Do you know the real meaning behind Black hand and head gestures? Have you taken a moment to appreciate the beauty in our ability to communicate without words?
Though originating among Black men as a way to express “unity, strength, defiance, or resistance,” they have evolved to represent a community-wide communication structure that symbolizes Black consciousness and cultural unity throughout America.
Before the “Dab,” there was the “Dap.” The Dap originated in the 1960s amongst Black soldiers in the Vietnam War. With racial tension at an all-time high on home soil, Black soldiers used the dap to symbolize unity from abroad. Several scholars note that the gesture acknowledged a pact amongst Black soldiers to look out for one another.
This commitment to solidarity was necessary as they continued to fight racism within ranks and at home. It was also used for “dap therapy,” where the military used dap interactions amongst Black G.I.’s in order to cultivate trust amongst white doctors, staff, and patients
The Clenched Fist
Probably one of the most notorious Black symbols is the clenched fist, or the “Black Power” fist. In the 1960s, the Black Power Movement used this symbol to represent the struggle for civil rights. Specifically, it was a sign of resistance publicly promulgated by the Black Panther Party.
It’s since been used across the globe: Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a “salute of human rights,” during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, while Bernie Sanders often used the gesture on his 2016 campaign trail.
Whether in a room full of white people or isolated on a street corner, Black people will often acknowledge each other’s presence with a headnod. As Musa Okwonga writes, the Nod is “an almost imperceptible lowering of the head toward any other Black person you might encounter on your travels.” But moreso, and like the dap, it is a statement of ethnic solidarity.
As Okwonga continues, “the Nod is saying: ‘wow, well, I really didn’t expect to see another one of us out here, but you seem to be doin your thing just fine. More power to you, and all the very best.” Though it’s particular origins are unknown, it traverses generations and remains a prevalent form of communication today.
These are but a few ways that the Black community has used regional and social vernacular, as well as physical cultural aesthetics to remain connected within this society. With an overwhelming theme of solidarity, Black hand and head gestures cultivate community when words cannot be spoken.
“Black Twitter” continues to serve as a haven for this with hashtags like #BlackMenGreetings and #BlackAtWork, while Black-owned companies like Blk Proverbs campaign for the “coming home through language.” Even mainstream shows like “Black-ish” have attempted to teach the phenomenon to their growing audience base.
Yet what’s understood doesn’t have to be explained, and the rich legacy behind Black communication will continue to inspire nonverbal cues and intra-group communication for years to come.