The Signifying Crab

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Essay Excerpt

Domestic slavery in West Africa was practiced differently by different peoples in different historical periods, but it is well known that many domestic slaves married into their "masters' " families and inherited property. It was extremely impolite (and was illegal in some places) to even say that a person was a slave or had been born of slave parents. Through time, some slaves became relatively wealthy, and for all practical purposes their offspring were no different from those of nonslave parents. Today numerous Ewe, who inhabit portions of southeastern Ghana, southern Togo, and southwestern Benin, say that one or more of their great-grandparents was a "bought person." It is said that these ancestors were bought or captured from peoples living to the north of Eweland and that their Ewe masters professed an admiration for the beauty of the "people of the north," their music, their clothing, and their gods. Even so, or perhaps precisely because of this admiration, first-generation slaves, no matter how well they were treated, were not considered to be Ewe. This profound difference in identity is said to be bound up with language. Such extreme ambiguity in legendary relationships between Ewe and their "bought people" (slaves) is brought to the surface in a just-so "signifying crab" story (and here I am signifying on Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey [1988]). The story comes from Anlo country in Ghana's chunk of Eweland (581). 

Rosenthal, Judy. "The Signifying Crab." Cultural Anthropology 10.4(1995): 581–586.

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