Until recently, the salutations of Black America were an anomaly to mainstream white Americans. The verbal expressions, hand gestures, and bodily maneuvers of Black people when greeting each other, or bidding one another farewell, affirm a shared racial, ethnic, and/or cultural identity within a white majority country, and this unique subculture was often viewed as irreverent and unprofessional among Euro-Americans. Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates noted that in his first job with “white folk” in the 1990s he consciously avoided shaking hands with his co-worker “every time he saw him,” since his white co-workers did not understand that such actions were “normal among the brothers.” However, Coates suggests these circumstances changed as Black culture was mainstreamed in the United States, and he soon found himself performing culturally specific handshakes with white people who were “acculturated,” though he was selective in this process, as not all white people were among the initiated. Coates was following an established tradition in the Black community first analyzed in Linguist John Baugh’s 1978 work, “The Politics of the Black Power Handshakes,” where he “observed and analyzed more than six hundred handshakes performed at a Los Angeles municipal pool” among Black residents of the area. He noted that “insiders” used the “black power handshake” amongst their trusted associates, while outsiders were greeted with the “standard handshake,” usually determined by which “norm satisfied the immediate social requirements.” Traditionally, a group’s unique salutation affirms their filial connection with others in their community. According to Linguist and Literary Critic Geneva Smitherman, the “in-group handshake” connotes solidarity when one is trying to identify as a “club member.”
White people who demonstrate fluency in Black American salutations are often welcomed as extended (perhaps fictive) kin, showcased by a viral video published on Sep. 9, 2017 in which a white male reporter interviewed a Black man assisting communities in Houston devastated by flooding. As the interview ended, both of them initially formed a “traditional” handshake, with their thumbs interlocking, palms touching, and four fingers wrapped around the “hypothenar eminence” (the side of the hand below the pinky). To the surprise of many, both men subsequently initiated the second part of the gesture by fluidly gliding their palms into a different position. Without breaking skin contact or unlocking their thumbs, they gradually moved their fingers upward in a circular motion and clasped the bone that connects the thumb to the wrist. They then initiated its final component. Maintaining skin-to-skin contact, they each unlocked their thumbs and glided their palms across one another’s as each man simultaneously formed his fingers into a “C” before clamping their hands together. If one takes an aerial view of this final formation, the interlocked hands will resemble the letter “S.” Viewers noticed the white reporter’s comfortability reflected an authentic cultural knowledge of Black American interactions, as one observer even jokingly exclaimed, “Blackness confirmed” in the Youtube comments section. However, others noted the two men forgot to conclude this shake with a “snap” of their fingers, a sonic declaration that usually signals the gesture’s end. Subsequently, the two men reconnected to perform the same handshake, this time concluding it with a pronounced snap.
Scholars note that historically Black churches possessed secret handshakes, often called “giving skin” or “high-fiving,” which affirmed one’s identity within the group. The complex handshakes associated with Black America have many names, including “soul shakes,” “black power handshakes,” or the “dap,” each reflecting forms of nonverbal communication typically associated with Black GIs in Vietnam. 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. Certainly, the proliferation of hip hop and its accompanied mainstreaming of both verbal and nonverbal urban Black vernaculars initiated this recent process of cultural exchange throughout the United States, but one can surely assume such unique expressions hold older, possibly diasporic, origins. To fully understand the unique facets of the handshake as an African cultural product, one must journey across the Atlantic to Western Africa.
As ethnocentric interpreters of cultural difference, the journals and published narratives of European enslavers reveal detailed accounts of rituals they found particularly strange. Historians note that West African forms of dance, music, language, spirituality, food, recreation, and sexuality baffled Europeans, who, though employing a biased lens, recorded many of their observations with significant detail. Their comments surrounding West African handshakes were no different. Inclined to conduct the “standard handshake,” European traders were bewildered by the elaborate gestures of Black salutation, especially their inclination to snap their fingers following hand-to-hand contact. In A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone, trader John Matthews noted that friends in this region had various expressions when greeting each other, including a process in which they would “shake hands, and snap the finger and thumb” (97). Similarly, in the mid-1850s Missionary George Thompson observed different groups in Sierra Leone employing elaborate handshakes: “if long separated, they put their hands on each other’s shoulders, draw them down each other’s arms, and rub the hands together, always closing off with a very expressive snap of the finger.” Naturally, Thompson denoted this was a less-masculine, gentle salutation that contrasted with the “hearty shake” of Europeans. Ethnocentrism aside, such descriptions are useful in clearly noting that finger snapping was a crucial aspect of the salutary customs. Numerous American magazines even reprinted an article “How D’Ye Do?,” first published in the mid-nineteenth century, which detailed the salutary forms of various peoples throughout the world. Regarding the “negro races,” they claimed that the fingers and joints were the most important components of the entire process: “seizing the hand, they pull away at the fingers until the joints begin to crack,” listing variations among peoples living in both “lower” and “upper” Guinea. Since there is clear evidence of unique handshakes in West Africa, a few questions remain: did they survive the Middle Passage and Atlantic slavery? If so, do such customs provide a historical link to the modern handshakes used among Black people in the diaspora?
If the conditions of the Middle Passage did not physically kill the bonds person, they were certainly designed for social death and cultural annihilation. Upon disembarking in any of the many slave societies throughout the western hemisphere, the racially-based, chattel form of bondage sought to further eliminate enslaved people’s ties to ancestral cosmologies. In response, enslaved communities exchanged ancestral knowledge and adjusted their practices within the slave society. Consequently, diasporic traditions often reflected a combination of African, European, and/or American fusions. Handshakes were arguably easier to preserve since they did not require external equipment, just the ability to maneuver one’s wrist and fingers. However, handshakes were likely specific to one’s ancestral ethnic group. If one was unable to find individuals who shared their same ancestral ties in West Africa, replicating a specific salutation surely proved difficult. Consequently, enslaved friends likely recreated or reimagined their ancestral salutations and modified them within their new circumstances. The primary difficulty for historians in identifying African continuities in enslaved salutations revolves around the lack of specificity in the source base. But we do have some evidence that finger snapping held cultural and religious importance among diasporic people. In one account, white people noticed that enslaved African men would “snap fingers” when greeting a kinsman. Historian James Sweet noted that Domingos Alvares, an African healer and formerly enslaved man who traversed the Atlantic, ritualistically snapped his fingers when performing rituals inspired by spiritual practices in western Africa. Paired with the salutary traditions documented in African American churches, one can theorize that practices like “snapping fingers” continued in Black communities for multiple generations, even if their intricacies were not immediately disclosed to white people.
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.
Like other traditions throughout the Black Atlantic, diasporic handshakes were likely modified as they were passed from the ancestors to their descendants, transmitted through performative motions and oral testimonies. Indeed, if the handshake denotes trust between two associates, it is advantageous for the group to not disclose their salutations to unfriendly outsiders. It is reasonable to assume that handshakes were shared between Black Americans across generations to affirm a cultural, ethnic, and racial solidarity in the United States. They took various forms, and even when altered, each handshake reflected African traditions that symbolized resistance against the oppressors’ attempts to annihilate the unique cultural forms of diasporic Africans throughout the Americas.