Acceptable Disrespect Overview

The subject of acceptable disrespect among Black American youth is in disarray. However, its story originated from three different sources—African Retentions, European Convicts during slavery, and the amalgamation (interbreeding of different ethnic languages until they became one) by African American Slaves, with later stylizing by post-slavery Black “Dudes.”

The word “Dude” is used to distinguish these “Black poets” from the remainder of the Black population.

Although the word “Dude” is of unknown origin it has been used in the Euro-American west since 1883 – and earlier in the East in relation to dapper dress or an overly dressed man. Chances are that “Dude” relates to “Duds”—a word for clothes that was brought over by colonists from England. With Black folk it applied approvingly to a “Cat-Daddy” who dressed flashily; then to those who spent time on street corners admiring young women; then to jazz musicians who engaged in jive and cool talk with such finesse and flare as to be called a “Hep-Cat” or a “Hipster”; and most recently to any member of ones own circle or peer group. This brief historical progression simulates the atmospheres and scenes for where most acceptable disrespect verbal exchanges have occurred and still occur.

But the original art of hurling acceptable disrespect, including invectives (abusive language), at ones opponents is an ancient one— and in all cultures. Ancient African Griots were oral historians who traveled about, learned the villagers’ various indiscretions (i.e. lack of good judgment), spruced them up into amusing verse and song, and then entertained audiences with them. This very early form of Signifying is said to be rooted in the mythic African folklore figure of “Esu,” or the trickster and (among others) called “Anansi” (the spider) in the West Indies. Similarly, in some African and American Indian cultures, the symbol for the trickster is the spider who spins out intricate plots of practical jokes to trap victims. Such victims get caught because the sticky web remains largely invisible to the inattentive eye. Signifying is built on this web concept of amusing and clever traps. The African “Indirection” (abstaining from directness for the purpose of avoiding crises or avoiding the face-threatening). of insulting another is approached as if “stalking” the opponent’s most vulnerable sensitivity. The idea is to fashion a “web” that traps by means of skill and a style intended to arouse the audience’ interest. One of its many outward radiating web “threads” is the Ancient African “Call and Response.” For example, a West African field worker would sing out something signifying in order to get a “back at you” form of humor from fellow workers. Apart from that Africans had a Tuareg and Galla game of two opponents cursing one another until one man lost his temper—the declared loser. A significant contributor to the content of what was to later be part of the acceptable disrespect used by Black American Dudes came by way of the slave overseers.

A large number of them of the “bad elements” of Europe who populated the New World had been released in the 18th century from European prisons, especially in the British Isles, on the condition they would go to the Americas. As a result, they took jobs as overseers on board slave ships and on plantations in the Americas. The slang of those ex-convicts consisted of the vocabulary of the British underworld and as overseers their demands and instructions to the Slaves were primarily of an offensive nature.

The predominance of these word surrounding a small ration of “neutral” English words imparted to the Slaves for job assignments were designed for the Slaves to think of themselves in a self-degrading and self-destructive manner. Since this was a foreign language to the Slaves most of these bad words were initially used without a bad context. Later, for some Slaves, they were internalized and attacked self-esteem props.