Page 4


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 loreamply represented hereis the quarry of boasts, threats, and signifying statements that provide ammunition for the dangerous word game variously known as “snapping,” “ranking,” “sounding,” or “the D ozens.” 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 Shinethe 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 curriculuma 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 toothpasteto really vulgar and obscene put-downs 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 powerlessnessa 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 notcannot beproper. 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 isas the phrase goesto “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. 6/18/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25