Edited by Azizi Powell
This post shares information about the origin and examples of the use of the word "ungawa"(oon-GAH-wah).
The content of this post is presented for etymological, historical and cultural purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to those who contributed rhyme examples that are included in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of the videos that are mentioned in this post or that are featured in this post.
ORIGINS OF THE WORD "UNGAWA"
From KiSwahili To Hollywood
In the KiSwahili language of East Africa and Central Africa "umgawa" means "entangled". But in 1932 MGM screenwriter Cyril Hume lifted the word "umgawa" from the Swahili language for the Tarzan movies. Those movies were being adapted from books written by Edgar Rice Burrough books.
In the Tarzan movies "ungawa" ("ungawa") was the way that Tarzan communicated with animals and Black natives and could mean whatever the screenwriters wanted it to mean. Here's a video clip that provides information about the Hollywood origin of the Swahili word "umgawa":
pwgr2000 Uploaded on Dec 8, 2007
...This short excerpt is from the documentary, "Tarzan: Silver Screen King of the Jungle", which was the main bonus feature that accompanied the DVD set, The Tarzan Collection, Vol. 1.
My transcription of that video:
Scott Tracy Griffin [White male], [identified as] Edgar Eice Burrough’s historian:
“The films used a combination of Swahili and made up words. One of my favorites is “Umgawa” which can mean anything we want it to mean. [smiling] It means “stop”, go away, come here, danger, or “Elephant, carry boy to safety.” [laughing]. “Umgawa” is a terrific word and is another one of our cultural touchstones. [.27]
[another speaker, a White male]- “Originally, it meant “Get down”. But as time progressed, as the movies went on, it seemed to have a multiple layer of meaning. [chuckling]
[scenes from Tarzan movie: Tarzan talking to animals and to Black people in movies]
[same White male speaker] “And it became, you know, “Umgawa!” and everybody just rose to the occasion. [laughing] And they went into action.
[Video clip ends with a scene of Tarzan and Jane talking in a made up language].
Notice that those speakers consider the word "umgawa" to be humorous. Yet, I find their humor off-putting since it seems to me that the writers portrayed the White Tarzan as being superhuman and the Black natives as being on the same level or lower than the animals, since both of those groups instinctively understood the different commands that Tarzan gave when he used the word "umgawa" or "ungawa".
Black Power Chants
As a member of a Black cultural nationalist organization, The Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN), I remember chanting "Ungawa!" Black Power!) around 1967 or 1968 (Newark, New Jersey). I'm not sure if I thought that "ungawa" was a real African word. I certainly didn't know that it was based on the Swahili word "umgawa". To my knowledge, I've never read any definition of ungawa besides the line "Ungawa - that means "Black power" which is a core part the children's rhyme "Ah Beep Beep" which includes that word (Some examples of that rhyme are given below). But, I wonder if "ungawa"'s meaning was conflated for us with the Black pride and Black determination that was conveyed by the KiSwahili word "Uhuru!" (meaning "Freedom"). "Uhuru" (ooh-HOO-roo") was one of the few Swahili words that CFUN members knew and used as a chant.
Children's Black Power Rhymes
The children's rhyme which I've titled "Ah Beep Beep" (based on their first line) and other children's rhymes and chants that include the word "ungawa" often not only express Black pride but also express antagonism toward White people. However, as is the case with other confrontational children's rhymes, some children may have recited these rhymes without playing much attention to what the words in the rhymes really meant.
AH BEEP BEEP
"Ah Beep Beep
Walkin down the street
That means Black power.
I said it. I meant it
And I'm here to represent it.
Soul sister number 9
Sock it to me one more time.
Uh hun! Uh Hun!"
-Tracey S.,(African American female}; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; childhood remembrance,1968); collected by Azizi Powell, 2000
Comments that the informant shared with me about that rhyme can be found on this Mudcat thread that I started: http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=112857#2392802 Number Nine In Songs & Rhymes
AH BEEP BEEP
"Ah beep beep, walking down the street
10 times a week
Ungawa, black power, Puerto Rican power
I said it, I meant it and now I represent it"
-Yasmin Hernadez, memories of childhood in a mixed Latina/o and African American neighborhood of New York City, 1980s (sent by email to my now inactive cultural website cocojams.com)
AH BEEP BEEP
"OMG i'm finally remembering it...
ahh beep beep walkin down the street
10 times a week...
ungawa, ungawa this is black power
i said it
i meant it
i really represent it
i'm a soul soul sista from a soul soul town
aint too many sista gonna keep me down.
if you don't like my apples
don't shake my tree
cuz i'm a soul soul sista named... Ja-nie
again i'm not black.
