveal his real name, because he may still be alive, and if he is, Leotis is still dangerous. But to say that someone is dangerous is not to say that he is invariably in a position to inflict cosmic harm.   There are many priests pimps and politicians like Leotis bobbing in the sea of humanity. Once in a while one of them, like an Idi Amin or an Adolph Hitler may obtain power, and then everyone is surprised to learn that some apparent buffoon, some person completely lacking in gravitas and decorum, is able to con the people, and put his evil schemes into effect.  Leotis had a genius for presenting “alternative facts;” he simply was not born with the racial and economic advantages that Donald Trump enjoyed.

Leotis quit school at sixteen, but he was smarter than most of the kids I knew, whether white or black.   Although in my circles on Detroit’s East side, almost none of the boys—white of black— went on to college. I might add that three of the black boys in my neighborhood did graduate from Harvard Law School, but that is another story for another time.   Unlike me, those destined for Harvard Law did not spend much time roaming the streets with the likes of Leotis Stubbs, which I did at the age of thirteen—when I wasn’t reading Dante or listening to Mozart.   The nuns who had me singing litanies to the sancta Dei genetrix in Catholic school did not believe that a person like Leotis could exist, and certainly not that he could be a genius. But the con man is always a genius. That is something my parents wanted me to know, and that was why they gave me the freedom (and even forced me) to roam the streets—from Rouge River to the frontiers of Grosse point; from Canadian side of Belle Isle to Six Mile Road. I covered it all on foot or on my bicycle. But I digress!

Elijah Muhammad dealt with the malicious and chaos inflicting personality in his myth of Yakub. The folklore of African Americans dealt with him as the Signifying Monkey. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, he is the character of Rinehart (Reynard). Many people foolishly or naively deny the very existence of a demonic figure like Yakub, the person of extraordinary genius with an evil heart. But such an Evil Monkey currently resides in the White House.

The Signifying Monkey is not to be confused with Brer Rabbit (or Anansi) for the following reason. He represents a far different manifestation of the trickster. Brer Rabbit is a “survivor,” who uses his wits to get the better of powerful enemies, who wish him ill. Signifying Monkey is a malicious imp, who uses his wits to harm others, due only to his evil nature. Brer Rabbit acts defensively when he is assaulted. Signifying Monkey initiates sadism without provocation.

At this point I must address the concept of the “Trickster God,” who outsmarts himself, as in Ben Johnson’s Renaissance drama, The Devil is an Ass. Prometheus of the Greeks, and Loki of the Germans, and Eshu Elegbara of the Yoruba, and Coyote of the American Indians are among the universal manifestations of the Trickster God or Demigod, and it is important to note that the Trickster God can have both benevolent and vicious personae.   So too does Signifying Monkey in his various appearances assume many faces.

Skip Gates and Rudy Ray Moore, by reducing the myth of Signifying Monkey only to the dimension that resembles the sympathetic figure of Brer Rabbit (Anansi) and ignoring his more maleficent manifestations, cognates of Mephistopheles and Yakub, have robbed the myth of its variegated and important dimensions.

Skip and Rudy view the Signifying Monkey as a “survivor” who resists of the Lion’s abuse of power inequality, using his wits to maneuver the Lion into a confrontation with the Elephant in which the Elephant becomes the Monkey’s unwitting tool of retribution, by battering and humiliating the Lion.   Thus the Monkey becomes the hero of a tale in which the clever victim gains agency through the use of his brains.

In an older, and almost forgotten version of the myth, the Monkey is simply a person with an evil heart who takes sadistic delight in stirring up trouble between the Lion and the Elephant and whose only investment in the outcome is that one or the other will be defeated and humiliated. — As a footnote, I shall also remark that in the wild, a lone elephant is fairly defenseless against the adult male lion, because male lions will usually attack elephants in sibling pairs, and never frontally. In the normal course of things, a zebra can be more dangerous to a lion than an elephant is, but the African American mythology is not based on any factual knowledge of African zoology.

Just as in Greek mythology, Prometheus prefigures both a Satanic destructive force and a Christlike tutelary force, so too in African American folklore Signifying Monkey can sometimes manifest himself be a diabolical chaotic force, and sometimes as an equalizer, who symbolizes retribution, redemption and equilibrium—“preserver and destroyer.”

Donald Trump is no less a Signifying Monkey than Leotis Stubbs.   He is a con man, a trickster god, with a destructive genius. To opposing elements in society he may represent either the chaotic/destructive forces or the redemptive/restorative forces in the universe.   To me he is a demonic figure, like Yakub, but to many he represents a different component of the demonic. He is an avenging angel, a populist force of justice and retribution.   The signifying monkey may be banished to the treetops, or he can symbolically descend from the branches, and he can also symbolically rise from the roots. To some he can symbolize a force that defies the “establishment,” and at the same time be a manifestation of the power of an “alternative establishment,” that infuses chaos and pathology into the sap of the grass roots.

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