Up From The Sidewalks
Yo’ Mama!New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes and Children’s Rhymes from Urban Black America
In a recent airline magazine interview, hip-hop music mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’s business advisor Jameel Spencer pointed out that “urban” is a term that no longer should be understood as shorthand for black, Hispanic, or inner-city youth boisterously “representing” what used to be called the culture of poverty.
“The urban demographic is now more of a psychographic,” the young marketing whiz declared, “it’s a lifestyle. There are a lot of urban cats—40- to 50-year-old white people who are cool and cutting edge. Bruce Willis is urban.”
I’m not so sure about all that—especially the Bruce Willis part. But Jameel Spencer, dapper in the GQ mode, obviously comfortable in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies, does present a new illustration of the word urban.
What a difference a new century makes!
W. E. B. Du Bois, in his pioneering sociological study The Philadelphia Negro (1899) was more concerned with identifying and alleviating social problems than in discovering unique—and marketable—cultural innovations. Surveying the thousands of young black migrants streaming northward to the industrial cities, Du Bois’s work laid the foundations for the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, new organizations that joined settlement houses in efforts to point the newcomers toward successful acculturation.
As the difficult 20th century unfolded, other black intellectuals and leaders, earnestly devoted to “uplifting the masses” and their own upward mobility, evinced scant concern about how African American grassroots culture might fare when transplanted to the pavements of Northern cities. The newcomers found ways of coping, of course. They adapted what they already knew and created appropriate new designs for survival.
What developed was a luxuriant oral tradition, a fascinating body of urban folklore—with an emphasis on survival against the odds—that has contributed to the glowing self-confidence of a Jameel Spencer, even as it serves as a demonstration of what critic Barry Maxwell has called “the centrality of community to the oppressed.”
Working in New York and Philadelphia between 1969 and 1973, just before the emergence of hip hop, college professor Onwuchekwa Jemie asked his students to collect samples of the oral tradition in their neighborhoods. Retrieving lore from their own memories and carrying small tape recorders to playgrounds, barbershops, and sidewalks, Jemie’s crew compiled an archive of late 20th century African American “street poetry” that has now been published in an attractive volume by Temple University Press.
One problematic aspect of this lore—as with anything created by the impoverished and powerless—is that it makes its tellers vulnerable to ridicule and charges of social dysfunction. Decades of negative stereotyping from old-time minstrelsy to contemporary media have made African Americans particularly sensitive to detrimental images. Jemie has little patience with that concern, however, and the materials presented here are vibrant and full of brilliant detail.
“Empowered by their heritage of West African languages,” writes Jemie in an informative 100-page introductory essay, “African Americans have bent, stretched, broken, melted down, and reshaped the English language, forging for their imagination a malleable instrument capable of carrying their own version of the world.” He is entirely confident of the value of what they have created.
Drawing upon the same improvisatory and communal dynamic that informs jazz music, the keyword for the types of folk expression collected in Yo’ Mama! is “dramatic.” “African-American oral literature is drama,” Jemie stipulates, “and players, audience and setting are crucial to the total experience.”
In orature, as in literature, the linguistic choices made by the performers are also crucial. Jemie as editor does not flinch from the original language of his sources and, in fact, can draw upon earlier scholarly work to discuss the importance and nuances of a word that I will type here as mother for you. “That these words carry such a burden of complex meanings does not make them any more acceptable in polite company,” he admits.
But it is also clear that much of this material derives energy from the accuracy of its vernacular.
As with all folklore, this material is both timeless and quite specific. Several versions of a children’s call-and-response chant are included. The archetypal
LEADER Sardines on my plate And I don’t want no steak CHORUS Sardines, hey! And pork and beans
can also appear in a form reflecting the grim reality of the Reagan administration’s “trickle down” economics:
LEADER I can tell by your knees You eat that welfare cheese CHORUS Sardines, hey! And pork and beans
Another rhyme, with precocious wisdom, undermines an advertising jingle:
Winston tastes good like a cigarette should— No filter, no taste, just a fifty-cent waste
Yet others are relics of antiquity:
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack All dressed in black, black, black With silver buttons, buttons, buttons All down her back, back, back
There are also naughty jump rope rhymes and clever sayings that began some time far in the past in the mouths of adults but have long since been appropriated by children: “You’re too womanish; I need to cut you down to a buttonhole lower” or “I’ll hit you so hard you’ll stink standing up.” You can still hear such taunts out of the mouths of grown folks, of course, on “Jerry Springer” and in other unfortunate venues.
