Near the end of last year, once summer left, I had the pleasure of capturing a story that did not only intersect with my childhood but also intersects with the childhood of countless other girls on playgrounds, schoolyards and neighborhood streets around the world.
I'm very appreciative for the parents and students at the Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago that came out to Hyde Park for a day of fun and laughter. We took a very candid approach with this story as it's one that many of us know quite well.
Although I'm a creative and storyteller, one of my most treasured roles is being a mother and the journey in finding balance with my creative endeavors while parenting. I thought to myself, this was the perfect opportunity to explore the meaning of sisterhood and culture while weaving the art of storytelling with my daughter by my side. As if that wasn't enough, even my sister came out to be apart of this narrative, our narrative, as we laughed at our attempts of remembering the words to our favorite hand games that we once played as children. It was a great experience and I'm looking forward to sharing more through Sunday Kinfolk.
For centuries, African American girls and women have maintained their own unique position within the framework of their culture. As a way of celebrating their identity, generations of grandmothers, mothers and daughters have participated in traditional activities such as storytelling and crafts, songs and hand games. These traditions have been scrupulously chronicled and passed down, so that they are now being enjoyed by today’s generation of African American girls.
Among the most enduring of all African American traditions are the unique hand games played by African American children, and particularly girls. Just as much of African art has symbolic meaning, so do these ritualistic hand games, which combine synchronized gestures to melodies and words that have remained virtually unchanged for generations, in spite of geographic and generational differences. Through succeeding generations, these beloved hand games have become something of a universal language, passed down from generation to generation across geographical and even ethnic boundaries.
Traditional African American hand games involve the singing of songs while engaging in a ritual-like set of accompanying hand motions, rather like a version of the “Hokey Pokey” done primarily with hand signals. Watching a video of these hand games being played by African American children decades ago, I was reminded, nostalgically and sentimentally, of the hand games I enjoyed on a Florida playground when I was a child. The words and rhythms of the songs were similar, even though the video I saw portrayed children several thousands of miles away, on a playground in Los Angeles.
Some of the most popular hand games, including “My Boyfriend Gave Me a Box,” “Pizza, Pizza Daddy O,” “This-A-Way,” “Miss Mary Mack,” “Swing-Swing-Swing on a Summer Day” and “Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum in a Dish” can still be heard, in some variation, on a contemporary playground anywhere in America. Likewise, many of the songs sung by today’s African American children have their roots in the songs of their ancestors from centuries ago. The hair styles and clothing designs worn by the little girls may be different, but the music, words and hand gestures are virtually the same.
The Color Purple and “Makidada”
In the history of American literature, few books have described the history and particular cultural traditions of African American women as poignantly and skillfully as Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” The novel was the inspiration for a popular film, and has achieved legendary status in today’s popular culture.
Balanced with the perfect blend of nostalgia and an almost ruthless honesty, the book is a compelling chronicle of love and other familial relationships between men and women, while exposing the social and race stereotypes practiced against people of color. In the book, the sisters Nettie and Celie play and sing a hand game called “Makidada,” which is a Swahili word meaning “Little Sister.” The words of the song celebrate a relationship in which the two girls vow to never part or be separated from one another. This heartbreakingly poignant moment is not only charged with emotion and symbolism, but also serves as a reminder of the many beautiful songs and hand games that have their roots in African culture.
Today’s Songs, Traditions and Hand Games
Because of the popularity of “The Color Purple,”, “Makidada” is being learned by a new generation of mothers, daughters and sisters. Likewise, more exploration and research is being done by cultural historians and musicologists to retrieve, and preserve, some of the most popular musical hand games of the last few centuries. These beautiful musical expressions not only serve as a cultural connection to the past, but they also serve to link the present with the future.