News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, May 5, 2008

Your mama is so ugly....

A colleague of mine and I were at an open house yesterday and discussed the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's performance at the National Press Club. Neither of us thought it was as outrageous as the media has portrayed it. In many respects Wright was theologically on the mark.

A point that confused some people was when Wright said the black church has the tradition of "playing the dozens." Actually, the term is usually "counting the dozens."

It is a term that covers an instance where the slaves used language to satisfy the ears of the white folks while giving succor to the hearts of the black people. It comes from the attempt to use Christianity as a mandate for the institution of slavery.

Slaves were forbidden to read or write. They were drilled to memorize passages from the Bible that seem to endorse slavery and were steered away from those passages which called it into question, or said things like "let my people go." To the slave owners the safest passages were the genealogy "begat" section from Genesis which go on and on about who begat whom and how long they lived. The slaves dutifully memorized and recited the dozens of genealogy accounts of who begat whom and called it counting the dozens. However for their own edification and amusement, they turned it into a parodic game, as in "yo mama begat something so ugly it scares the mules." The point was to retort with a better insult such as "yo mama so ugly, she press her face in dough to make gorilla cookies." Which might lead to "Well, yo mama's ass so big, it.....[supply your hyperbole of choice]."

Often the genealogy cited referred to old master and old mistress. But the main point was to ridicule the notion that the counting of the dozens fooled anybody from knowing that the scripture also held out the promise of freedom and equality in the eyes of God. The liturgy of the African-American Christian church is probably the most explicit in expressing the actual teaching of Christ. Playing the dozens was a means of making fun of the perverted foolery imposed on the slaves by their oppressors.

It became a ritual for jazz musicians to put themselves and their audiences in a good humor by playing the dozens on the bandstand. However, as the custom moved away from its satirical origins, the insults were taken as personal and resulted in offense being taken and fighting.

The circumstances of counting the dozens are more complicated than what this short explanation covers. but the idea was, as with spirituals, to satisfy the ears of the white mzn while speaking to the soul of the black.

It might be dangerous to count the dozens in your own home. Especially this close to Mama's Day.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States