Signifying, in African American literary and cultural contexts, refers to a mode of verbal joust or play where a speaker covertly makes fun of, ridicules , undermines, outsmarts, or insults someone through clever wordplay or indirection. The term also refers to the practice of a writer referencing, and in the process reworking and remixing work, by another writer or groups of writers.
Rodgers, Geneva Smitherman, and others have written about the term
signifying; however, literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is
especially linked to the phrase because of his well-known work The Signifying Monkey. Among other observations, Gates persuasively argued that a distinguishing feature of African American literary and expressive culture were the extents to which black writers signified on or constantly referred to and reworked other black writers within a tradition.