Congrats to the New Orleans Saints. In a turbulent year for way too many people, a deserving, well-prepared and talented underdog rolled the dice and came out a very solid and memorable winner in the most watched football game (or any other single sporting event) in American history. Sure, the game was very good, and even bordered on being great. Much more important though was to see and feel the very soul of a city carried on the shoulder pads and quick legs of a professional football team. The hopes and prayers of literally thousands, maybe millions, of people got run around, knocked down and finally kicked over the goal posts in elegant triumph. The “Who Dat nation made a lot of us believe in decent and strong folk coming out winners again.
Certainly, New Orleans would have celebrated anyway from just being in the Super Bowl for this first time. That’s a very, very long way for them from where they were a few short years ago. But winning–achieving destiny as some call it—just meant the world to a city regarded as our own internal Haiti during the Bush years. New Orleans knows how to do a funeral parade and it knows how to Mardi Gras, whichever way the jazz notes blow. Now, the lid can be blown off, New Orleans style.
But besides the game itself and the long continuous partying going on in the aftermath, there is always much going on than meets the eye in the Big Uneasy. This article could re-look at the evolving quality of the brand new educational system that is rising Phoenix-like from Katrina’s drying ashes. It could look at the return of business and real estate, or investigate whether the glow now surrounding New Orleans is ephemeral or an actual ground-level renaissance that involves the Black poor as well as the Black well-heeled. But this particular article won’t do either one of those (although somebody certainly should do all of them).
This piece is on “Who Dat?” and what on earth that really means. For the many former Louisiana folk in our Southern California midst, no problem. For them, if you don’t know or don’t get it, well, maybe it’s simply not for you to get. But since it is now all the rage, the rest of us really want to know what’s up with the “Who Dat.”
Here’s the skinny, even before I’ve talked to Larry Aubry. First, “Who Dat” is short for “Who dat? Who dat say dey gon beat dem Saints?” (And in the era before Brees and Sean Payton arrived, it had soured to “Who dat? Who dat gon make the Saints them Aints?”)
The phrase is Ebonics and hails from nineteenth and twentieth century minstrelsy, vaudeville and Amos and Andy infamy. Steppin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) said it, and so did Buckwheat in ‘Our Gang,’ and the Marx Brothers had a whole skit using it. Grambling and Southern University fans have yelled it at football classics, egged on by grand marching bands and cheerleaders. The phrase literally means Who’s That? and was regularly a part of routines in the old days that ridiculed Black intelligence and common sense. Typically, a Black (or Blackface) character would say in the dark, “Who dat?” and be answered with “Who Dat”, then finally respond “Who dat say who dat when I ast who dat?” This used to be a standard piece for Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo minstrels.
In a recent nice article in Black Voices, scholar Hollis Robbins notes the great Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (fitting for Black History Month), who gave us such notable quotes as “I know why the caged bird sings,” and “We wear the mask that grins and lies, it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,” also gave us the local color lyrics of Negro dialect poetry, including several renditions of “Who dat?” In fact, Mr. Dunbar, one of America’s finest wordsmiths, is most remembered and cited in anthologies of American literature for his Negro slang and dialect writing, much more so than for his regularly distinctive and distinguished poetry. Mr. Dunbar wrote the song and dialogue lyrics (mostly Negro Southern dialect)for America’s first successful Broadway play on Black life written by Blacks in 1898 with an all-Black cast, Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk. This was before both “Ain’t Misbehavin”, and Eubie Blake’s “Shuffle Along.”
“Who Dat” has a tawdry and bamboozled past, as Spike Lee would put it. However, it gives great inspiration to those who still make the argument that the N-word can be defanged and mainstreamed. “Who Dat?” is now the mantra for a hero of a football team, a whole city, and for awhile, a whole country. Right now, what was a minstrel insult is the proud banner of America’s new team (the Cowboys have long faded into the Texas sun, and New England was far too regional). If the N-word purists can only find the proper marketing venue for that word, they too think the N-word can find new positive life and profit in this great country just like “Who dat” did. Hmmm. Not likely, but strange things do happen here. ‘Who dat say it ain’t gon be? Who dat?’
David Horne, Ph.D., is executive director of the California African American Political Economic Institute (CAAPEI) located at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

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