Friday, July 13, 2012

"The Dozens" by Elijah Wald (2012)

To most white people the game known as “playing the dozens” is somewhat of a mystery. Most of us (I’m white) think of it only as a variation on what we used to call “ranking out” one another, which usually involved such witticisms as “You’re mother’s so ugly she can make a freight train take a dirt road”; that’s a very generic example; which would immediately be answered with another, and hopefully worse, reply, thus “outranking” your foe. In this book by Elijah Wald, the author sets the history of “the dozens” in its true historical context. The funny thing is, he’s a white guy! But that should be no surprise, as “The Dozens” spread over into the white community many decades ago.

For instance, when I reported for duty aboard the USS Neosho, my first ship, I was confronted by a big white guy from the Midwest who asked me point blank, “Is your mother still menstruating?” He was clearly looking for a fight. I was not.  So, I replied that my mother “was flowing like the Nile.” The tactic turned the table on him, ending the game, while giving me a reputation as a quick thinker. In the parlance of the game, I had successfully “slipped him back in the dozens”, meaning that I had turned the table on him.

In the 1950’s and ‘60’s the Russians even got in on the deal. The usual starting point for them was to tell the other party that his “mother wore army boots.” The only problem with that was that at the time everybody’s mother in Russia wore army boots!
Exploring the African roots of “the dozens”, as well as the cultural influences which shaped the genre over many decades, and countries, Mr. Wald sheds light on a subject which has often been misunderstood; or over simplified; by people the world over. Although we have all have undoubtedly played some version of this game during our lifetimes, the author has done an excellent job in chronicling the art form, from its earliest beginnings, to its influence on today’s rap culture.

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