The Dozens

Featured, History & Politics

If you’ve got a secret stash of “Yo mama” jokes and folks avoid you when you’re tipsy because you’ll clown them until they cry, then you might be a master of The Dozens.

The Dozens, “snapping”, “cracking”, or the act of trading insults back and forth is a black oral tradition that dates back to slavery and has it’s roots embedded in both Mississippi and Louisiana. The name itself refers to the sale of slaves who had been overworked, were disabled, or beaten-down – their physical (and often mental) conditions affected their value and they were sold by the dozen, which was considered by slaves, the lowest position within the community. The term evolved to mean a competition between two people, typically men, in a contest of wit, mental agility, verbal ability and self control. It is believed The Dozens developed as an outlet for slaves’ depression and worked as a “valve of aggression for a depressed group”. Since it was nearly impossible for slaves to display aggression towards their oppressors, but it was encouraged and expected for them to display aggression towards one another, The Dozens became a practice for nearly all slaves, male and female, young and old. Aside from being an outlet for the slave aggression, The Dozens provided a forum for the discussion of forbidden topics such as homosexuality, incest, and mental illness.

Lightnin’ Hopkins (contains adult language)

Throughout history, The Dozens has always found its place within Black comedy. Since much of the insult-throwing is good natured (i.e. The Clean Dozens vs. The Dirty Dozens), Black comedians tend to be the purveyors of this oral tradition and their skill level defines the level of respect they command by both their colleagues and their audience. A new and upcoming comedian can earn his stripes in a battle of The Dozens against a veteran – it’s the comic equivalent to a freestyle battle between MC’s.

Tommy Davidson vs. Jamie Foxx on In Living Color

It’s interesting that this practice of dissing each other developed from the pain of our people and their inability to express their frustration during slavery. You just have to love our resilience though – ¬†we can make the best lemonade out of the lemons life gives us. After all, what would American comedy be without the humor of Black people?

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