-Guest, janie (Guest, duh) http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=6600 Downtown Baby; 2/29/2009
Note: This blogger posted two examples of this chant in that discussion thread. The first example was incomplete.
In addition, there are several other very similar examples of this rhyme in that discussion thread, including one with the "n word". All of those examples "happen" to be from New York City. This may be an interesting coincidence or it may be because the New York City area is where that rhyme originated.
From http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=ungawa [given hereafter as "urbandictionary:ungawa"]
Like the other guy said, it seems to originate in Tarzan movies but it was co-opted by Black teens in Oakland during the 70s (I'm okay about being corrected here - earlier?) as a slang power-grunt.
I'd love to see someone provide additional words to my example. It's been a LONG time...
Foot-stomping chant (by late 70s it was used by cheerleaders and double-dutch):
Momma's got the powa
I said it, I meant it
I'm here to represent it
My back is achin', My belt's too tight
My hips are shakin' from left to right...""
I wonder if that blogger got the term "foot stomping chant" from my now inactive cocojams.com website. I coined the term "foot stomping cheers" around 2002 and used it extensively on tht website as a referent for synchronized, choreographed, call & response group cheers that were (are?) mostly performed by African American girls 5-12 years old. ("Shabooya Roll Call" is a relatively well known example of these cheers, although the performance of that cheer in the 2005 movie Bring It On: All Or nothing is quite exagerrated. I've never known "Ungawa" cheers to be used in Double Dutch jump rope, but that certainly is possible.
The verse beginning with the line "my back is achin" is lifted from the widely known "Bang Bang Choo Choo Train" children's rhyme.
By at least the mid 1970s, the word "ungawa" is documented to have been used as an exclamation in certain children's and teenagers' cheerleader cheers apart from its Black power connotations.
From http://wordoriginsorg.yuku.com/topic/8045/Umgawa#.VcFKDf3wtv4 “ungawa”
aldiboronti, Jul 21 04
A variation [of a brief clip of this rhyme given by an earlier blogger] from 1976:
Unnh, Ungawa! Soul powah!
Whuh choo gonna do?
Cut the boogaloo!
C stands for cut, B stands for boogaloo --
The mighty, mighty Tigers gonna sock it to you!
Cause when you're up, you're up,
An' when you're down, you're down,
But when you're up against the Tigers,
You're UPside DOWN!
"Boogaloo" was the name of a United States Latin/Rhymn & Blues music & dance genre that was popular for a brief time in the 1960s
Also, read these comment and chant for an example of how Black creative content is appropriated by White people who use it without any awareness of that content's Black origin, purpose, or meaning:
"I was a member of the Alpha Gamma Tau society at BJU [Bob Jones University]. We had a cheer that went like this:
Honk, Beep Beep, Walkin' down the street
sayin' ten times a week that the Eagles can't be beat
sayin' Ooo Ungawa Eagles got the Power
sayin' Ooo Ungawa Eagles got the Power
Now I never knew what the heck is Ungawa or ever heard it anywhere else, until just now watching a movie on Netflix about inequality in the South and after a funeral the angry black people start marching and chanting:
Ungawa! Black Power! Ungawa! Black Power!
I go online searching for this and I find...
Ah Beep Beep
Walkin down the street
That means Black power.
If only the Bob Joneses had known the origin of our chant.
Several other commenters wrote that that fact that BJU [Bob Jones University used a chant that they felt originated as a black power rallying cry was “all kinds of ironic and amusing.” That is because Bob Jones University has a public reputation of being intolerant. For instance, that university prohibited (still prohibits?) interracial dating.
"We Have the Power
This is a great morning cheer, because of the aches and pains we all get from a lack of sleep at three day :)
My back is achin'
My belt’s too tight
My hips are shakin' from left to right
Say OOH! Ungawa! We have the power!
Notice that the original phrase “black power” is changed to “we have the power” in this rhyme. The replacement of “we” for “black” significantly changes the meaning of that cheer. Instead of “black power!” being a response to injustices experienced by Black people, the word “power” is defined as the energy that everyone needs to have to make it through each day.
Here's an example of the word "ungawa" used in a Boy Scout camp song:
Peaceful Valley Songbook - Denver Area Council
[boy scout camp songs, page 32]
MEN FROM NAIROBI
We are men from Nairobi and our team’s a good one
We play the Watusi, they’re seven feet tall
Oh the cannibals they eat us, but they’ll never beat us
Cause we’re from Nairobi, the best of them all
They sent fifty men down from Kilamanjaro
But they didn’t have what it takes NO! NO!
