One of the biggest debates in the study of the African Diaspora (in general) and African Traditional Religions in the Diaspora (in particular) is the question of African retention. It refers to the extent to which one can find signs of Africa present in diasporic cultural formations. In fact if you do a web search for “African retentions,” you’ll likely find how this conversation takes shape in relation to a variety of spaces and genres of cultural production.

The implications of the debate are many. How violent was and is colonialism, is of course one that comes up. Was the devastation so though that “Africa” was deleted from the memories, capacities and faculties of its descendants? We also should ask what constitutes “Africa” and “African”? When does “retention” give way to “adaptation” and “innovation”?

Tricking the Authorities
B. “Tricking the Authorities.” Flickr, Wooden door panels by Ar’owogun of Osi, Yoruba people, Nigeria, early 20th century

For our lab, we are going to address these questions by using a double signifying chart. So where we once had a single horizontal line of confessional signification, we’ll now have two. We’ll apply our critical observations to both and compare our insights. And after doing so we’ll return to the questions above (our critical significance).

For our two case studies, we will compare Eshu Elegba and the Signifying Monkey–inquiring whether they are the same.

Case Study 1: Eshu Elegba


I’d like you to examine the Yoruba orisha known as Eshu Elegba among other things. Historicize the Yoruba peoples as noted in Gomez (p. 73) along with their relationship to other peoples in the Bight of Benin and the diaspora. Enrich your observations and analysis with the following sources:

Eshu Encyclopedia Britannica

Eshu Elegba Figure, Denver Art Museum

B.”Tricking the Authorities.” Flickr,

Gomez, p.73

Case Study 2: Signifying Monkey

Familiarize yourself with the African American folktale of the Signifying Monkey (looking at the piece by Weems and Hammond below). This story appears in a variety of forms, but we’ll be focusing primarily on the performance by the character Dolemite, whom you should read about first before watching the video. *Note that this performance includes some colorful language.

Carrie Mae Weems, “Folklore and the Signifying Monkey”

Lyrics to “The Signifying Monkey,” Doug Hammond (2016)

Dolemite Wikipedia

There’s much to notice, but do take know of Dolemite’s performance as an interesting example of origins being a projection back to the past rather than a derivation of it.

As you think through the critical significance of your analysis, I’d like you to consider those questions at the top of the page.