Monday, January 16, 2012

The African Roots Of "Talk To The Hand"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post explores the origins and ways in which people in the United States make the body gesture known as "talk to the hand".

This post is provided for its sociological, historical, folkloric and educational purposes.

Excerpts and videos that are embedded in this post have been assigned numbers for referral purposes.

My thanks to those video uploaders and to those whose comments I'm quoting.

"Talk to the hand" is a hand gesture that has its roots in Central African (Congolese) and probably other African customs and is most closely associated with African Americans. "Talk to the hand" has two possible meanings: "Stop!" ("Don't say or do anything more" or there will be consequences) or "I dismiss you as a person. Whatever you say or are going to say or do means nothing to me."

Depending on its context and the user's intent, other spoken or implied and culturally understood by this hand gesture are "Stop!", "Don't even go there", and/or [the dismissive word] "Whatever." (Whatever you say or do means nothing to me because you mean nothing to me.)

The facial expression of people making this gesture can be angry and scowling. However, usually people making this gesture are expressionless- to convey that their opponents [the people the gesture is directed to] means nothing to them. Or the people making this gesture may be smiling - to convey that they don't take their opponents seriously and that they aren't concerned about what those people are saying or doing (or about to say or do).

Excerpt #1
"The phrase "talk to the hand" is a street vocabulary conversation-stopper that is meant to be taken literally, albeit ironically; and is usually accompanied by its related body language: I make a pronouncement. You begin to offer an objection of some sort. I cut you off by extending my right hand, palm out toward you, while I look over my right shoulder and say,"Talk to the hand!" The implication is that you might as well talk to my hand, because I'm not listening. As a conversation stopper, it works even better if you've never heard or seen it before, as what is meant may take a moment or two to sink in, and might even have to be explained (making the recipient seem a little less than streetwise). Since the speaker performs somewhat silly-looking body movements in order to get his/her point across, the phrase is kept just a shade short of being unforgivably rude. As the phrase is becoming somewhat less obscure, some are jettisoning the body movements, reducing the communication to a more-or-less angry comment meaning I'm not going to listen to you, as in "Hey, man, talk to the hand!"

Excerpt #2
"Talk to the hand" (or "tell it to the hand") is an English language slang phrase associated with the 1990s. It originated in African American Vernacular English as a contemptuous and urbanized way of saying that no one is listening, and is often elongated to a phrase such as "Talk to the hand, because the ear's not listening" or "Talk to the hand, (be)cause the face don't understand" or "Talk to the hand, (be)cause the face don't give a damn"."

The sentence is often considered to be a sarcastic or obnoxious phrase, and is commonly associated with urban black youths, especially black women, as well as teenage valley girls who adopted it. The phrase was popularized by actor and comedian Martin Lawrence in his 1992 sitcom Martin. It is usually accompanied by the gesture of extending one arm toward the other person, with the palm of that hand facing the person being insulted, in the manner of the gesture to stop."
-Erik Van Thienen; 2008

While the "talk to the hand" gesture is generally acknowledged as coming from African American culture, I've not found any information online about how African Americans developed that gesture or whether that gesture came from Africa. However, Robert Farris Thompson's chapter on "Kongo Influences On African-American Culture" in Africanisms In American Culture (Joseph E. Holloway, editor, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1990) provides information about several Congolese (Central Africa) body gestures that pertain to "talk to the hand". It's telling that no mention of talk to the hand is included in that chapter, which may serve as proof for the later propularization of that gesture among African Americans and, from them, among other Americans. My sense is that if that chapter were written later, it would have included information about the "talk to the hand" gesture. The first excerpt from that chapter focuses on the "inverted face" as an expression of denial and/or rejection of the person or of what is being said:

