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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Meaning Of "African Booty" In Children's Rhymes

Edited by Azizi Powell
[Revised June 25, 2012]

COMMENTS
Definition & Usage
"African booty" is a phrase from African American English that means "a big butt". While that phrase could be applied to males, it usually is reserved as a descriptor for teenage girls and women. In the phrase "African booty", the word "African" is evidence of the widely held, although erroneous belief that all women of African descent have big butts. As is the case with a lot of African American vernacular, while the phrase "African booty" originated with Black Americans, it has also been used by non-Black Americans.

The phrase "African booty" is most often found in examples of contemporary (post 1970s) versions of the American children's playground rhyme family "Mailman Mailman (do your duty)". Those rhymes are also known as "Policeman Policeman (do your duty)" or similar titles. In those rhymes, the line "Mailman mailman do your duty" is followed by the line "Here comes a lady with an African booty". Examples from that family of rhymes without the "African booty" line are included in now classic 1959 collection of mostly United Kingdom children's rhymes The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona & Peter Opie. Here's an excerpt about the "Mailman Mailman" rhyme from that book:
In all of Britain the young have sent our Valentines {Valentine cards are definitely in fashion again}, and they have written anonymous verses, In Aberdeen and elsewhere in Scotland the boy follow the old convention of putting verse on the envelopes, addressed to the post man.

Postman, Postman, do your duty
Take this to my loving beauty.
Postie, Postie, don't delay,
Do the rhumba all the way" (Opie, Lore & Language, p. 236)
Instead of the phrase "my loving beauty", common pre-1970s American versions of this rhyme used the phrase "an American beauty" or "Miss American beauty". Here's the version of that rhyme that I recall from my childhood in the mid 1950s, Atlantic City, New Jersey (African American girls, group jump rope):

Policeman, Policeman,
Do your duty.
Here comes [insert the jumper's name or nickname]
an American beauty.
She can wiggle.
She can wobble
She can do the flip [later the word 'twist' replaced the word 'flip']
But I betcha five dollars she can't do this:
Lady on one foot, one foot, one foot,
turn all around. [jump on 1 foot and turn around]
Lady on two foot, two foot, two foot
Touch the ground.[jump on 2 feet and touch the ground]
Lady of three foot, three foot, three foot [jump on 2 feet with one hand on the ground]
Lady on two feet say your prayers. [jump on 2 feet while folding your hands like you are praying]
Lady on four foot, four foot, four foot [jump on 2 feet while placing both hands on the ground]
[Now] Go to bed. [jump out of the rope]
-snip-
In the mid 1980s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my daughter and her girlfriends jumped rope while chanting a version of the "Policeman Policeman" rhyme that is very similar to the one that I recall from my childhood. However, the version that my daughter & her friends chanted reflects two significant societal changes: the inclusion of women in the police force, and the attitude that having an "African booty" was a good thing. Instead of "policeman", the girls chanted "Police lady Police lady do your duty".

From my online research, it appears that some children continue to use the phrase "American beauty" as the rhyming line to "do your duty", while other children use the phrase "African booty". While it's probable that most of those persons who chant "here's come a lady with an African booty" are Black, there's evidence that that line has crossed over to non-Black persons. In the early 2000s, my daughter - now an elementary school teacher - shared with me an experience she had while taking her first grade class to a nearby public park. All of the students in her class were African American. A White man and his pre-school (White) daughter happened to be visiting that same park. My daughter joined with some of the girls in her classroom who were jumping rope. My daughter and the girls turning the ends of the rope sang the "Police Lady Police Lady" rhyme which included the line "here comes a lady with an African booty". (I'm not sure if the girls in her classroom knew that version before she sang it or not.) The White man asked could his daughter and he join the jump rope game, and before long he and his daughter were singing the "here comes a lady with an African booty" line. That's just one example of how versions of rhymes get passed on from one generation to another, and from one racial population to another.

It's very likely that most contemporary Americans know that the word "booty" means "butt". However, it's far less likely that most non-Black Americans know what the phrase "African booty" means. And, depending on their age, it's also unlikely that a lot of African American children know what that "African booty" phrase means. It's likely that children (usually girls) who chant "Mailman Mailman" ("Policeman Policeman)" rhymes which include the phrase "African booty" do so from rote memory without any thought to the meaning of that phrase.

The Difference Between "African Booty" and "African Booty Scratcher"
It should be noted that the phrase "African booty" is not a taunt like the similar phrase "African booty scratcher". "African booty scratcher" is meant to be a very serious insult as it implies that the person who that phrase is directed to is a monkey. Often the person being taunted by that phrase is an immigrant from Africa, and often the person doing the taunting is an African American. However, in the "Mailman Mailman family of rhymes, "African booty" is by no means an insult. Saying that a female has an "African booty" might even be considered a compliment since teenage females and adult females regardless of race/ethnicity like to have big butts. That said, having an "African booty" wasn't always considered a compliment, and it's probably wisest to refrain from using that phrase as a description of any female, particularly any Black female.