We took all the losers out to the jungle
And we tied them up for the snakes WHAT A BITE!
Remember the pygmies they came from Zambezie
We played them round this time last year LAST YEAR
Their number one player was disqualified
When he fell on a Nairobi shaft WHAT A SHAFT GET THE POINT?
Although this camp song was probably created and sung just for fun, I consider its words to be problematic because they reinforce an American and Western cultural image of Africans as being cannibals and people who still fight with spears. The song also conflates African physical locations and ethnic groups. In doing so, it may contribute to misinformation about Africa and the idea that Africa is one country instead of a continent made up of fifty four nations.
Here's information about the African references found in this song:
"Nairobi" is the capital of Kenya, East Africa.
"Watusi" is a referent for the "Tutsi" ethnic group that primarily come from the African nations of Rwanda and Burundi. Significant populations of Tutsis are also found in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tutsi. Note that the Tutsi ethnic group aren't from Kenya.
Tutsis are considered to be the tallest people in the world.
"Kilamanjaro"- Mount Kilamanjaro, located in Tanzania, East Africa, is the tallest mountain in Africa.
"A pygmy is a member of an ethnic group whose average height is unusually short...
The term is most associated with peoples of Central Africa, such as the Aka, Efé and Mbuti. ...If the term pygmy is defined as a group's men having an average height below 1.55 meters (5 feet 1 inch), then there are also pygmies in Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Andaman Islands, Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, and Brazil, including some Negritos of Southeast Asia."
The term pygmy is sometimes considered pejorative. However, there is no single term to replace it. Many prefer to be identified by their ethnicity, such as the Aka (Mbenga), Baka, Mbuti, and Twa. The term Bayaka, the plural form of the Aka/Yaka, is sometimes used in the Central African Republic to refer to all local pygmies. Likewise, the Kongo word Bambenga is used in Congo."
"The Zambezi (also spelled Zambeze and Zambesi) is the fourth-longest river in Africa, the longest east flowing river in Africa and the largest flowing into the Indian Ocean from Africa... The 2,574-kilometre-long river (1,599 mi) rises in Zambia and flows through eastern Angola, along the eastern border of Namibia and the northern border of Botswana, then along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe to Mozambique, where it crosses that country to empty into the Indian Ocean."
Other Examples Of The Use of The Word "Ungawa"
The word Tarzan used to communicate to the animals; Also used by Dave Chappelle in the racial draft episode as a parody for how white people address other races.
"Ungawa! There's a white man talking here! "
by hellyea August 30, 2005
Dave Chapelle's racial draft os a comic sketch that was based on the idea that specific races could draft African American individuals or groups (such as the Wu Tang Clan Hip Hop group) the same way that foot ball players are drafted by professional football teams. The White man saying "Ungawa" and expecting everyone else to be silent is similar to Tarzan saying "Ungawa" and animals and Black people immediately responding to that word by doing what Tarzan wanted them to do.
From http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=20190 Ungowah": from where? [hereafter given as straightdope.com: ungawah"]
"Ungawah, ungawah, ungawah... heh!
Ungawah, ungawah, ungawah... heh!"
This the rousing cheer of Young United Nations Conference (as recited by an "African" Eddie Murphy and a "Jamaican" Dan Akroyd in Trading Places)..."
"I heard it as "Honk Honk Ungawaa Black Power!" On the old Showtime sitcom Sherman Oaks. I think it was the one with the racist parrot."
Here's information about the American sitcom Sherman Oaks from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117629/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl
"Sherman Oaks (1995–1997)
A comedy about a wealthy plastic surgeon living with his family in Sherman Oaks, California. Dr. Baker, the plastic surgeon and his family are the subject of a documentary being made by a young filmmaker who has moved in with them and tapes their every move. The doctor's wife, a yoga loving, new ager; his daughter, the slutty bimbo; his son who thinks he's black, even though he's not; and his other son who is an NRA card carrying Republican. The show follows their superficial lives as the documentary filmmaker tapes all of it with hilarious results.
Although the blogger -and others-might have considered the phrase "Black power" to be racist, I don't agree. In some ways, that phrase is similar to the recently coined slogan and movement "Black Lives Matter" because the word "also" or "too" should be understood, i.e. "Black people should also have power" and "Black Lives Matter, too" (as well as the lives of White people and the lives of any other racial or ethnic population).
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