Dozens is oral legacy rooted in survival

February 11, 1994|By Gregory Lewis | Gregory Lewis,San Francisco Examiner

"Your mother is so ugly," said Alonzo "Hamburger" Longhorn on a recent Uptown Comedy Club TV show, "when she moved into her new apartment, the neighbors chipped in to buy her curtains."

The lowdown, funky, nasty Dirty Dozens is back in vogue.

The dozens is a game of verbal combat, played mostly by black males on street corners. It is designed to teach participants to maintain control and keep cool under adverse circumstances.

"We played the dozens for recreation, like white folks play Scrabble," H. Rap Brown once said.

To quote Ice-T: "Your mother's arms are so hairy, when she walks down the street it looks like she has Buckwheat in a headlock."

Clarence Major, in "Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African American Slang," defines the Dirty Dozens as "a very elaborate verbal rhyming game traditionally played by black boys, in which the participants insult each other's relatives -- in 12 censures -- especially their mothers. The object of the game is to test emotional strength."

Tune into any comedy show that features black performers and you'll see mothers -- and other relatives -- being "dissed" (short for disrespected) and bashed like it's going out of style.

A new generation of comics and their adoring fans refer to the game as "snaps." Just as much of black culture ultimately becomes mainstream (rap music is a prime example), look for "mother jokes" to permeate movies, commercials, TV shows and every form of popular culture.

How mainstream? Consider: Two books on the subject are being published this month.

James Percelay, Monteria Ivery and Stephen Dweck, of 2 Brothers & A White Guy Inc., have written a book that will be in stores later this month titled, "Snaps: If Ugliness Were Bricks, Your Mother Would Be a Housing Project . . . And more than 450 Other Snaps, Caps and Insults for Playing the Dozens."

Mel Watkins' "On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying -- the Underground Tradition of African American Humor That Transformed American Culture, From Slavery to Richard Pryor" will be in stores later this week.

On the TV show, "In Living Color," the dozens are satirized in a game show in which the contestants spin a wheel and then must complete a phrase. For example, the arrow could land on "Your mama's so hairy . . ."

Remember this one from "White Men Can't Jump," the hit movie with Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson? "Your father is so poor, I saw him kicking a can down the street and I asked him, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'Moving.' "

But if you watch the late-night comedy shows on Black Entertainment Television (BET) or "Def Comedy Jam" on Home Box Office (HBO), you see similar cracks about mothers, other relatives and even members of the audience.

Sometimes the dozens involves rhymes, often misogynistic: George Carlin, in talking about growing up in New York and wanting to be cool like the black guys, played the dozens, but called it "slippin'."

"It was always 'your mother' and it was serious," Mr. Carlin said.

Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson, in their book, "Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America," wrote that playing the dozens prepares black men "for socio- economic problems they may later face and facilitates their search for masculinity, pride, status, social competence and expressive sexuality." However, there is some debate over whether playing the game is necessary today.

Ossie Guffy, in her 1971 autobiography, recounted her grandfather's lecture: He told her that the slaves played the dozens but that it wasn't for fun.

"They was playing to teach themselves and their sons how to stay alive," she wrote, quoting her grandfather. "The whole idea was to learn to take whatever the master said to you without answering back or hitting him 'cause that was the way a slave had to be, so's he could go on living. It maybe was a bad game, but it was necessary. It ain't necessary now."

However, as a ritualized verbal contest, the dozens (also known as mama talky, joning, capping, woffing or signifying) is part of the rich African oral tradition in which tribal history was passed along.

Although not known for sure, the origin of the dozens leads back to the days of slavery before 1865. Field slaves used the game instead of physical assault on higher-status house slaves. Field slaves would be lashed or deprived of food if they harmed house servants, who were generally light-skinned because they had a white parent.

Field slaves would vent, insulting the house servants' parents. If the insults worked, the vilification became even more lewd and vulgar. The name "dozens" might have derived from the notion that the opponent's mother was supposed to be one of dozens of women available to satisfy the sexual whims of her master.

From slavery onward, being able to take it has much virtue in black America.

"The dozens, capping, are forms of survival," said Cecil Brown, a professor at the University of California. "Being able to keep cool and not take insults personally are things that allow black people to be so effective."

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