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Mixed blessings

By Terry Joseph
July 27, 2002

Originally, any person sincerely wishing a blessing upon another tended to be event-specific, establishing cause, identifying the deity from whom dispensation was being sought and doing it all in a single sentence.

More popular then as parting remark than a greeting, the request for divine intervention carefully confined itself to fundamentals, using only seven words and (given its breadth of purpose) rivalled “Jesus wept” for language economy. It simply said: “May God bless you and keep you.”

Still, there was room for editing. First to go was the “and keep you” rider, presumably because sponsors felt salvation should always be handled swiftly, but wished to mull a little longer on possible consequences of an open-ended prayer seeking longevity for the recipient.

A later version dropped the word “may”, deleting the probability factor. It shrunk to a stark: “God Bless You” which, with hindsight, sounds like a rather precocious directive but seems to have been taken in good spirit by The Creator Himself.

With increasing brevity allowing for wider application, the three-word invocation became a standard suffix for all verbal and written issue from the recently converted.

An even shorter version finally evolved, although this variant was used mostly in response to unscheduled sneezing. “Bless You,” they would say, as if the onset of the common cold clearly indicated declining spirituality.

As evidenced, I am not new to blessings, so I was certain the two-word wish could not be further truncated, which is why the latest form of greeting agreed upon by urban blacks is so thoroughly astonishing. As they meet, each man says just one word—“Bless”— then balls his right hand into a fist, completing the procedure by landing a serious cuff to his heart. “Boop!”

For openers, the salutation immediately excludes many black men who have had open-heart surgery, since no one wants to offer a greeting that deliberately dislodges his pacemaker, ruptures a recently repaired aorta or generally challenges the durability of a triple-bypass operation.

Worse, it dumps from the fold all women or, at the very least, our well-endowed sisters, who may generate giggling and jiggling by uninhibited performance of the ritualistic “Boop”.

Perhaps where greetings take place in mixed company, the host should sound warning: “Stand back, boys, there’s a big “Bless” coming!” Of equal concern is the fact that “Bless” is not normally a stand-alone word, so in the absence of subject or predicate, “Bless” could well be secret self-anointing masquerading as good wishes to the other person.

Remember now, God hears everything, including whispered pronouns.

Designed to be “cool”, this cuffing of the chest is—quite ironically—more easily associated with symptoms of discomfort in people suffering from gastronomical disorders.

Mixed signals could therefore leave a brother returning a “Bless” to someone whose gesture had more to do with acid-reflux than bonding. It also doubles as a kind of admonition to the lungs, where coughing-fits suddenly erupt, or when choking on food.

Now, every race has traditional greetings. Bowing from the waist is unassailable as a gesture of respect and fellowship among Orientals. The French kiss each other on the cheeks, Italians raise a loud cheer before engaging in warm embrace. Innuit rub noses, Russians hug and I suspect Alpine peoples still blow large horns and dance around in a circle.

In this regard, westernised blacks have never been easily predictable, changing salutations at will, frequently updating pass-keys to an already exclusive brotherhood.

The classic European handshake worked universally well into the 1960s, but since that time, increasing black awareness has led to designer-greetings that run the range from meaningful gesture to cheap theatrics.

I experienced no hesitation in expressing solidarity via the raised-fist black power signage of the 1970s and over ensuing decades, switched effortlessly to the thumb-clasp, sliding handshake that touched only fingertips, working it “on the black side”, exchanging single and then double palm-slapping and the high-five.

The bounce also went well, until a few over-zealous brothers vulgarised it into a full-fisted “bokey”.

But by the turn of the century, mastery of some black greetings demanded intense rehearsal if the routines were to be flawlessly executed. A handshake suddenly required complex choreography and some of the histrionics competed with other aspects of maturity.

Unduly elaborate versions rivaled movies for length, with the more adept achieving final contact by bouncing shoulders or some other randomly selected body-part. A keen sense of timing was essential and flourish became standard.

The concept of inclusion is clearly not a primary concern of these salutation engineers, who make it more and more difficult (and not just in physical terms) to show solidarity with the brotherhood.

But Emancipation Day is upon us and as I am not given to wearing heritage costuming as a demonstration of blackness, it may be easier to concede on this special occasion and greet my brothers in the recently agreed fashion:

And just this once, “Boop!”

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