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Permissible Disrespect Among Black Dudes

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In my seven stages of Offensive Language Duelers (Bailey, Self- Esteem), Stage V is “one-upmanship” or “gamesmanship” usage of foul language whereby skill and style are the wedges for gaining an advantage over ones verbal opponent.

Such “gamesmanship” is the major purpose of Verbal Dueling, for the winner acquires great respect from the audience of his peers. "The Big Three" groups of acceptable or permissible forms of Verbal Dueling-- the concrete, the partial boundaries, and the unbounded--are forms of recreation, humor, and fun for their participants. Yet, there is no general acceptance related to terminology.

Many prefer the term "Dozens" to "Sounding" because it is the oldest name known. Others are partial to "Ritualized Insults" (Labov, Lanuage, p306). I use the canopy term "Verbal Dueling" because that is what all of these entities are about. Whatever general term is used--most often Sounding and the "Dozens"--these verbal insults consist of symmetrical joking relationships in which two or more people are free to engage in direct insults, "sounds," or indirect insults (signifying) to each other and to each other's Ancestors and relatives.

“Toasting” or “the Dozens” (some consider them separate and some say they are synonymous) are games in which two people try to “out do” one another in heaping insults. Whereas the Dozens spotlights the opponent's mother, Toasting can bring into prominence each other’s parents and ancestry, economic prospects, or physical appearance. Although the object is to get the opponent to “cross the line” into anger, it remains only a game.

These forms of Verbal Dueling are said to be rooted in the mythic African folklore figure of “Esu,” the trickster who is known for building upon the concept of amusing and clever verbal traps. "Signifying" (to “make or give a sign”) is a Black expression for trying to make a big impression on others, as a pretentious person might to do. To say (or do) one thing as a sign that means something else, with the full knowledge that ones audience will make the connection, is an old African practice. American "Signifying" began during slavery when the Slaves defiantly spoke in allegory or in code (saying one thing but meaning another) when communicating within the hearing distance of Whites. Slaves singing: “Steal Away to Jesus” meant one thing to Whites but to fellow Slaves it was a call to a secret meeting. Signifying continued in post-slavery chain gangs and in Black's inner cities. Both significantly contributed to the formation of Rap. In each instance Blacks have obscured their message so that Whites either have no idea of what is being said or are misled into a wrong direction. Meanwhile, Signifying served as a form of recreation in the sense that it described contests in which the adv ersaries showered v erbal abuse upon themselves. By contrast, most other forms consist of attacks on the opponent.

The sameness in form, content, and rules of "The Big Three" can be seen in (near) Verbal Dueling as: “play ing the Dozens,” Jiving, Rifting, Louding, Toasting, Sounding (New York), “Woofing” (Oakland, California and in Philadelphia), “Joning” (Washington DC), “Signify ing” (Chicago); in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; "Screaming"; and, on the West Coast -- “Cutting,” “Capping,” or “Chopping.” Each area has its own specialization and twists on meanings (Farb, Wordplay p122, 182). Nevertheless, expertise in verbal dueling was-- among the Slaves and continues to be among today’s struggling Black youth-- recognized on the basis of verbal facility, originality, ingenuity, and humor. The absence of violence is based on the recognition that the participants are engaged in a structure of speaking (Levine p348). Yet, these "acceptable" or "permissible" forms of Disrespect are to be used only by members of struggling Black Americans and would generate great anger if used by Europeans or even Black people on different rungs of the social ladder.

Ref: Bailey, Word Stories Originated by Ancient Africans; Bailey, Word Stories Surrounding African American Slavery.


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