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The Magic of Black Girls’ Play

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.

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