Females Having A Big Butt As An Insult And As A Compliment
The stereotype of Black women having big butts was heavily influenced by, if not originated from the gross, racist mistreatment in the early 19th century of the South African woman Sarah Baartman and another South African woman. In 1810, Sarah Baartman and the other African woman were taken from South Africa and exhibited in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe as a freak of nature because of their "big butts". These women were labeled "the Hottentot Venus”. Upon her death until 2003, a replication of Baartman's body which emphasized her large protruding butt was featured in a French museum. Click http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Baartman for information about Sarah Baartman.

Americans have had ambivalent opinions about big butt females for quite some time. Jimmy Castor 1975 "Bertha Butt Boogie" Rhythm & Blues songs document the humor Americans' have for big ("heavy set") women with big butts. Click http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LQJYgs1sxc "Bertha Butt Boogie" for an example of those songs. Also, click http://artists.letssingit.com/jimmy-castor-lyrics-the-bertha-butt-boogie-8tbtw43 for the words to that song.

Among African Americans, a female with a "Bertha Butt" means a female (usually a Black female) with a large, protruding butt. I believe that phrase was used prior to the Jimmy Castor songs. My theory is that the origin of "Bertha Butt" was the 1947 American prison Blues song "O Berta". That song has a line "I call Berta, but she didn't answer me". Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2012/06/o-berta-prison-blues.html for a pancocojams blog post about that song.

In contrast to song's that ridicule big butt women, the 1988 R&B song "Da Butt" by the Washington, D. C. group E. U. [European Union] praises those women, reflecting the positive societal value given to women who have a big butt. Click http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FShE0VifCYs for a video of that song. Click http://lyrics.filestube.com/song/a433f344b5c91eca03e9,Da-Butt-From-School-Daze.html for the lyrics to that song.

Performance Activities For The Rhyme "Mailman Mailman"
As mentioned above, the "Mailman Mailman" (do your duty) rhymes used to be chanted while jumping rope. However, as is the case with most jump rope rhymes, by at least the 1960s, in the United States at least, partner or three or four person handclapping was the preferred performance activity for those rhymes.

As documented by several YouTube videos and their viewer comment threads, the phrase "African booty" continues to be chanted by girls -regardless of race- as either a handclap rhyme, or a movement rhyme without accompanying handclap activities. With either of those performance activities, the girls use mimicking motions on cue- they shake their balled up fists in front of them when saying pom poms (in imitation of cheerleaders holding pom poms); they shake their hips from side to side as was done to the once popular "twist" dance; and with each rendition of the rhyme, they move their feet farther and farther apart either to do a split, or to see which girl falls down first. In the later case, the last girl who remains standing is the winner.

To date, I've not seen any off-line or online evidence on YouTube or elsewher that the "Mailman Mailman" ("Policeman Policeman") rhymes with or without the "African booty" phrase are still being used as a jump rope chant. This isn't surprising since chanting while jumping rope appears to be rarely done in the United States since at least the 1990s.

FEATURED RHYMES
[These examples of "Mailman Mailman" ("Policeman Policeman") rhymes which include the phrase "African booty scratcher" are presented in no particular order.]

Example #1
mailman mailman
do your duty
here comes a lady with an
african booty
she can do the pom pom
she can do the twist
most of all she likes to kiss
-Guest, http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=4300 Children's Street Songs; 12/2/2004

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Example #2
mail man mail man
do ur duty hear comes a lady with an African booty
she can do the pom pom she can do the splits but best of all she can kiss kiss kiss with her read hott lips
-socalgal89 at June 16, 2005 http://blog.oftheoctopuses.com/000518.php [This blog is no longer viable]

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Example #3
Mailman mailman do your duty
here comes a lady with an African booty
she can do the pom poms
she can do the twist
but most of all
she can kiss kiss kiss
-celinababe29; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3G7c6Fj_WM; 6/24/2009

[This video is embedded below.]

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Example #4
Mailman mailman do your duty
here comes a lady with an African booty
she can do the pom poms
she can do the twist
but most of all
she can kiss kiss kiss
With her big
red
lips
k.i.ss.i.n.g
-KellyJulia12 ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgr8ApS4LWI&feature=related; 7/11/2010

[This video is embedded below.]

