Dignity and Pride as the AALEAD Family Grows

By Yonsoo Kang, VA Middle School Program Coordinator, and Eileen Chen, VA Programs Intern
Photos Courtesy of Yonsoo Kang, Eileen Chen, and the Heinz History Center

“…the movements translate to ‘I’m not above you, you’re not above me, we’re side by side, we’re together…’” – LaMont Hamilton, Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Five on the Black Hand SideOrigins and Evolutions of the Dap Article, 2014.

A lot has been going on in Virginia these past couple weeks! Youth from Poe and Holmes Middle Schools cooked ramen, enjoyed our first VA Fall Festival Kick-Off Event, and now they’ve met our new intern, Eileen Chen!

Eileen always knew she wanted to work in a field that directly impacts the lives of others, but was not always sure how or what she was going to do to achieve her goal. After graduating from the Fairfax County school system herself, Eileen spent one year in China teaching English to college and grade-school students living in the countryside. Her experience with the deep rooted Chinese culture helped Eileen to understand that there was so much more to people and the world around her than she previously thought. Coming back to the States, Eileen started to ask herself, “How can I give what I have to someone else?” It was through this daily inquiry that she realized she wanted to go into the field of psychology. Eileen is currently a junior at George Mason University and volunteering as a crisis worker at PRS CrisisLink. She has joined the AALEAD family because it provided a perfect opportunity for her to give back to the community that raised her. Eileen wants to engage with a new generation of Fairfax youth by sharing her time, knowledge, and experience in hopes of providing VA youth the same inclusive and supportive community she had experienced.

At AALEAD, we are always maintaining a welcoming atmosphere so our new members quickly feel that they are part of our growing family. Lately, I wanted to strengthen that family aspect of AALEAD in VA by focusing on something simple: our greeting. The handshake is ubiquitous among youth and adults in many interactions. However, in American popular culture, it is common to see many people greet each other by giving a certain kind of gesture known as the dap. When I asked individual AALEADers from both Poe and Holmes to “dap it up” with me and we instinctively knew to clasp our hands and go into short fluid movements.

During programs, I asked my youths the first of many stimulating questions. “Does anybody know what the word dap means?” The youth just gave me blank stares in return. I tried again.

“You know what a dap is, right?”

Greetings: Soldiers in Vietnam do the dap. - PHOTO COURTESY OF HEINZ HISTORY CENTER.

Greetings: Soldiers in Vietnam do the dap. Photo Courtesy of the Heinz History Center.


“But what does it mean?”

“It means something?”

Blank stares transformed to uncertain ones when I asked, “How did this whole dap thing start?”

We began our cross-cultural lesson by understanding that dap stood for Dignity And Pride (DAP) and it began with African-American service members during the Vietnam War. The youth soon learned how the dap started by understanding that the gestures were used as a form of survival and demonstrated African-American solidarity in the face of racism and segregation during the Vietnam War.

When I was at Poe Middle School, I asked the youth to close their eyes and imagine they were soldiers fighting against an enemy. When asked how they would feel, many youth said they would feel nervous or be afraid that they were going to be killed. Pushing their imaginations further, I then asked, “Imagine that now, you have to fight two battles. The first one is against the enemy your country is fighting and the second one is against some soldiers on your own side.” Many AALEADers were shocked when I explained how African-American service members faced danger within their own ranks due to American racial divides and discrimination, such as incidents where African-American soldiers would reportedly be shot by their White comrades during combat. The youth’s surprise continued as they learned that the dap was banned in the military and African-American soldiers would be arrested and punished for dapping because White commanders thought it was code to begin a civil insurrection.

Just as African-American GI’s formed the dap to reassure their unity and preserve their dignity despite the challenges they faced, I proposed to our AALEADers that we should make our own AALEAD dap. Currently, I am stitching together various gestures created by Poe and Holmes students. By learning the history behind the dap and creating our own, we not only give homage to the creators, but also promote AALEAD pride and solidarity, and emphasize that AALEAD is a family where youth have each other’s backs through the highs and the lows.

Poe Students Dapping

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