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Signifyin' Hagar's Daughter

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Signifyin' Hagar's Daughter

SIGNIFYIN’ HAGAR’S DAUGHTER

Frankie Bailey, in her introduction to Out of the Woodpile, notes that the detectives in early classic crime fiction were almost invariably white because:

[T]he hero or heroine must be able to probe into the lives of the people involved in the criminal event. For an author to suggest that a black might be allowed to engage in this type of activity in a white community in which psychological and physical boundaries restricted black movement was ludicrous. (xii)

Bailey refers here to the perceptions of the White crime fiction community, of course. Classical crime fiction writers inserted their detective characters into the (generally upper/middle class) suspects’ lives almost exclusively through the front door. A man of independent means like Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin, or a University man like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes, or a genteel little old lady like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, or an aristocrat like Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, could gain the entrйe into almost any house in the country (members of the working classes being only too happy to see such exalted persons in their homes, of course). Such writers as Poe, Doyle, Christie, and Sayers considered themselves “ladies” and “gentlemen,” and wrote primarily of “ladies” and “gentlemen,” for “ladies” and “gentlemen,” with lower-class and non-White characters marginalized, stereotyped, and often exaggerated to amuse their target audiences.

The later, “hard-boiled” detectives (almost exclusively male as well as White), like Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade, could either bully their way into the crime arena, or get hired by rich and gorgeous sex objects who provided the entrйe.

Black crime fiction writers, beginning with Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (in Hagar’s Daughter, the first Black-written detective story), often solve the problem of universal access to suspects’ lives through the kitchen door. Their Black detectives disguise themselves, usually as servants, thus rendering themselves practically invisible. Hopkins dresses her detective, Venus Johnson, as a boy, who makes “himself” useful around the ruinous plantation community by running errands, looking after the [also disguised] “grandfather,” and doing odd jobs. Venus thus is able to scout out the suspicious plantation, locate the abducted heroine Jewel Bowen, engineer a way into the house, and effect a rescue with the help of the “grandfather.” The rather grand white detective who engages her services remains in the background, incapable of spying out the kidnappers undetected. His purpose in the story is not to solve the mystery, but to reveal himself as the long-lost husband in the end.

This principle of invisibility-in-plain-sight, enabling the Black detective to move freely about the crime arena, echoes Henry Louis Gates’s ideas of Signifyin’ (Gates capitalizes the word and adds the ‘g’ in parentheses to indicate the Black rhetorical strategy; however, according to him, it is pronounced “Signifyin’”):

The mastery of Signifyin(g) . . . allow[s] the black person to move freely between two discursive universes. This is an excellent example of what I call linguistic masking, the verbal sign of the mask of blackness that demarcates the boundary between the white linguistic realm and the black, two domains that exist side by side in a homonymic relation signified by the very concept of Signification. To learn to manipulate language in such a way as to facilitate the smooth navigation between these two realms has been the challenge of black parenthood, and remains so even today. (75)

Some of Hopkins’s unmixed Black characters (as opposed to those of mixed parentage who pass as White) are experts at this sort of navigation. When Venus approaches Henson, the famous White detective, to offer him help in finding Jewel (and her own grandmother), she is poised and self-possessed, and uses standard English to introduce herself:

“I’m Miss Jewel Bowen’s maid,” she declared abruptly. . . .

“Who sent you here?”

“Nobody. I keep my business to myself. Things are too curious around Wash’nton these days to be talking too much.” (224)

As she gets lost in worry for her missing grandmother, however, Venus lapses into dialect:

Venus forgot her education in her earnestness, and fell into the Negro vernacular, talking and crying at the same time.

“It’s hard for me to go back on my own daddy,” the girl continued, “but it’s got to be done. I suspicion him more and more every minute I’m alive, I do. . . . Pore

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