One of the richest areas of African American urban lore—amply represented here—is the quarry of boasts, threats, and signifying statements that provide ammunition for the dangerous word game variously known as “snapping,” “ranking,” “sounding,” or “the Dozens.”
Closely connected to this game—indeed drawing upon it for content—are elaborate narrative poems or “toasts” that feature tricksters, underworld characters, and survivors such as Honky Tonk Bud, the fabulous Doriella DuFontaine, the astonishingly cruel Stagolee, and Shine—the one black crewman aboard the doomed Titanic. These texts are the prototypes for the rap melodramas central to hip hop and are certainly the jewels of this collection.
The most vivid example of “playing the Dozens” is “The Signifying Monkey,” a classic tale with myriad variants, which concerns a mischief-maker who taunts the lion by repeating slurs supposedly uttered by the elephant. “Now I hate to say it,” says the monkey, “and put it this way / But he talked about your mama in a hell of a way.”
Invariably, the monkey’s instigations enrage the lion, who foolishly rushes off to confront the elephant and earns himself a sound thrashing.
In the 1950s, the signifying monkey gained notice beyond the confines of all-male black gatherings with comedian Redd Foxx’s underground “party records” version and a considerably sanitized musical setting by jazz singer Oscar Brown, Jr. The little instigator later invaded academia when he appeared center-stage in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s erudite book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism in 1988.
The odyssey of the signifying monkey from late-night bull session to popular culture certainly underscores the value of a book such as this one; and Jemie’s excellent critical discussion ably demonstrates how that wonderful tale itself reveals how the oral tradition functions as a performative curriculum—a method of developing skills.
As documented in Yo’ Mama!, the insults produced in the Dozens can be wisecracks like “If brains was heat you’d freeze to death,” or rhymes such as “I wonder where your mother went / when the landlord came to collect the rent”—which sounds like a parody of an old TV commercial for toothpaste—to really vulgar and obscene putdowns that I will not repeat here. They are, however, masterpieces of hyperbolic wickedness.
Folklorists and sociologists have examined the Dozens from different perspectives. As a contest focused on trading insults, primarily of a sexual characterization, it is not a game for the thin-skinned.
Some scholars have argued that the Dozens is a way to encourage dignity and strength in the face of profound powerlessness—a way to train black boys to be men. Jemie agrees that the game is a clever method of socialization on several levels. A game of power or “test of strength” that defines the loser as the first one to resort to physical retaliation, an insult game that forces boys to deal head-on with obscene references to their mothers, playing the Dozens is perhaps a kind of verbal “double Dutch.”
“Mastering the art,” Jemie neatly concludes, “becomes a training in verbal protection, a martial arts of the mind.”
Author of the critical study Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, Onwuchekwa Jemie has a firm grasp of both literary and folk poetry and is a writer gifted with the ability to present complex material in graceful, clear prose. Professor Jemie knows precisely when to take off his mortarboard and don a Kangol cap. His touch here is just right and he is even willing to satirize his own role.
Offered under the title “Correct English” is the story of a little boy whose dog was following him to school but got hit by a train at the rail crossing:
The teacher said, “I’m sorry about your dog. Where did the train hit him?” Johnny replied innocently, “In the ass.” The teacher angrily retorted, “Johnny, don’t you ever utter anything like that in my classroom again. If you must say something like that, say rectum.” But Johnny looked at the teacher with puzzled eyes, and said in his child’s lisp, “Wreck’d ‘um, hell! It damn near killed him.”
The point, perhaps, is that folklore is not—cannot be—proper. Even when heavily coated in euphemism, this form of expression is hardly polite, but it must somehow transmit the truth about life. The purpose of the oral tradition is—as the phrase goes—to “keep it real.”
Onwuchekwa Jemie’s Yo’ Mama! is a thoughtfully rambunctious and judiciously outrageous collection that will make you laugh until your eyes water.
Lorenzo Thomas, who was born in Panama and grew up in New York City, is a poet, critic, and professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. His latest book of poetry is Dancing on Main Street, published this year by Coffee House Press.