Jumping Rope, Pushing Back

By Ivory Ibuaka

During Reconstruction and after, public schooling provided all children with access to education in theory -although these programs were flawed in practice. The Virginia Historical Society finds that, “Schools were at the mercy of the white-controlled state government for funding.” For Blacks, this meant that their education was contested as many whites feared that educating Blacks would result in them challenging white supremacy and desiring better jobs and conditions. Black schools therefore received far less financial support than did white schools.[1] The injustices that made up the education system in America post-civil war did not deter African Americans from obtaining literacy and the education they were denied. African American women and girls strove to achieve literacy and take control of their education, strategies that were obvious acts of resistance. Furthermore, they practiced such rebellion in many creative forms. Jumping rope was a medium for which young African American girls exercised their hidden literacy and connected with other girls in resistance. The creation and use of chants that reflect African American girl experiences was central to African American girls’ self-agency and voice in the struggle for access to literacy and in the face of the racism.

In her book, Self-Taught—African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, Heather Andrea Williams explores African American’s persistence and willpower despite the limitations they face. She writes “this unwavering dedication likely springs from the clear equation of education and freedom, originating in the days of slavery and continuing still today, for the ability to read and write, they knew, could provide them with access to centers of power and could enable them to both shape and gain access to rights for the freed people.”[2] Williams talks specifically about the attempts of African American women and girls who insisted on learning arithmetic at any cost. For instance, women who worked domestic roles inside an owner’s household could entice its residents to pass on what they learned in school. Williams’ offers more examples of this in her book; freed African American women often learned to read by hoarding schoolbooks and asking white children to share everything they had learned in school each day. Jumping rope and jump rope chants are a form of literacy that mimics story telling culture of African Americans.[3] As Ming Fang He points out in her essay, “Personal, Passionate, Participatory Inquiry: Research for the Social Justice,” “Jump rope chants provided oral lessons and warnings of the potential difficulties of life and early academic instruction and opportunities to experiment with the rhythm of the language. The words and beat of a jump rope chant demand involvement, participation, and action while simultaneously offering generational connection, encouragement, and verbal challenge.”[4] As he notes, each chant tells a story and is connected to the experiences of black women and girls since the chants are passed on through generations. The words and beat of a jump rope chant foster participation and team engagement while also serving as a space for expression and individualism. “Girls Jumping Rope at Recess” is a photograph that captures this essence of jump rope chant as a tool and mechanism of literacy.[5]

Jackson Davis, the photographer behind the “Girls Jumping Rope at Recess” picture, was a white man who was especially dedicated to the rights and access to education of African American children. Davis specialized in Southern education, interracial problems, and race relations and he served on many Public school and education boards before he died in 1947. His early diaries contain information about Davis’ work as field agent for Negro Rural Schools in Virginia but offer no insight into the motivation behind “Girls Jumping Rope at Recess.” Given, Davis’ interests in black education in the south, and his roles in public school systems, it is likely that Davis found the combinations of jumping rope and chanting revolutionary. The picture depicts a scene of girls who are all actively engaged in the art of jumping rope; they are turning, jumping, and watching the game. The large shot that Davis captures supports how communal jumping rope games are: the game requires performers as well as spectators and defies fears of African Americans gathering in crowds –as the children still maintain their innocence. The innocence associated with games is pivotal since black children are often presumed less childlike than their white peers.[6] Black girls have had to navigate invisibility and hypervisibility through the construction of history. The role of innocence in Jackson Davis’ image of Black girls playing jump rope pushes back against those absences and selective visible spaces by way of game. The game, and use of chant, represents an activity capable of connecting Black girls of varying ages.

The other important theme featured in the photo is community. Historically, women were prohibited from this type of physical exertion due to concerns of the time relating to their inherent fragile nature. This structure of the activity would later be replaced with the addition of chants, rhymes, and rhythmic steps by female jumpers. This new edition of the game perfectly reflected what Patricia Hill Collins called “an oral expression of collectivity, togetherness, and sisterhood forged through resistance to established norms and a drive to be recognized on individual merits,” in her essay “Black Feminist Thought.”[7] Collins wants to point out that the game of jump rope incorporated sisterly instruction and responsibility that in many ways protested the invisibility felt by black girls in a racist, sexist society. Jumping rope and jump rope chants also illustrate cultural wealth in that they carry a large amount of heritage within them as they are passed down between generations. Geneva Smitherman tackles a similar concept in her book, “Talkin and Testifyin.” Chants represent a Black female dialect that is inherited by future generations an African American female standpoint of personal and community strength, resistance, and expression.[8]

In conclusion, the significance of the photograph lies both in front of and behind the lens. In front of the lens are a group of girls varying in ages and complexions sharing only the game of jump rope. Some girls participate more actively in the game while others are spectators. The role of spectator is still meaningful for the game of jump rope. Kyra Gaunt talks about the role of the spectator in her book, “The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-dutch to Hip-Hop.” She writes, “Non-jumpers act as both audience and singers to the ongoing street performance, and therefore all the participants are actively involved with the success of double-dutch as a musical performance.” [9] Although Gaunt speaks specifically about double-dutch her analysis is clearly extendable to jump rope as well. The audience encourages a better performance for those jumping and turning the rope. The support of spectators then, is critical for the success of the game. What is behind the lens is a man committed to capturing the essence of Black girlhood: innocence, play, and sisterhood. The two girls who look back at Davis as he takes the picture represent in themselves an awareness that underlies the themes present in the photo: agency. The gaze we get from the girls in the photos provides understanding that Black girls look back as society watches and monitors them, and continues to jump rope all the while.

[1] Beginnings of Black Education, Virginia Historical Society

[2] Heather Andrea Williams, Self-taught—African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 46

[3]Wynetta Scott Simmons, Self, Others, and Jump Rope Community: The Triumphs of African American Women (Statesboro: Georgia Southern University, 2007), Pages 30-45

[4] Ming Fang He, Personal, Passionate, Participatory Inquiry into Social Justice in Education (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008), Page 142

[5] Jackson Davis, 1916, Jackson Davis Collection of African American Photographs, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library University of Virginia

[6] Phillip Goff, “The essence of innocence: Consequences of dehumanizing Black children.” Journal of personality and social psychology 106, no. 4 (2014): Pages 526-545

[7] Patricia Hill Collins, Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (Routledge, 2002), Page 201

[8] Geneva Smitherman, Talkin and testifyin: The language of Black America (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977), Page 97

[9] Danielle Kyra Gaunt, The Games Black Girls Play: Music, Body and “Soul”(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1997), 134