Excerpt #3
The related standing or seated pose with head averted, nunsa is also present in black America...In 1977 I saw a black man from New Orleans counter accusations by turning his head to one side, with his lips firmly pursed. He thus became an icon of denial. There are countless mirrors of this pose in Gullah country; especially when a black mother sharply rebukes her child. Stewart writes that "the child purses the lips, turns his head to one side, and it stays there". A cognate expression was observed in colonial tines by Charles William Day: "when Negroes quarrel they seldom look each other in the face." A marvelous Kongo rendring of the nunsa pose in the Berlin Museum distinctly records the turning of the head and the determined pursing of the lips as if the subject were pointing with the lips to the grounds for her denial. In "Dynamics of a Black Audience", Annette Powell Williams summarizes an extention of this fundamental gesture in black United States: "an indication of the total rejection is shown by turning one's head away from the speaker with eyes closed". (p. 158-159)"
In that same chapter, Thompson provides information about the Congolese roots of the even more familiar gestures of both hands on the hips (paklala)and the left hand on the left hip while the right hand is extended forward (telema)*. Here's an excerpt from that chapter about the telema stance:

Excerpt #4
"Perhaps the most dramatic incursion of a Kongo gesture in Haiti is the reemergent biika mambu stance. This pose, with left hand on hip and right hand forward, is frequently called telama lwinbanganga in northern Kongo. The ethnic origin of this attitude was known and identified as such in the 1930s. Courlander wrote that "women sometimes use a Congo pose, with the left hand on hip and the right arm held outward, a gesture which lends a good deal of grace to what might otherwise be rather violent aesthetics." In Kongo, placing the left hand on the hip is believed to press down all evil, while the extended right hand acts to "vibrat" the futur in a positive manner. Important womeen used this posee at dawn to "vibrate postively" the future of town warriors. Advocates used its power to block or end a lawsuit...

The Kongo pose can thus be traced through these various streams of documented influence. Telama lwimbanganga became pose Kongo in Haiti, then pose Kongo became the drum majorette pose in the United States. Almost all the early baton twirlers in and around New Orleans were black, os so it has been asserted by informants in New Orleans. But the commanding, strictly chiseled, crisp quality of the pose was too powerful, evidently, for whites to resist...

From urging warriors on to victory in Kongo to urging sports players on to victory in Mississippi, the function of this gesture has changed very little. This complicated gesture also lives on in other contexts. It is an icon of black American performance. In the mid-1960s, the Supremes were famous for a song in which they shouted "Stop! in the Name of Love!" while striking the very pose Kongg elders use to stop misbehavior at a traditional dance: left hand on hip, right hand or palm before the body. And this gesture is only one facet of a reality that probably involves the whole of African-American verbal art.(op.cit; 161-162)"
*In that quote there's an accent above the "e".

There are two basic ways that "talk to the hand" is done in the United States:
1. your right hand held near your ear
2. your right hand held forward making the "stop" gesture.

In both forms #1 and #2, the face of the person making this gesture is either expressionless (closed down), or is scowling (grittin').

Stance #1 can be further divided into
(a) that form done while similtaneously sharply turning your face to the left (away from the person you whose words, actions, or being you are blocking)
(b) that gesture being done without your face averted.

Excerpt #1 found above describes one way to do form #1 of "talk to the hand" (right hand near ear while your face is sharply turned to the left). Excerpt #2 on this page describes form #2 stance of "talk to the hand" (the hand held forward in the stop position).

I believe that #1a is the earliest form of "talk to the hand" among African Americans, or it's at least the earliest, most common form of that gesture that I'm familiar with. Turning your face away from your adversary further emphasizes your dismissal and rejection of that person and/or her or his words, actions, and being. An even deeper sign of your rejection of the person or her or his words and actions is when your eyes are closed while your face is averted.

Furthermore, I believe that form #1a of "talk to the hand" combines the face averted (denial/rejection) nunsa body stance, and an evolution of the portion of the pose Kongo stance where the right hand is held upward instead of being held forward. In form #1a, the right hand blocks the words, actions, and being of the person it is directed to, and the inverted face signifies even further denial, rejection, and dismissal of that person's words, actions, and being. When the person making that either form of this gesture closes her or his eyes, and looks downward, those movements further emphasize that denial, rejection, and dismissal of the "talk to the hand" gesture.

