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It's an Art Form, Talking 'Bout Your Mama

Readers that aren’t easily offended will find themselves laughing and cringing at what is surely the raunchiest history book in years.

Talking 'Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 264 pages
Author: Elijah Wald
Price: $17.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-01

What is the dozens? This question is the subject of Elijah Wald’s fascinating book Talking ‘Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap. As the telling progresses, we learn that the dozens is at once incredibly simple and extremely complicated. On the one hand, it's an insult contest between two people, usually African American men, in which hilarious “yo’ mama” jokes are hurled until someone is rendered speechless. On the other hand, it is a cornerstone of African American culture and tradition, and traces of its art form can be found in jazz improvisation and gangsta rap. People have different opinions about the dozens, and in light of these diverging viewpoints, Wald’s primary goal is to make a case for the game’s importance in the history of African American culture.

Like any successful educational text, Wald’s writing is clear and accessible. Rather than write for those that already know about the dozens, he addresses a general audience of curious intellectuals. His prose is void of pedantic jargon, and with the exception of one chapter that focuses on the etymology of the term “the dozens”, the history presented here should appeal to the average reader. Wald goes in-depth to tell us what the dozens is, where and when it originated, why it was practiced, how the game was played, who participated, and what the overall significance is. I find it hard to believe that a better and more definitive text about this subject will come along.

A number of historians believe that the dozens dates back to the 19th century, but according to Wald, “there is no solid evidence of an insult game, rhyme, or song being called the dozens before the 1910s.” (19) Nevertheless, the history that Wald does trace, from the “deep roots” in Africa to the vaudeville stage, from country to jazz, from African American writers and poets of the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary street poets turned professional rappers, is exceptional. There is a lot of interesting information, here, and given the subject matter, much of it is hilarious and outrageous.

Throughout, Wald includes examples of the dozens, with lines like, “Adam named everything they put in the zoo/ I’d like Adam to be here, see what in the hell he’d name you.” (25) Others are less clever and more crude, such as, “Said, look out bitch, you make me mad/ I’ll tell you ‘bout the puppies that your sister had/ oh, it was a fad/ she fucked a hog/ she fucked a dog/ I know the dirty bitch would fuck a frog/ ‘cause your mommy don’t wear no drawers.” (32) Readers that aren’t easily offended will find themselves laughing and cringing at what is surely the raunchiest history book in years.

The book is most intriguing when Wald explains why people participated in the dozens. Wald tells the story of Frank Marshall Davis, a poet and journalist who was introduced to the game as a youth. When 17-year-old Davis was a busboy in Wichita in 1922, he observed the older waiters playing a version of the game during their lunch break. He rationalizes their participation in the passage below:

I s’pose because it’s a way to feel important. Most of us ain’t goin’ nowhere in this world; the white folks done saw that. We ain’t ever goin’ to do much better than we’re doing now, an’ that ain’t much. But still we like to feel important. So when a man thinks up somethin’ real funny an’ the others laugh, he feels good. A man’s jus’ gotta feel important some kind of way. (17)

Davis’ statement is incredibly moving, and it still rings true today. Consider the fictional film 8 Mile (2002). It centers on hip-hop culture and is set in a low-income neighborhood in Detroit. Jimmy Smith (Eminem, playing a version of himself) is an aspiring white rapper, and in order to alleviate the misery of his existence, he participates in rap battles on the street. In 21st century America, this activity is more commonly referred to as freestyling, but the clip below shows that the characters are indeed playing a form of the dozens. Eminem is the rare Caucasian that plays, but still, the purpose is to insult another person in front of an audience, and the one with the best jokes garners the most enthusiastic response.

This scene speaks to Davis’ thoughts about the game, and why many low-income people in urban communities continue to play it. The sense of power and purpose is palpable, as well as the recognition of success. They may not have great jobs, but for a brief 30-minute lunch break, they are great at something.

Of course, this explanation is not the only one that has been offered. Some describe the dozens as a puberty ritual, whereas others consider it to be an unconventional school of stoicism, in which young African Americans learn how to “keep their emotions in check and avoid responding physically to insults.” (173) In addition, there are those that connect the dozens to misogyny and African American self-hatred. For Wald, none of these explanations undermine the dozens’ status as “an art at the heart of African American culture.” (179) He clarifies, “I find some aspects of the tradition amusing and some troubling, some brilliant and some stupid, some fascinating and some tiresome. But what matters in the end is that I never found it irrelevant.” (180-181)

Today, white conservatives like Bill O’Reilly continue to complain about the vulgarity of hip-hop, which clearly derives from the dozens. Such naïve and misinformed criticism fails to grasp the cultural significance of the art form. For many low-income African Americans (as well as low-income whites), these jokes are all they have. Their rhymes, whether they are heard on the street corner or on the stage at Madison Square Garden, represent a need to be understood. It’s as if to say: you can take away our freedom, but you can’t take away our voice. We will use it to show the world that we matter. Wald heard their message, and has written a must-read book about their important legacy.


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