Five on the Black Hand Side:
Origins and Evolutions of the Dap

Five on the Black Hand Side. Photos by LaMont Hamilton
Five on the Black Hand Side. Photos by LaMont Hamilton

Five on the Black Hand Side is a project exploring gestural languages that were born in African American communities during the 1960s and 1970s, including the “the dap” and the black power handshake. When we see youths, athletes, or even President Obama giving a fist bump or dap, we think of these gestures as mere greetings and are not aware of the origins and historical significance of these languages.

Historically, the dap is both a symbol among African American men that expresses unity, strength, defiance, or resistance and a complex language for communicating information. The dap and the black power handshake, which evolved from the dap, were important symbols of black consciousness, identity, and cultural unity throughout black America.

The dap originated during the late 1960s among black G.I.s stationed in the Pacific during the Vietnam War. At a time when the Black Power movement was burgeoning, racial unrest was prominent in American cities, and draft reforms sent tens of thousands of young African Americans into combat, the dap became an important symbol of unity and survival in a racially turbulent atmosphere. Scholars on the Vietnam War and black Vietnam vets alike note that the dap derived from a pact black soldiers took in order to convey their commitment to looking after one another. Several unfortunate cases of black soldiers reportedly being shot by white soldiers during combat served as the impetus behind this physical act of solidarity.

Such events, combined with the racism and segregation faced by black G.I.s, created a pressing need for an act and symbol of unity. The dap, an acronym for “dignity and pride” whose movements translate to “I’m not above you, you’re not above me, we’re side by side, we’re together,” provided just this symbol of solidarity and served as a substitute for the Black Power salute prohibited by the military.

White soldiers and commanding officers deemed the handshake a threat under the misconception that the dap was a coded language of potential black insurrection. In fact the dap was also a coded form of communication between soldiers that conveyed necessary information for survival, such as what to expect at the battlefront or what had transpired during an operation. The dap was banned at all levels of the military, and thus many black soldiers were court-martialed, jailed, and even dishonorably discharged as a punishment for dapping. Military repression of the dap further cemented a desire for a symbol of solidarity and protection among black men.

Conversely, later in the war, the military saw the utility of using the dap in medical treatment of black combatants with post-traumatic stress disorder, creating a program of “dap therapy.” The military would bring in black G.I.s fluent in the dap to dap with these men to build their trust up to accept treatment from white doctors and staff.

In 2013, I began a series of photographs called Five on the Black Hand Side that image African American men performing the dap. I make these through identifying particular communities of men of different cultures and ages who participate in the culture of the dap, interviewing them, and photographing their handshakes. Through the research I have already conducted with these individuals, I have learned that there is a tremendous diversity of daps, evolving from the dramatically different movements and meanings of each military company.

At the Smithsonian, I have been researching oral and visual histories of the “Bloods” (black soldiers) of Vietnam, who coined the term “dap,” at the Soul Soldiers exhibition archives curated by Samuel L. Black of the Heinz History Center, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. I have been using the Smithsonian’s archives at the African Art Museum, the Hirshhorn, and the National Museum of American History to look for the evolution of the dap in songs, artwork, films, literature, and posters to understand how it and other gestures of black solidarity disseminated in popular culture. I will continue to interview black Vietnam veterans, former gang members, and others and photograph their handshakes to construct further images for Five on the Black Hand Side.

LaMont Hamilton is a photographer and visual artist from Chicago who is conducting research at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage through the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship program.

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Owning Identity: Sartorial Expressions at the Million Man March Anniversary
Continuity, Change, and Cultural Connections: African Diaspora at the Folklife Festival

  • Dawn Womack

    I can’t believe there is no discussion. This is a powerful article and has helped me to explore the very essence of the handshake, particularly among Black men. Is a handshake enough to keep the peace among our men, build relationships, stop the violence, etc.

    I admire the Smithsonian’s Handshake project but is there any notion to take this further by collaborating with others to create an experience across the country. The handshake has the potential to change the world. One shake at a time.

    • Visionary

      Because it involves us. And we are still not together

  • HipTripCool

    Awesome material, and I am with Dawn, this definitely needs to be explored further. The invention of the dap and circumstances surrounding it can be applied to African Americans situation today. We are still at war.

    • ruwatchingclosely



    Beautiful. Powerful. I would actually give certain dap to certain brothers. If I did not know you, I gave you a pound. If we were tight, dumb grip with a lean in and one arm wrap around. I am sharing this…


    This is a great article.

  • Bill

    Great project!

  • Ms.Munroe

    I love this article… I visited Ghana, West Africa where I found the “Ghana Handshake” was a spitting resemblance to one done in Jamaica, and was wondering maybe handshakes have come from even further than the Vietnam War… There are diverse handshakes in the Caribbean as well as on the continent of Africa that have evolved over time I hope you’d look into extending this project upwards and outwards!!!!

  • Leroy P williams Jr

    As a Black Vietnam veteran I can truly say the “dap” was a way to express our unity. I served from May 1970 to April 1971 in Phu Loi and Cu Chi and there was a lot of racism from the redneck whites, but when you messed with one brother you messed with all of us, we stuck together…When I came home to Los Angeles I threw up the power sign of unity that we had in Nam and the brothers looked at me as if I were crazy…..It really hurt because I thought if they only knew what it was like to really have unity. I was a little shell shocked then( they call it PTSD now) but I never lost my composure because of the memories of, “if you mess with one you mess with all”, and the unity of the “dap”.

  • Deb

    Can you tell the meaning an origin of each handshake in the photographs?

  • Al

    I was a 20yr old white boy stationed in Chu Lai when I first saw the Bloods dapping. Just out of the field at the PX buying needles, thread, and buttons, they would be in groups going to it. I’d never seen anything like it. Racism was rife, but there were blacks and whites that did get along, so I was able to learn about it. These guys could dap lightning fast, never missing a beat or say a word. Conveyed all they needed to know and was a powerful unifying and communication tool. Amazing. The Army couldn’t stop it and rarely tried…

  • James M. Simmons

    Great project! Just heard a story on the related gestural language of the “up nod.” When two African American strangers passed each other on a street in Europe and gave each other the up nod, a white companion to one of the two asked if they knew each other. When the reply was “no,” the white friend was extremely perplexed and a little disturbed.

  • Mike

    Saw it in Korea 71/72, Saw blacks unifying with it, whites felt segregated, or as outsiders, no matter how close as friends with black soldiers, it radicalized many blacks and race riots were common place, many got hurt in these difficult times. If you were in any kind of line, where some black soldiers saw a group of other black soldiers, he and his friends were obligated to dap each person, this could take a while and now they’ve all just meander in, to cut in line, they felt it gave them a sense of entitlement. Objecting to this, would always end up in a confrontation. Never in basic did line jumping occur, for anyone.

  • Shawn Ben

    This is needed now more than ever. There is no unity nor respect for others. Beautiful article!