The unique and complex handshake used by Black Americans and known as the “dap” has typically been thought to have started during the Vietnam War. Black American soldiers began using the greeting–which is believed to be an acronym for “dignity and pride”–as a symbol of much-needed unity.
“Scholars on the Vietnam War and black Vietnam vets alike note that the dap derived from a pact black soldiers took in order to convey their commitment to looking after one another,” the photographer and artist LaMont Hamilton wrote in this 2014 essay for Folklife (the essay includes a series of photos breaking down the many motions that make up the dap). “Several unfortunate cases of black soldiers reportedly being shot by white soldiers during combat served as the impetus behind this physical act of solidarity.”
But in a fascinating new essay, Cal State Fullerton African American Studies professor Tyler Parry goes a lot deeper into West African history to find the origins of the dap, the “black, power handshake” and other similar greetings. “The difficulty in finding documented references to Black salutations in earlier periods, such as slavery or Jim Crow, cause many to believe these cultural forms must be recent inventions, emerging in urban environments in the 1960s and ‘70s, and eventually disseminating to white Americans through the mainstreaming of hip hop in the 1980s and ‘90s,” Parry writes in this Oct. 14 essay for Black Perspectives. “To fully understand the unique facets of the handshake as an African cultural product, one must journey across the Atlantic to Western Africa.”
While there are limits to the documentary history on this subject, Parry still finds considerable information and insight, even when he’s discussing those very limitations:
Presently, the documents do not allow me to track an unbroken lineage of African-centered salutations throughout Black American history, though it seems evident that the historical and contemporary handshakes bear striking similarities. The smooth gliding of skin-to-skin contact, interlocking fingers, and the expressive snaps at the end of the gesture are present in both the historical and modern examples. Such similarities are not purely coincidental, but reflect how oral transmissions of cultural knowledge across generations preserved the distinct traits that made African Americans culturally unique from those of European descent.
In any case, click here to read Parry’s essay.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.