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Is it OK to say “Who Dat?” Now that the Saints have won the Super Bowl, the phrase (if anyone had missed it before) is ubiquitous, and the question is both moot and even more pressing.

The answer is yes, it’s OK.

The phrase has its roots in vernacular poetry of the 19th century and was popularized by black entertainers. The documented history of the phrase begins with the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), famous for poems such as “We Wear the Mask” and the line “I know why the caged bird sings” (from the poem “Sympathy”) and well as for humorous verse written in black dialect. His poem “When Malindy Sings” (1895) features the lines “Who dat says dat humble praises/Wif de Master nevah counts?” The idea behind writing dialect was that the language evoked the real speech of the folk population.

In 1898, Dunbar collaborated with gifted African-American composer Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), who had studied violin at Oberlin Conservatory and composition with Antonin Dvorák at the National Conservatory in New York, to write the lyrics and libretto to a show called “Clorindy: The Origin of the Cake Walk.” “Clorindy” opened at the fashionable Casino Roof Garden on Broadway the summer of 1898. The show featured an all-black cast (no blackface) and was an immediate hit (the New York Times called it “sensational”). The most popular number was “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd”:

Who Dat Say Chicken In Dis Crowd

There was once a great assemblage of the cullud population, all the cullud swells was there, They had got themselves together to discuss the situation and rumors in the air.

There were speakers there from Georgia and some from Tennessee, who were making feather fly, When a roostah in the bahn-ya'd flew up what folks could see, Then those darkies all did cry.

Chorus: Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?

Speak de word agin' and speak it loud—

Blame de lan' let white folks rule it,

I'se a lookin fu a pullet,

Who dat say chicken in dis crowd.

A famous culled preacher told his listnin' congregation, all about de way to ac', Ef dey want to be respected and become a mighty nation to be hones' Fu' a fac'.

Dey mus nebber lie, no nebber, an' mus' not be caught a-stealin'

any pullets fun de lin',

But an aged deacon got up an' his voice it shook wif feelin', As dese words he said to him.

Chorus: Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?

Speak de word agin' and speak it loud—

What's de use of all dis talkin',

Let me hyeah a hen a squawkin'

Who dat say chicken in dis crowd.

This wasn’t the most cringe-inducing song in the show (though it was certainly the most popular, receiving 10 encores opening night); that prize goes to Dunbar’s “The Hottes’ Coon in Dixie.” African-American scholars have long asked why the educated and middle-class Dunbar would write such lyrics? Opponents to dialect poetry generally argued that such phrasing promoted the view that African Americans were ignorant. Dunbar addressed the issue in his poignant 1903 poem “The Poet,” which ends “But ah, the world, it turned to praise/A jingle in a broken tongue.” Poems in dialect made more money. Will Cook, too, was a businessman and gave his audience, black and white, the show they wanted.

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Back to “Who dat?” The phrase circulated widely in the first half of the 20th century. It appeared most often in a popular comedy routine in the 1930s and 40s—a voice in the dark who ask “Who dat?” The first reply is “Who dat!” followed by “Who dat who say who dat when I say who dat!” Harpo Marx belts out “Who’s Dat Man?” in “A Day at the Races” (1937). The skit was revived in the Our Gang series featuring Buckwheat and an owl.

The association of the phrase “Who Dat” with the New Orleans Saints began in 1983 as the brainchild of two brothers, Steve and Sal Monistere, who worked in a recording studio, First Take. According to Times-Picayune writer Dave Walker, Steve heard the “Who dat?” chant and decided to incorporate it into a radio spot featuring “When the Saints Go Marching In.” He recruited five Saints players (black and white) to chant “Who dat?” for the recording session, Dave Waymer, Brad Edelman, John Hill, Reggie Lewis and Louis Oubre. Aaron Neville sang. Once again, the phrase “Who dat” was promoted by black voices—this time long after the uncomfortable minstrel connotations had disappeared from the American cultural consciousness.

Hollis Robbins is a professor of Humanities at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and Associate Research Scholar at the Center for Africana Studies, where she teaches African American Poetry and Poetics.