Why ‘Yo Mama’ taunts remain timeless

When it comes to special occasions, Mother’s Day easily ranks in the top five for many people in this country, particularly among African-Americans.

Because of slavery, Jim Crow and today’s high incarceration rate of black men, many black mothers have had to raise their children alone. Even in the bleakest of situations, many black mothers have somehow managed to pull it all together and succeed in ushering their children into adulthood. As a result, they are regularly acknowledged as miracle workers. A perfect example of this can be found in the lyrics of rapper Tupac’s 1995 classic “Dear Mama” — a song dedicated to his mother Afeni Shakur — when he says “even as a crack fiend, mama/you always was a black queen, mama.”

As evidenced by the much ballyhooed Dez Bryant situation where Miami Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland asked Bryant if his mother was a prostitute, unflattering references to someone’s mother, especially among black men, is very sensitive territory. Yet, in black neighborhoods all across the country, playing “the dozens,” — where “your mother” or “yo mama” (also yo momma) jokes are often the main source of jest — is commonplace.

Few among us can forget the comedy club scene in Eddie Murphy’s 1996 film The Nutty Professor where he, as Sherman Klump’s much skinnier alter ego Buddy Love, bested comedian Reggie Warrington — Dave Chappelle’s breakout role — in a comedic battle. Memorable Eddie Murphy snaps include “Reggie’s mama is so fat, her blood type is rocky road,” “Look at Reggie’s gums and teeth, it looks like his mother had an affair with Mr. Ed” and “Your mother is so fat, she fell in the Grand Canyon and got stuck.” Most noteworthy is how Chappelle’s character was visibly unnerved when the tables were turned on him. He was able to dish the initial insults but he couldn’t take it.

Stephan Dweck co-wrote Snaps, a first-of-its-kind book centered upon an African-American cultural practice known as “the dozens.” He says this form of ‘yo mama’ wordplay is pervasive throughout urban culture, especially among men.

“If you talk to any African-American man, when they’ve gone through adolescence in any part of the country, they have done snaps or dissin’ or baggin’ — as they call it in the West Coast — or joning, as they call it in the South,” Dweck says. “I would say [that for] 95 percent of the black men in this country, from Quincy Jones to Jesse Jackson, it’s part of a rite of passage.”

Snaps, followed up twice in book form, became a New York Times bestseller, not to mention a noteworthy riff in American pop culture overall. From the Snap show that Dweck and his co-authors adapted for HBO in 1995, to MTV’s 2004 nationwide, competition-styled series titled Yo Momma hosted by Wilmer Valderrama — not to mention various hip-hop videos, comedy routines, and the occasional rap battles on inner-city streets — ‘yo mama’ jokes are a recognized element of the modern African-American experience.

But the taunts have roots that date back to slavery and beyond.

Folklorist and author Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy — who among other duties serves as an associate professor of English at Dillard University — says in her 2001 essay “Still Laughing to Keep From Crying: Black Humor,” that black America’s verbal prowess gave rise to ritual insults as a part of a game now called “the dozens.”

Enslaved people born with deformities or other detriments were bunched together on the auction block, often in dozens, and sold cheaply. The practice of word play hedged on verbal insult was meant to toughen these already maligned individuals from the additional hardships they were sure to face.

The purpose of the dozens is “not to lose your cool, [to] control your response,” Saloy says. “Because if you’re sold in cheap blocks of a dozen on the slave block because you’re deformed, for punishment, or for whatever reason, and you’re so taunted by the outside society, the only way you can tolerate this is to make some play out of it, to literally turn it on its head, and so you learn how to control your reaction because to react was to be killed or maimed further or punished…so it’s the tradition…we’ve kept that.”

During a recent appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show to promote his film Death at a Funeral with fellow comedians Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan surmised the critical role humor played in his tough Brooklyn upbringing near where both Rock and Jay-Z were raised.

“Where I come from,” Morgan told Oprah, “your sense of humor is the knife in which you cut through the wilderness of despair.”

And it’s true of many black men, even today.

Not only has trading verbal jabs about one’s mother strengthened a lot of black men against their harsh reality, as some scholars argue, Dweck also believes that “it was a way of male bonding and it worked. It brought people together and I think it still does.”