The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

February 6, 2010

The questionable etymology of “Who Dat”

I write this as someone who could not care less who wins the Superbowl. The Superbowl is an instance of American culture at its most commercial, shallow, and it only partially sublimates its violence.  Superbowl Sunday is the number one day of the year where American women call domestic violence hotlines.  Men get drunk, beat up their women after the game,  so excuse me if I don’t feel particularly like celebrating.

That said, living as I do on the very border of Mississippi and Louisiana, you may well imagine that I have heard a few exclamations of “Who Dat Dere Gonna Beat Dem Saints?”

The phrase comes from a song recorded by an African-American New Orleans Jazz band and singer.  The phraseology, one of African-American diction particular to the black working class of New Orleans, caught on.  No one but Chicago Cubs fans can understand the devotion of certain New Orleans Saints fans throughout multiple seasons of defeat.  They have never won a Superbowl before, but the song, “Who dat” was sung over and over again, season after season, by certain die-hard fans — black and white.

For a person from the Northeast, the first listen to “Who Dat” might potentially appear to be part of the Aunt-Jemima-and-Sambo-style charictures demeaning to people of color that the deep south has tolerated for generations, often seeming oblivious to their symbolism and negative messages.  This is, after all, a region that keeps debating the proper place of the Confederate flag as a symbol within state flags.  To a Northeasterner, it seems like debating where the swastika belongs on the current German flag as a sign of its heritage.  I remember an article I read in the early 1990s in The Village Voice where a reporter attending an event hosted by the Christian Coalition involved the singing of the “Who Dat” song — in reference to Christian sainthood — and one of the coalition’s PR people rushed over to her to tell her that “Who Dat”‘s diction was racially neutral.  She wrote something in her article like, “Yeah, right!”  According to Wikipedia, “Who Dat” songs — songs with lyrics that start with “Who Dat?” and have a response like, “Who dat who say who dat?” originated in minstrel shows, notorious spectacles of American racism played by white men in black face.  How could “Who Dat” in the Saints fight song have no racial implications?

However, “Who Dat” seems to have what recording executives call crossover appeal.  It is true that I occasionally here white people sounding something, not exactly, like that when they speak.  I see signs around me, a four-hour drive to New Orleans, with the words, “Who Dat” painted on them by hand.  People around here are excited about the game tomorrow.  They have needed a reason to be excited for some time.  While Vicksburg was not devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the whole region has felt the aftermath of the storm’s terrible havoc.   In numerous towns in Mississippi, historical landmarks were decimated, to say nothing of the horrible devastation of people’s homes.  Lots of refugees from the storm moved inland and slightly north — meaning not far from here.  After having driven through New Orleans less than a year ago, and having seen whole neighborhoods still standing but condemned — a red “X” painted on each of the houses to indicate that it was still not safe even to climb the front steps — I dare say that people have a right to get excited about a pointless and commercialized ritual where they might have something to brag about.

For the last three Sundays, our pastor has brought a football with him to the pulpit.  He uses football metaphors to describe things like, “how to receive from God,” where the football is the blessing and God is the quarterback.  No one around here has ever thought, it seems, that football metaphors smacked even subtly of impiety, as football is important stuff to the people of Mississippi  — native son Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre is probably the most celebrated celebrity in the whole state, equivalent to J-Lo and Derek Jeter combined for the Bronx.  Yet  I look from pew to pew and see how happy people are, and I recognize that some people smiling haven’t had much to smile about for a while.  Unlike New Yorkers, I note that people suffer around here in silence.  New Yorkers like to mouth off.  Here, they just wait for an excuse — like a football game — to scream.

The propagation of “Who Dat” as a fight song in no way challenged preconceived notions about intellectual capacity of African-Amerricans.   “Who Dat” is not a Barak Obama speech.  That said, football is not an exercise in intellectual capacity.  Americans distrust egg-heads, even though eggs are shaped a bit  like footballs.  In the Northeast, these days, we have examples of white people adopting the songs of the urban working class and underclass African-Americans.  Any teenage white boy in high school chanting back the rap of Fifty Cent is doing that, largely oblivious to the racial implications of what he’s doing.  I have heard white boys in Brooklyn call each other the N-word.  To them, it means “friend” in a street-friendly manner.

So with a black Harvard-educated president and a bunch of white street thugs calling themselves the “N” word, perhaps the nation is ready for a chorus of  “Who Dat.”  Perhaps the people of the gulf states have had enough trouble without  a carpet bagger like me questioning their intentions here.  People are happy around me, even though the ritual that excites them baffles me.  We all need all the reasons to celebrate that we can find.  There is even a new hybrid “Who Dat” Saints fight song that seems to be a hybrid of African-American and Cajun dialect.  It’s called, “In Da Supabeauxl” by Misty and the Moonpie Kings.  A complex and hybridized view would be all inclusive, making fun of no group, except, possibly, the Colts, who are, I am told, going down.   So long live the strange gumbo of this song and its questionable etymology.   Who dat?  Apparently all of us, all of us are we dat say who dat.

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1 Comment »

  1. Hey there. I grew up in New Orleans, and here’s the thing: the New Orleans accent, black and white, involves saying dis and dat and dese and dose. It sounds like the Bronx, or New Jersey. So, sure, “who dat” may have been used in vaudeville and blackface, but it came from the way people really speak – the way we still speak in NOLA. Minstrel shows didn’t *INVENT* “who dat” – they took it from the streets. And the streets are taking it back.

    And, not to dismiss the epidemic of domestic violence in this world, but it is an urban myth that Superbowl day is the day of most DV phone calls.

    Comment by Jezebella — February 16, 2010 @ 3:57 pm | Reply


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