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Example #5
Mailman mailman do your duty
here comes a lady with an African booty
she can do the pom poms
she can do the twist
but I betcha five dollars
she can’t do this
k-i-s-s-i-n-g
-loserweirdo311; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9Gs7-MQyrE; 8/15/2009

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Example #6
Mailman, mailman do your duty.
Here comes a lady with an African booty.
She can do the pom-poms, she can do the splits, I bet you $5 she can't do this:

(Take your feet, and go back and forth, pointing your toes out, then your heels out, then toes, then heels....
As you're doing it, your feet are moving out, so you're getting closer to the ground.) [Thanks to Ciara A.]; http://www.beachnet.com/~jeanettem/chants.html#MAILMAN; retrieved 12/28/2011
-snip-
Here are two examples from different YouTube viewer comment threads which gives the phrase as "African beauty" instead of "African booty":

Example #7
the way i do it is ive got an african beauty she can do the pom poms she can do the splits but most of all she can kiss kisss kiss k.i.s.s
-123leta ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3G7c6Fj_WM&feature=related; 6/2011

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Example #8
I learned it like 'Mail man mail man do your duty. I got a date with an African beauty. She can do the pom-pom, she can do the splits, most of all she can kiss kiss kiss. K-I-S-S ( for each letter you go like if your doing the splits )
-livetolove97; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgr8ApS4LWI&feature=related; October 2011
-snip-
"African beauty" is probably a folk etymology substitution for "African booty". However, given the often negative attitudes Americans have about Black physical appearances, I consider this substitution to be quite significant.]
-snip-
Here are two examples of closely related "Mailman Mailman" rhymes that mention "big fat booty":

Example #9 (fragment)
Mailman, mailman do your duty here comes the lady w/the big fat booty...
-Classy_Diva5 (African American female, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc sorority, Bay Area, California); http://www.greekchat.com/gcforums/showthread.php?t=4123; 12/28/2000

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Example #10
Mail man mail man do your duty
Here comes a lady with a
With a big fat booty
she can do the pom pom
she can do the twist
but most of all she can blow you a kiss
Uggh!
-froggielover737; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80uKGksoFTA&feature=related; 1/22/2007

**
Here's a contemporary example of "Mailman Mailman" which contains the phrase "American beauty" instead of the phrase "African booty":

Example #11
Mailman mailman do your duty
here comes a lady
miss American beauty
she can do the pom poms
she can do the twist
but most of all
she can kiss kiss kiss
k.i.ss.i.n.g
-SuperNinjaGangster; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SChPWX-MApI&feature=related; 5/9/2010

[This video is embedded below]

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FEATURED VIDEOS

Mailman, Mailman



Uploaded by celinababe29 on Jun 24, 2009
My little sister and her cousin playing Mailman, Mailman after i taught them an hour earlier.

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mailman mailman game



Uploaded by KellyJulia12 on Jul 11, 2010

Weird, huh?

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Mail man(Kia's brithday party)



Uploaded by SuperNinjaGangster on May 9, 2010

Well, they were playing this hand game and i thought it was funny, sooh' yeaahh.

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6 comments:

  1. This was really informative, just leaving a comment to let you know that this post was not in vain!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Dani!

      I appreciate your comment. It's good to hear from folks who read these posts.

      My sense is that as the world gets more connected, things that Americans take for granted -such as that particular meaning of the word "booty"-may be unfamiliar to non-Americans. Also, some Americans might not be familiar with the term "African booty".

      And it seems to me that "African booty" is considered a complimentary term is meaningful, in and of itself.

      Delete
  2. “The stereotype of Black women having big butts was heavily influenced by, if not originated from the gross, racist mistreatment in the early 19th century of the South African woman Sarah Baartman and another South African woman. In 1810, Sarah Baartman and the other African woman were taken from South Africa and exhibited in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe as a freak of nature because of their ‘big butts.’”

    I learned of Sarah Baartman several years ago. That was a very tragic story and it was a disgrace how she was treated both during her life and after her death. So I understand there being some sensitivity due to historical baggage for a woman having a large posterior, particularly women of African descent.

    “In the phrase ‘African booty’, the word ‘African’ is evidence of the widely held, although erroneous belief that all women of African descent have big butts. As is the case with a lot of African American vernacular, while the phrase ‘African booty’ originated with Black Americans, it has also been used by non-Black Americans….Saying that a female has an ‘African booty’ might even be considered a compliment since teenage females and adult females regardless of race/ethnicity like to have big butts.”

    I am a white American man and I am familiar with the phrase. In today’s context, I think of a woman having an “African booty” as a compliment, because I think it is a very desirable feminine trait. I am aware that not all African-descended women have that trait, but many do, including many “Latinas” and others who have partial African heritage. This would likely apply to Jennifer Lopez. I am actually delighted that more people today acknowledge that many of these “non black” celebrities, like Jennifer Lopez (supposedly), have African ancestry.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment, newyorkman.

      If the statement that someone [particularly a female] has an "African booty" is a compliment then I suppose that indicates some progress has been made away from the notion that anything "African" is bad [not good]. But we [the citizens of the world] have a very long way to go before most Black African traits-such as dark skin color, physical features, and very curly (i.e. nappy) hair- are considered something that is neither bad nor good but "just is" and Nordic White features are considered the same way.

      Delete
  3. African booty meaning in Mailman Mailman Do your duty basically means an african lady with a ''big bum'' which is inappropriate for kids in rhymes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous thanks for your comment.

      The Black girls who I observed chanting this rhyme-including my daughter- in the 1980s and since consider/ed "African booty" to be a big bum to use your terminology. However, that descriptor was considered a compliment.

      Delete