In his memoir, The Color of Water, a young James McBride is sitting on a school bus headed for a camp in Upstate New York. He is looking out the window at his white mother, “the only white face in a sea of black faces.” A black man walks up with his son and instead of the man sending his son off with a hug, he gives him some dap.
“The father and son did a magnificent, convoluted black-power soul handshake called the ‘dap,’ McBride wrote in the 1995 New York Times Bestseller, “the kind of handshake that lasts five minutes, fingers looping, thumbs up, thumbs down, index fingers collapsing, wrists snapping, bracelets tingling.”
The father was a Black Panther and the handshake was for him, as it was for many black men who emerged during the Black Power movement in the late 1960s, an act of unity with other black males around a shared history and purpose. DAP, an acronym for dignity and pride, originated with Black soldiers during the Vietnam War who were forbidden from using the raised fist of the Black Power movement.
“Give me Five!” “Give me some skin!” “Give me Five on the Black hand side!” “Give me some dap!” Black men used these common expressions to initiate handshakes. Each company or platoon had their own unique version.
According to LaMont Hamilton, a photographer and visual artist, who has conducted extensive research on the dap, the movements of the handshake translate to “I’m not above you, you’re not above me, we’re side by side, we’re together.”
I learned the dap from my father who learned it when he was a college student in the late 1960s and then during a tour in Vietnam. Even as a young child when I didn’t understand most things about race in America, I understood that black men had a particular way of bonding with their handshakes. I knew that I couldn’t wear my dad’s red Black Power T-shirt with the black fist Afro comb over my shoulder pads during Little League football practice, but I could quietly connect with other young black males through handshakes that we taught each other through generations.
After pledging the Omega Psi Phi fraternity in college, I learned a secret handshake that I share with my fraternity brothers. As an athlete and sports journalist, I learned to high-Five and witnessed how Major League Baseball players use complex handshakes after a scoring play. I saw up close Tiger Woods’ clumsy attempts to high-five his caddie after an amazing shot.
I have always believed that it is disrespectful to give a handshake with your left hand. The handshake should be firm, but not crushing, and always with the right hand. “A gentleman who rudely presses the hand offered him in a salutation, or too violently shakes it, ought never to have an opportunity to repeat his offense,” said one etiquette manual.
The Coronavirus has brought new perspective to my history with handshakes. For the time being I will not be using any of the handshakes that I have honed over the years. The CDC has advised to use other noncontact methods of greeting. Many have taken up with elbow and forearm taps or a simple wave.
Walking recently the streets of Harlem, where I live, I encountered old acquaintances whom before the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic I would have given a fist bump or a pound or some full on dap. Now I just waved at them as if I were passing them on the street in a car.
At Harlem Hops, an elegant craft beer bar on 7th Avenue, bartenders served stouts, sours and IPAs in gloves. A good buddy, a portfolio analyst and homebrewer, sat at a comfortable distance as we discussed school closings, the markets and the impact of the pandemic on our ability to trade beer. We didn’t shake hands as we went our separate ways, but we hoped for a time when our handshakes, which symbolized trust and friendship, could resume with the ease of a Sunday morning.
James McBride remembered that the whole school bus watched the father give his son some dap. Even if the kids didn’t understand anything about race in America they understood they were witnessing an important ritual that linked father to son. As we now struggle to find ways to greet each other without touching, I will not take for granted the power of a handshake. If we can’t dap each other up, we can certainly use some of its symbolism to help each other through these trying and uncertain times.