To limit the amount of information that slave traders in the antebellum slave market had to send, the traders often categorized slaves into packages, perhaps a dozen, that were distinguished by particular characteristics: extra men, number one men, second-rate or ordinary girls, tall field fellows, young and lively, and so forth. Out of this habit came the term and practice of “playing the dozens,” denoting an individual as having less importance.

Playing the dozens is a game of verbal insult and display–an opportunity for sublimation and catharsis, providing training in verbal quickness and physical restraint in front of one's peers, where the risk of injury or death is minimal. This practice became popular at a time when the suspected infraction of any rule by an African ...

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