Monday, September 22nd, 2014
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c. 1955 / Baton Rouge

What White Folks Call Verbal Skills


The street is where young bloods get their education. I learned how to talk in the street, not from reading about Dick and Jane going to the zoo and all that simple shit. The teacher would test our vocabulary each week, but we knew the vocabulary we needed. They’d give us arithmetic to exercise our minds. Hell, we exercised our minds by playing the Dozens.

I fucked your mama
Till she went blind.
Her breath smells bad,
But she sure can grind.

I fucked your mama
For a solid hour.
Baby came out
Screaming, Black Power.

Elephant and the baboon
Learning to screw.
Baby came out looking
Like Spiro Agnew.

And the teacher expected me to sit up in class and study poetry after I could run down shit like that. If anybody needed to study poetry, she needed to study mine. We played the Dozens for recreation, like white folks play Scrabble.

In many ways, though, the Dozens is a mean game, because what you try to do is totally destroy somebody else with words. It’s that whole competition thing again, fighting each other. There’d be sometimes forty or fifty dudes standing around, and the winner was determined by the way they responded to what was said. If you fell all over each other laughing, then you knew you’d scored. It was a bad scene for the dude that was getting humiliated. I seldom was. That’s why they call me Rap, ’cause I could rap. But for dudes who couldn’t, it was like they were humiliated because they were born Black, and then they turned around and got humiliated by their own people, which was really all they had left. But that’s the way it is. Those that feel most humiliated humiliate others. The real aim of the Dozens was to get a dude so mad that he’d cry or get mad enough to fight. You’d say shit like, “Man, tell your mama to stop coming around my house all the time. I’m tired of fucking her and I think you should know that it ain’t no accident you look like me.” And it could go on for hours sometimes. Some of the best Dozens players were girls.

Signifying is more humane. Instead of coming down on somebody’s mother, you come down on them. But before you can signify you got to be able to rap. A session would start maybe by a brother saying, “Man, before you mess with me you’d rather run rabbits, eat shit and bark at the moon.” Then, if he was talking to me, I’d tell him:

Man, you must don’t know who I am.
I’m sweet peeter jeeter the womb beater
The baby maker the cradle shaker
The deerslayer the buckbinder the women finder
Known from the Gold Coast to the rocky shores of Maine
Rap is my name and love is my game.
I’m the bed tucker the cock plucker the motherfucker
The milkshaker the record breaker the population maker
The gunslinger the baby bringer
The humdinger the pussy ringer
The man with the terrible middle finger.
The hard hitter the bullshitter the poly-nussy getter
The beast from the East the judge the sludge
The women’s pet the men’s fret and the punks’ pinup boy.
They call me Rap the dicker the ass kicker
The cherry picker the city slicker the titty licker
And I ain’t giving up nothing but bubble gum and hard times and I’m fresh out of bubble gum.

Now, if the brother couldn’t come back behind that, I usually cut him some slack (depending on time, place, and his attitude). We learned what the white folks call verbal skills. We learned how to throw them words together.

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H. Rap Brown, from Die Nigger Die! While serving as the chair of the Nonviolent Action Group in 1965, Brown and other civil-rights leaders met with Lyndon Johnson. “I’m not happy to be here,” he recalled telling the commander in chief. He replaced Stokely Carmichael as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1967, gaining further notoriety for statements such as “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” Arrested for murdering a sheriff’s deputy in 2000, Brown later received a life sentence.

Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out?
Alfred Hitchcock, 1962
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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