An inverted expression of #1a was included in the movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)

Video #1: Talk to the hand dr.evil

Uploaded by dfales14 on Feb 22, 2007
In that clip, Dr. Evil holds his left hand close to his ear, and inverts his face toward the right. That's the opposite of how this hand near ear gesture is usually done by African Americans, and I believe, by other people in the United States. It's possible that the usual 'hand to the ear' way that "talk to the hand" is done was purposely inverted to emphasize Dr. Evil's acting contrary to the norm. It's also possible that that movie's directors weren't familiar with how that form of "talk to the hand" was (and still is) usually done.

Particularly among Americans of a certain age [over 50 years old], the "right hand forward/stop gesture" form of "talk to the hand" gesture is most closely associated with the R&B group The Supreme's hit song "Stop In The Name Of Love". The "talk to the hand" gesture's familiarity with Americans & non-Americans is also the result of its inclusion in one of the popular Terminator movies. In addition, episodes of a number of television shows - particularly those featuring members of the African American public and fictitious African American characters - often include examples of "Talk to the hand" ("Don't even go there").

Video #2: The Supremes | Live on Shindig (1965) - "Stop! In The Name Of Love"

The Supremes, Uploaded on Nov 1, 2008

This is a video of The Supremes singing their 4th #1 hit in a row "Stop! In The Name Of Love" live on Shindig in 1965.
Thee video's summary statement includes more information about the Suprremes and this particular performance.

The stop gesture is made with the group members facing forward. Their right arm are held slightly above the waist and the palm of the right hands are held facing forward.

Video #3: Terminator 3 - Talk to the hand gas station

Uploaded by Gloriousfilm on Mar 17, 2009
This "talk" To the hand gesture" is made without the inverted face and with the spoken word "Stop"


Video #4: Girls That Think They Are All That On Ricki Lake

Uploaded by DONEUEMF on May 1, 2009
"Ricki Lake" was a somewhat widely watched American television 'talk show' in the the 1990s. Here's my break-down of the "don't even go there" (Stop!) hand gestures in this video:
.050 female says "Yeah right". Right palm held toward person, face not averted, face open and smiling.
4:24 female says "So you need to just stop".
4.34 female says "Stop honey".

In all three of these cases, the female's right hand is held palm up toward the person who her words and gesture are directed to. The female's face isn't averted. Her eyes are closed, and her face is expressionless and held slightly downward when she makes this gesture. There's a least one more example of the female making the "talk to the hand gesture" after 4.34. It appears that she holds her right hand higher than what she previously done. However, the camera cuts off her hand and I'm therefore not certain if that gesture was made.

Notice in each of those examples, the female holds her right hand forward in front of her face or near her right ear. Males do this motion too, but this gesture is most closely associated with females than males.

The popularity of the "hand held forward/stop" form of "talk to the hand" may also be attributed to the influence of the moutza, a very similar Greek gesture of contempt. Click for information on that gesture.

In Excerpt #2 found above, that writer asserts that 'talk to the hand' is "often elongated to a phrase such as "Talk to the hand, because the ear's not listening"..... I believe that statement is dated, and is no longer true. The often repeated statement that "Talk to the hand was big in the 1990s and today people don't say that anymore" is true for the most part. However, just because people may not say that entire statement or even a shortened form of that statement anymore, doesn't mean that they don't do the "talk to the hand" gesture. Sometimes instead of the entire or shortened command to "talk to the hand", a person might accompany this gesture with the dismissive words "Yeah, whatever" (meaning "Whatever you say doesn't matter to me"). It seems to me that in the 2000s, "talk to the hand" has become so familiar a gesture in the United States that people don't need to say anything when they make they do it. Increasingly in the USA, the "talk to the hand" gesture is made without speech because it now 'speaks for itself'. Most Americans know what "talk to the hand" means in nearly the same way as we know what "giving someone the finger" means. Those gestures don't need any words to be understood.

Here's a link to a very brief example of the "talk to the hand" gesture made without speech: (3.08) Tommy on "Martin Lawrence" show.

Also, a number of examples of the spoken and unspoken use of "talk to the hand" on this episode of the Ricki Lake show: RICKI LAKE: "Okay Boo, Whateva Rainbow Bright, He's Mah Man!"

WARNING- This video contains argumentative language & actions and in-racial put downs based on skin complexion.

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