Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America

By Geneva Smitherman | Go to book overview

12

IF I’M LYIN, I’M FLYIN”: THE GAME OF INSULT IN BLACK LANGUAGE [1995]


Yo’ mama don’t wear no draws
Ah seen her when she took ‘em off
She soaked ’em in alcohol
She sold ’em tuh de Santy Claus
He told her ’twas against de law
To wear dem dirty draws.

(Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) 1

I BET YOU a fat man against the hole in a doughnut that Hip Hoppers think they invented “yo momma” jokes. Well, yall better ask somebody cause the game has been around in the Black Oral Tradition for generations, even long before Sista Zora included this little “yo mamma” rhyme in her 1937 novel. “Oral Tradition”—which is also a part of the cultural experience of other groups such as Native Americans—refers to verbal games, stories, proverbs, jokes, and other cultural productions that have been passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth. In Black America, this tradition preserves and celebrates African culture, which was adapted to a new way of life in America. Because Africans in America play with and on the Word, good talkers become heroes and she-roes. Bloods who can talk and testify, preach and prophesy, lie and signify, get much props. Enter Double Snaps and the aesthetics of the dis.

Literally speaking, when you “dis” someone, you discount, discredit, disrespect that person—a dis is an insult. In the Black Oral Tradition, however, a dis also constitutes a verbal game, played with ritualized insults. The disses are purely ceremonial, which creates a safety zone. Like it’s not personal, it’s business—in this case, the business of playing on and with the Word.

There are two kinds of disses. One type is leveled at a person’s mother (and sometimes at other relatives). Traditionally, this was referred to as “the dozens” (or “playin the dozens”). The other kind of dissin is aimed at a person or a thing, either just for fun, or

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