Detroit Poet Natasha T. Miller Defines the Phrase “What Up Doe”

Miller constantly employs the art of language in her work as a poet, author, activist, and film producer. The most important words, she shares, are those that bring together communities and remind the speaker of where they come from.
Natasha T. Miller
Natasha T. Miller

 *What Up Doe, Whadupdoe, Waddupdoe: It’s a greeting, a phrase, a word with multiple spellings, yet one meaning — home. 

In June 2016, I was standing in front of a crowd of 30,000 visitors in Detroit at Ford Field. My back and my palms were sweating. It was the most nervous I had ever felt before a spoken word poetry performance. I remember asking myself, “What would make these people smile?” Then I looked out into the audience and said, “I’m from Detroit where we say ‘What Up Doe,’ so when I say ‘What Up Doe,’ you say ‘What Up Doe’ — ‘What Up Doe.’ ” Next thing I know, 30,000 people were smiling and yelling, ‘What Up Doe’ to the stage, and in an instant, the crowd got safer. The room felt like it belonged to me. 

In a city where so much has been stripped from the natives, specifically from black Detroiters, where schools have been shut down, black-owned businesses have closed, families have been displaced, locked up, or have even died young, it’s important to have a thing you love. Something you’re protective over that belongs to you. 

If you ask Detroiters what their favorite Coney Island is, most will tell you about the Coney Island near where they grew up. People from both the eastside and westside will argue about how the cheese and the chili taste worse on the other side of town. We will debate about the best-flavored Faygo pop or Better Made chip, the safest liquor store, or the hypest high school — assuming that the school is still open. What we will not be divided on though, is the “What Up Doe, Whadupdoe, or the Waddupdoe.” 

It is not a question, which is why there’s no question mark after it. You don’t say, “What Up Doe” and a person responds by telling you “What’s Up?” You say “What Up Doe” and a person responds with, “What Up Doe.” A person responds to the “What Up Doe” by lowering their guard, by smiling, by taking off their shoes, by welcoming you home. 

I’d like to believe that we unite around the “What Up Doe” because it’s not a building, or a flavor: It’s not something that can be shut down, discontinued, or taken away from us. The “What Up Doe” can’t be bought. The “What Up Doe” or “Whaddupdoe” is not simply words or a word, it’s a feeling. “It’s the feeling I imagine Wakandans get when they cross their arms over their chest.” “It’s a verbal hug, a recognition of your humanity and hustle.” “It is love and home,” as described by my friends on Facebook from Detroit.  

The “What Up Doe” is a sermon in a city of abandoned churches. The “What Up Doe” is paired best with the “boss-up-and-get-this-money” dance created in the early 2000s by slain Detroit rapper Blade Icewood. 

The “What Up Doe” is the Detroit saying and perhaps, most importantly, the Detroit feeling. We are not defined by a Midwest or Southern accent, a T’Baby song, or a plant. We are 100 percent in agreeance that the “What Up Doe” is our thing — and that thing
always brings us home.