In 1939, a Yale psychologist named John Dollard traveled to the Jim Crow South to study the personality development of black children. Over and over again, he found something he hadn’t been looking for. On street corners and in schoolyards, in big cities and small towns, among the young and old alike, he found black folks facing off in games of street banter that followed specific rules: two players, fueled by the reaction of a gathered crowd, insulting each other in rhyme. The more ingenious the insult, the better.
What Dollard had stumbled on—and breathlessly described in a psychoanalytic journal—was a tradition that influenced Langston Hughes in the 1920s, made Richard Pryor a legend in the 1970s, and continues to fuel rap beefs today: the dozens.
“The Dozens is a pattern of interactive insult which is used among some American Negroes,” Dollard reported, in the first known article written about the street-rhyme combat typically touched off by two little words: yo’ mama. “The jests fly—about infidelity, though each seems a faithful husband—about impotence, though both are apparently adequately married and have children—about homosexual tendencies, although neither exhibits such to public perception.” Not to mention mothers, sisters, and girlfriends being stupid, raunchy, or just plain old ugly.
In “The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama,” writer, musician, and blues scholar Elijah Wald traces the comic and profane arc of the dozens clear through African-American culture—through rural works songs and the competitive jamming of jazz masters, through Mississippi barrelhouse songs and the iconic literature of the Harlem Renaissance. “No one has attempted a serious historical insult mapping of the United States,” Wald cautions in his book, and yet “The Dozens” ambitiously charts such a geography, outlining a heritage of verbal smack-downs from West African insult games to “Welcome Back, Kotter,” from jump-rope rhymes to rapper Grandmaster Flash to YouTube. Along the way, Wald’s underlying argument emerges with its own distinct challenge: It’s precisely the raw, filthy, unprintable essence of the dozens that makes it so important to preserve.
“It’s a lot more interesting than just a bunch of dirty jokes,” Wald said in an interview. “There’s a rich and complex history around it that tells a story about who we are. Not talking about this stuff just means not knowing how our culture happened.”
Wald spoke to Ideas from his home in Medford.
IDEAS: So, how does a middle-aged white guy find himself writing a book about the dozens?
WALD: A few years ago it struck me that rap had opened up the possibility of doing a completely different history of African-American music. Because the way we’ve written the history of African-American music was, first of all, the roots of jazz. And then we wrote it as the roots of rock. And what that left out was all of the recitations that didn’t have melody, which was a huge tradition in African-American arts....And so I said, wait a minute: I’m supposed to be a historian of popular music. Let’s go back and see where this came from.
IDEAS: In your book, you make the case that the dozens can be traced back to African oral traditions.
WALD: That wasn’t something I was sure I believed when I started, because there’s this tendency to try to trace everything back to Africa. And as a historian, I’m always nervous about that stuff because I always think myths that make people feel good get encouraged, and sometimes they’re just there to make people feel good. But the more I looked at African stuff it was everywhere.
IDEAS: What were you finding?
WALD: It’s very deep in ceremonies. So that for example, you find circumcision ceremonies where part of the ritual songs that boys sing following the ceremony have lines [insulting] your mother, which I found partly interesting because sociologists have often suggested that the dozens is sort of an adolescent ritual whereby boys cut themselves off from their mothers and become part of the gang....There’s also the fact that versions of this are everywhere in the [black] diaspora in the Americas, no matter what language you’re in.
IDEAS: You call the dozens a basic building block of African-American culture. How widespread was its influence?
WALD: You find it everywhere. It’s in black comedy—Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx. Eddie Murphy, who is coming straight out of the dozens. Rap battling is clearly the dozens....But also just the extent to which, for example, when I started looking through writers from the Harlem Renaissance, there’s a dozens scene in virtually every book....Langston Hughes, his last cycle of poems was called “Ask Your Mama,” and it was his poems about living surrounded by white people on Long Island, which is where he had retired to. And it’s all about, “They rung my bell to ask me/ Could I recommend a maid./ I said, yes, your mama.”
IDEAS: Do you agree with Dollard’s 1939-era notion that the dozens acted as a safety valve, a safe space where blacks could be aggressive without consequences?
WALD: Well, it also gets framed in black culture very often as training on how not to lose it if somebody said something really horrible to you. And that’s something you find [recurring] a lot in older black people, saying the dozens is—it’s not pretty, but this was something young black men had to deal with, people saying vile stuff to them every day of their lives. And this was a form of training to learn not to lose it when somebody says something to you. Within the black community there have been arguments for why the dozens served a social function before the sociologists got into it.
IDEAS: Because so much of this tradition has been unwritten or censored, is it even possible to pinpoint the emergence of the dozens in American popular culture?
WALD: The first time the dozens was ever defined in print is in sheet music for a song called “Don’t Slip Me In the Dozen, Please,” from 1921. Then [blues singer] Speckled Red had this huge hit in 1929 with a song called “The Dirty Dozens.” And then there were like 20 covers and follow-up and answer songs, and everybody in the blues started doing their dozens song.
IDEAS: How does the dozens live on today in hip-hop beefs?
WALD: I would say the main thing that it has to do with beefs is just that this is where people often go with beefs: It often gets into mothers and girlfriends or whatever. But I don’t think beefs is really that similar to the dozens. Beefs is people who are genuinely angry with each other. Rap battling is really what’s more like the dozens. Because people battle and sometimes they genuinely dislike each other, but sometimes they’re really good friends. And if they’re good battlers, you can’t tell which you’re watching, because either way they’re going to...say the nastiest things they can think of, and that’s really how the dozens works: It’s about the creativity. It’s about saying something not only nasty enough so that the other guy can’t think what to say, but also funny enough that the audience thinks that you’ve just done something smart. That’s the combination at the heart of the dozens.
Francie Latour, a former Globe reporter, blogs about race and culture at Boston.com’s The Hyphenated Life.