GONE? Handclapping Games, Suggestive Lyrics, and Social Innovation

When we think of African American popular music, our first thought is probably not of double-dutch: girls bouncing between two twirling ropes, keeping time to the tick-tat under their toes. But this book argues that the games black girls play –handclapping songs, cheers, and double-dutch jump rope–both reflect and inspire the principles of black popular musicmaking. – Kyra D. Gaunt, Ph.D.

Depardon, Harlem 1981


I was searching through my YouTube messages and subscribers today. Never even looked at who’s subscribed to my YouTube account before. Still learning the ropes of the YouTube community. I lucked upon the channel of EbonyJanice Peace who subscribes to my channel. I subscribed to hers and checked out her videos. Lo and behold, she is talking my talk–handclapping game-songs and the underlying meaning of the lyrics we chanted day in and day out.

Joan Morgan’s seminal text When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost inspired EbonyJanice to vlog about several handclapping game chants unpacking the suggestive meanings in all.

She says:

         I thought it was incredible that
0:15 black girls in Chicago, black girls in Virginia, and black girls in Ohio and
0:21 black girls in California
0:23 all had learned these sing-song handgame rhymes
0:26 how did that happen who was transporting these
0:30 messages from Virginia to California
0:33 Miss Mary Mack, for example , who taught black girls in Virginia
0:36 little black girls in Idaho, Miss Mary Mack?


She asks the question that guided my work for my book The Games Black Girls Play. She asked

it made me think about the conversations
that are… are just in our DNA or something(?). How do we just know these things?
Check out my book for my answers. (see below for links to reviews). Suffice it to say, it’s not DNA (exactly). It’s learned.
The Games Black Girls Play illustrates how black musical styles are incorporated into the earliest games African American girls learn–how, in effect, these games contain the DNA of black music. Drawing on interviews, recordings of handclapping games and cheers, and her own observation and memories of gameplaying, Kyra D. Gaunt argues that black girls’ games are connected to long traditions of African and African American musicmaking, and that they teach vital musical and social lessons that are carried into adulthood. In this celebration of playground poetry and childhood choreography, she uncovers the surprisingly rich contributions of girls’ play to black popular culture.



One is that the grapevine of Twitter is not the first time we were so hyperconnected. Patterns of segregation and the impact of patterns of desegregation have led many black families to remain connected in their private and public lives because they were and are still not fully accepted in the public sphere of accomondations. Plus all our folk back in the 1970s were still back in the South or in segregated communities and still are. But the games are not as significant. YouTube videos and online videos on Instagram and VINE have become the 21st century games.
EbonyJanice goes on to say handgames live on and they will be here forever. Well? I haven’t been convinced over the last five years or so. I would suggest that girls handgames ARE declining in significance. They are being replaced by handheld mobile devices and a much more sedentary lifestyle which is not necessarily good for any of us much less black girls.
Black girlhood is changing and my theory about it from studying black girls who twerk from their bedrooms on YouTube is that we are no different that the rest of the wider (whiter) population. Our patterns of participation are online. We moved from the read-only culture of previous music media (BET, Soul Train, radio and TV shows) to read-write culture but black girls tend to not create, invent, or riff as much with their online video production. They don’t even talk as much it seems.


(Think #BlackTwitter)

What complicates things further is that within this category “black girls” are women of various ages who endearingly call themselves “girls” or “gurl” and the demographic categories of adolescents and teens are being drowned out by us.
The games represented, for me, the kind of social innovation that marks the revolution of networked individualism, hyperconnectivity and social media like Black Twitter.
I was an early adopter of the #BlackTwitter hashtag and moniker. I blogged about it first in 2011 with about 12,000 reads on the TED Fellows blog to speak out against the prosecution of Kelley Bolar-Williams, a single mom who was sent to jail after my post, for sending her kids to a white school district and being found guilty.



There is so much work to be done about the loss of culture due to changes in social media. While we are highly active on social media, on mobile media–I just read a report that said black teens interact with celebrities on the Twitter and other social media accounts much more than whites, I think I am as good as an example as most black female teens in that making/creating media vs. consuming media is not our first action.
I am thinking about all the time I spent reading about #Ferguson and black men or women killed by the police the last 7 days. And how much I’ve written or published online myself other than short media. It’s time to reinveest in the creative culture we already have. To convert it into new media. To create more voice, original content, remix, and other from black girls–and I mean black teens and adolescents as well as black women, particularly online video.
More to come as this fall I teach my Anthropological Analysis course and resume by Black Girls Twerking on YouTube project.


Book Reviews: The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop.

  1. Review-a-Day: bitch, Sunday, August 20th, 2006
  2. Review by Matthew Somoroff from Mark Anthony Neal’s MAN-in-Exile Blog.
  3. AllHipHop.com Review by Nadiyah R. Bradshaw

And consider purchasing the book at The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop

2007 Alan Merriam Prize presented by the Society for Ethnomusicology
2007 PEN/Beyond Margins Book Award Finalist


3 thoughts on “GONE? Handclapping Games, Suggestive Lyrics, and Social Innovation

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