Struggling Black culture is primarily oral rather than written and great emphasis is placed on verbal facility. Whereas the "Dozens" is a ritualized game of obscene verbal insults usually about the opponents mother or grandmother, its word origin is uncertain. One theory says it came from the slave auctioneer’s practice of grouping the sick, the infirm (weak, feeble), and the elderly into lots of twelve -- the “dirty dozen” Slaves who Whites considered “wretched” and inferior to healthy Slaves. A second is that field Slaves threw verbal barbs (cutting remarks) at house Slaves (who had more status and privileges and bore most of the master’s children). A third says the “Dozens” refers to a throw of 12 in craps (twelve being a difficult number to match) or an unlucky throw. A fourth is that it came from the Americanism “bulldoze” (“to bull whip someone,” especially a Slave). Thus, “to throw off on” an insult was likened to whip lashes. “The Dozens” (a plural noun used with a singular verb) is deeply rooted in Black (urban) American culture and refers to talking in a derogatory way about an adversary’s relatives. The game, almost always played by teenage males of inner cities, is known by such names as “Sounding”, “Woofing”, “Capping,” “the Blues of Comedy,” and “Signifying (hurling a direct insult at the opponent). Since these are basic elements of “the talk” on "the Streets", some say the “Dozens” was one of the ancestors of Rap music. An audience is essential for the duel to start—by “Agitating” (“are you going to let him get away with that?”)--as well as to prevent a fight.
“Playing the Dozens” is a display of great mental creative improvisation (“top-of-the-head” wit). The game begins when one youth “sounds” another to see if he will play. This is done by insulting the opponent’s family, particularly the mother. The victim may refuse to duel and if so he makes a “response” to the “call.”
A typical response of refusal when I was a boy was: “I laugh and talk but I don’t play with children.”
However, if he accepts the challenge he will respond with a clever slur against the challenger or the challenger’s family. Because the insults are often between friends and are usually funny, it is hard not to laugh. In fact, the louder the crowd laughs, the more energy is put into the duel. Examples: “Your mama is so dumb that she sold her car to get gas money.” Or, “Your mama is so dumb she thinks a quarterback is a tax refund.” Some are quite irreverent, indecent, obscene, and “gross.” A verbal “ping-pong” back and forth attack continues as a duel that is full of puns and rhymes as well as styled in a rhythmic form. The game ends when everyone becomes bored; or until some other interesting thing arises; or until one of the opponents becomes angry enough to start a fight—which is extremely rare (Farb, Wordplay, 122). The one who gets upset loses this contest.
Otherwise, the degree of laughter determines the winner.
Some say this is “sick” humor because a person is made fun of--but its societal acceptance makes it "normal."
To maintain mental balance requires a “thick skin” (an insensitivity to insults or criticisms). Studies need to be done to determine if such contests have a decreasing emotional sensitivity and/or a frustration relieving affect. Some believe the reason for the “Dozens” came from a “ubiquitous hatred of the White man” during and following African American slavery and a resultant problem of Black males handling their aggressive impulses since it was not in their best interest to attack White male mobs. Thus, continues the argument, the “Dozens” became a way for the participants to relieve their aggressive impulses or at least use it as a preparation for controlling such impulses. By learning to control his natural urge to protect his mother and learning to react to insults with wit instead of fists, the Black boys acquirex grace under pressure (Day, Sexual Life Between Blacks and Whites, p327). Ref: Bailey, Word Stories Surrounding African American Slavery.
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