September 27, 2020

The Magic of Black Girls’ Play

Even as an only child, I learned the hidden musicianship performed by girls, for girls in the 100-year old Black neighborhood outside Washington, where I was raised. For nearly 30 years, I have written about the sophisticated culture of Black girls’ embodied musical play. From backyards to schoolyards, their game-songs predate Emancipation. Their musical blackness has much to offer once we unpack the magic in the rhythms and rhymes that animate their torsos and release their tongues with laughter.

Games are girls’ algorithms. More sophisticated than patty-cake, there are three reasons Black girls’ game-songs seem insignificant: They are performed by children; they center girls’ experience over boys; and their music-making is part of the public domain, where “individual authorship or ownership cannot be assigned. No royalties for the song-makers of double-dutch,” as I put it in my book, “The Games Black Girls Play.



As a result, we miss the way Black girls often enter the classroom with their own forms of teaching and learning, from hand-clapping game-songs to jumping rope. They perform gendered ideas used to convey expressions about race and racism:

Mailman, Mailman, do your duty
Here come the lady with the African booty
She can do the wah-wah
She can do the splits
She can do anything to make you split, so split!

Their play resists the dehumanizing dictates of a white, patriarchal culture as girls praise their ancestral connections and difference (“African booty”). At the same time, they’re also performing a multi-limbed mastery of social dance — the “wah-wah” probably refers to the “Watusi,” which was danced to the rhythm-and-blues hit “The Wah-Watusi” by the Orlons (1962).

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Credit…Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Girls’ musical play ignores the antipathy toward Black lives that were typically represented in the media in the ’70s (and beyond). There’s no airplay broadcasting stereotypes about teenage parenting or fears of getting pushed out of school by a system that tends to criminalize their cries for help.

While we bend our ears toward boys who bust a rhyme, we tend to dismiss what girls say as nonsense. But their play has deep cultural meaning. Take this popular hand-clapping chant:

Ee-ny mee-ny {{snap}} pepsa -deeny{{snap}}
oo-cha— {{snap}}cam— ba-lini {{snap}}
At-chi cat-chi{{snap}} li-ber-atchi{{snap}
I— love {{snap}}— you, tu-tu{{snap}}, sham-poo{{snap}}

Embedded in the first phrase “eeny meeny pepsadeeny is a remnant of the nursery rhyme “eeny meeny miney moe.” This game-song signals, and simultaneously subverts, the racist history of the chant. “Eeny meeny miney moe” used to be followed by a line about catching a Black person “by its toe,” only a racial slur was used. The song continued: “If he hollers let him go. Eeny meeny miney moe.”

Let us not be naïve and make ourselves invulnerable to the perils of the past. Even in children’s games, as an interview with the Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy expressed, “it would do more harm than good to turn away from its history and its destructiveness.”

All kinds of play has been commingled and littered with violence against Black people’s bodies throughout American cultural history. In the book “Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights,” Robin Bernstein, Ph.D., a cultural historian and a professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard, wrote that “nineteenth-century white children singled out Black dolls for attacks that were especially vicious and that took racialized forms such as hanging or burning.”

The second phrase of this version of “eeny meeny” ends with what sounds like a nod to popular TV personality Liberace, an extravagant white, gay virtuoso classical pianist, but it actually masks a 1970s Black power chant. “Atchi catchi liberatchi” is probably “education, liberation” hidden in a linguistic code. Given the long history of stigmatizing Black children’s communication as evidence of an all-encompassing illiteracy, and this code turns that stigma on its ear.

The author Toni Morrison once wrote that “Black Americans were sustained and healed and nurtured by the translation of their experience into art, above all in the music.” The rhymed chants of double-dutch and hand games are no different.

A hand-clapping game from the ’90s goes:

Mama, mama can’t you see? {{1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1 }
What dat baby done to me{{1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1 }}
Took away my MTV, {{1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1 }}
Now I’m watchin’ Baar-ney. {{ 1-2-3 1-2-3 1 . }}

(A YouTube version of this song mixes the traditional melody of “Hush, Little Baby” and Bo Diddley’s hambone beat.)

Later in the game-song, the tension between daughters and their mamas, who quip, “you ain’t grown yet,” surfaces, allowing girls to playfully express their sassiness without a penalty. This game-song playfully voices their dissent from parental punishment as adolescent Black girls shift their gaze from a children’s television show (“Barney”) to embrace the over-sexualized dream-worlds of 1990s MTV.

Games are a way for Black girls to learn how social relationships are negotiated within America’s racialized and sexist map of reality. Their musical play is rooted in African diasporic aesthetics of call-and-response, where patting one’s body like a drum produces complex polyrhythmic musical textures. For a post-slave population that was once considered three-fifths human, for whom reading and writing was illegal or access to literacy was excluded, these games helped African-Americans survive circumstances that were anything but fun for girls and women.

In double-dutch, girls learn how to jump in and out of the ropes or choreograph tricks in duos or trios. When turners at each end of the two twirling ropes observe the imperfections of those inside the ropes, they adjust them to fit the locomotion of the jumpers’ bodies and pedaling feet. It’s an inclusive structuring of play; you may have to sit out when you mess up, but another turn awaits you at the end of a line of girls who got next.

Credit…Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post, via Getty Images

There are do-overs in double-dutch. A turner might be “double-handed” making the skipping ropes sound uneven against the pavement. A more experienced girl will likely come from behind and correct the turner’s arms so the steady tic-tat of the timeline returns. Wherever someone enters the game, the other girls learn to create space for her to shine in the spotlight of their play.

Double-dutch regulates relationships rather than rules. Girls negotiate an invisible syllabus of working together well, whether that be in the ropes or eventually out. The constantly shifting situations, the different jumpers and turners involved, the different rhythms and snippets of rhymes turns play into a process. It is a process of negotiating musical taste-making and building an imagined community of sisterhood.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the last Black girls jumping outdoors moved from the playground to the public sphere of the internet. Pre-pandemic, hand-games and double-dutch were practically a thing of the past. But during the quarantine, house-bound kids long to be outside so bad, and playgrounds have seemed too risky. YouTube and TikTok to the rescue.

Credit…Jill Frank for The New York Times

Yet another problem persists: the exploitation of their online musical play. When Jalaiah Harmon, 14, posted her “Renegade” dance on social media, the moves became so popular, especially on TikTok, that it became a global dance craze, but she initially received no credit or money for it. Harmon’s unpaid affective labor, which drove attention to the song “Lottery” by Atlanta rapper K-Camp, is not considered as profitable as Charli D’Amelio’s interpretation of her work until recently. Black girls are viewed less and shamed more in a kind of double exploitation online.

As with Harmon’s dance, Black girls’ embodied musical play creates an autonomous and secluded zone of worthiness, even though they are the ones to pass down the earliest formations of a shared Black popular culture and imagined community in their hidden musicianship. And during a pandemic year with shelter-in-place orders and productive rebellion, spreading a little Black girl joy is needed more than ever.


Kyra Gaunt is an ethnomusicologist whose research focuses on the prevalence of mobile violence against Black girls from YouTube to Wikipedia. She is also the author of the best-selling book “The Games Black Girls Play.”