Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sisterhood: The Games Black Girls Play by Kyra G. Gaunt (2006)

sing a black girl’s song.
bring her out
to know herself.
(Shange 1977)

The other day was gorgeous and I decided to take a walk and do a little shopping. Ok, I will be honest, a lot of shopping! In my shopping escapade, I stopped off at the bookstore. As I walked the aisles, I tried to interest myself in everything from cooking to self-help books, to books about fashion to home décor to history and politics. I walked the usual music section and then I speed over to the “African American History and Culture” section. I realized that I read most of the books or at least owned them until my eyes caught the flashy colors of Kyra D. Gaunt’s The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes From Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. I was immediately excited. Just looking at the front cover made me flashback to a more innocent time.

From spending my early childhood years in the Bronx, I can remember the summer afternoons through evenings when all the girls from the block would play double dutch. Everywhere from the driveways, to the front lawns, to the sidewalks and into the streets were public spaces for human expression and creativity. I remained a bystander because for some reason, I was always scared of getting hit in the face with the rope. Whenever you are scared to get hit in the face with the rope, you get hit in the face with the rope. I was always much better at the hand games and of course the stepping contest that used to take place every year during our annual block parties. I could remember all my old childhood friends right now: Natasha, Maxine, Alexis, Keisha, Brittany and Siobhan. Now they could jump rope! Two interlocking ropes moving so fast that when they hit the ground, I thought of the lashes my great-grandmother would promise me if I ever was to stray too far from the front of the house or get my clothes soiled. They chanted and rhymed about all who had a man, all who did not have a man, all who was ugly, how fly they were, how good they were etc…etc… While the gyrating that took place often made grown folks shake their head with dismay. There was a certain precision, musicality and intuition that one must posses in order to keep such good rhythmic flow.

The brick buildings and row houses were not enough and much to scorching to contain our sweltering hot and excited black bodies. My aunt did not mind me outside much yet my parents would drag my sister and I inside once they got home around 5 and 6 o’ clock. They were never too fond of the neighbors. My mother would call the police on anyone who trespassed passed the first step. I was never allowed out on weekends when my parents were home. They preferred to take us to my grandfather’s estate in Bedford Hills, NY. Where my family would gather on the balcony and/or the garden roof with lemonade and pasta salad to discuss moving and the noisy, bad behaved neighbors. The suburb of wealthy Westchester County, NY was enough to give me cultural homelessness. I did not want the lemonade, I wanted a quarter water. I did not want the pasta salad; I wanted my neighbor Mr. Johnson’s jerk chicken. For in the streets of the BX especially in the summertime, I saw culture. I saw a culture that my parents did not see and refused to see because they were so blinded by the “great white American” standard. I always saw something in those streets from the use of public space and resources, to the resident’s use of their bodies, to the overwhelming creativity, to the lack of conformity to outside forces and simply leisure and good times- the beauty of organic cultural invention and performance. I came to feel too compromised in the environment that my parents later taught my sister and I to adapted too when my parents moved up that side a few years later. Many members in my family saw nothing distinctive in black culture, play and performance other than “loose” behavior. I always saw something more complex.

Presumably, Gaunt observed the same thing. In her book, she analyzed the cultural performances and games of young black girls in its relation to the development of various musical styles including hip-hop as well as its artistic relevance in the unique black American cultural landscape. In the very introduction she writes:

“When we think of the music that drives the popular culture of African Americans, our first thought is not of double-dutch: girls bouncing between two twirling ropes, keeping time to the tick-tat under toes, stepping out with snatches of song and dance that animate their torsos and release their tongues with laughter. Instead, what comes to mind is hip-hop, neo-soul, go-go, crunk and R&B. The games black girls play-handclapping game-songs, cheers, and double-dutch jump rope-may not even register as a kind of popular music because the term is chiefly reserved for commercial productions often dominated by men. Commercial popular music tends to exclude or simply incorporate the communal or everyday forms of popular music that cannot be assigned individual authorship or ownership…” But everyday, black girls generate and pass on a unique repertoire of chants and embodied rhythms in their play that both reflects and inspires the principles of black popular music making. This book is about those games: the musical games that are passed down by word of mouth and body, beyond the scope of Billboard charts and Soundscan.” Listen in on girls’ daily broadcasts from the sophisticated approach to non-verbal syllables that mirror the melodic and linguistic approaches found in jive talk, scatting and the verbal free styling of hip-hop. Watch their daily routines, which mix colloquial gestures and verbal expressions, and you’ll be hooked on their fascinating rhythms, their use of call-and-response from the word to body, and their rap-like manipulation of phonics and rhymes for the fun of it. (Gaunt 1)

She goes on to write on the next page:

“While the embodied musical practices performed by girls are ordinarily visible in African American neighborhoods and urban communities, the appropriation of black girls’ musical game-songs by male commercial artists is overlooked. It makes sense that girls borrow from, say, hip-hop or R&B, or that the folklore of girls’ musical play is a repository of ideas from mass-mediated realms of music and dance. But what do we make of hip-hop, an art form predominantly associated with males and masculinity, sampling from the familiar chants and beats of a female musical expression? Are men incorporating the public into the commercial, the feminine into a patriarchal interpretation of keepin’ it real, or is there more to the gender politics of this exchange that could enrich our understanding of the politics of authenticity, aesthetics and taste in black popular music?" (Gaunt 2)

Wow, she got all of that out of girls playing double dutch, chanting and hand games. I lovesssss it!! This book gives credence to my lifelong proposition that there was more to the black street performance than meets the unobservant and unappreciative eye. When others hear “noise”, I hear the authencity of black cultural expression in all its forms. When others see girls merely “playing around”, I see a more serious production with intricate components. Gaunt touches on this as well as the gender dynamic of the situation in regards to black culture in relation to appropriation and commodification. When black culture becomes a commodity and commercialized, it loses its sense of community, which is an aspect of black cultural collectivism and kinship that runs throughout the black experience in America. On the commercialized front, the credit is given to the artist and the artists are often times male. The black female is often disregarded as a cultural force. Females in black male cultural performance become objects rather than subjects. Instead of Gaunt solely looking at appropriation of aspects of black cultural styles and performances by the white dominant community, she addresses in depth the appropriation of black female cultural performance by black males. She looks at black female cultural performance as initiator and creator rather than a subordinated or muted body. This sets up an interesting dimension in regards to the place of black females in not only a white dominant society but also a patriarchal society that continues to suppress and overlook their contributions to and influence upon black culture and culture on a whole. One can see this in not only culture but also in politics, cultural and social movements, history and in societal subject matters. I am only up to the third chapter as of today, Wednesday May 28, 2008. However when I get through with it, I will update this post. In the meanwhile, I will kindly ask my readers to also partake in Kyra D. Gaunt’s fascinating look at the cultural invention, creativity, fun and agency of young black girls and “the games they play”. It is a worthwhile summer read!
Gaunt, Kyra. The Games Black Girls Play: Learning The Ropes From Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. New York: The New York University Press, 2006.

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