Sunday, March 5, 2017

Is The Caribbean Game Song "Brown Girl In The Ring" Racist?

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases a Boney M video of the Caribbean children's game song (ring play) "Brown Girl In The Ring" and also showcases two additional videos of that song. Selected comments from two of these videos' discussion threads are also included in this post.

This post also provides my views and others comments about whether that game song or its performance is racist.

The content of this post is presented for socio-cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Boney M and all others who are featured in these embedded videos. Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.
My comments are also included in this 2012 pancocojams post Boney M - Brown Girl In The Ring (Video, Lyrics, & Comments). That post showcases another Boney M clip of this song.

The Wikipedia page for "Brown Girl In The Ring" (song) whose link is given below notes that "Jamaican poet, actress and singer Louise Bennett recorded the song in 1957 on an album of Children's Jamaican Songs and Games, re-released by Smithsonian Folkways (2007)".

The title "Brown Girl In The Ring" is routinely given for this game song. However, the title "There's a black boy in a ring" is included in a list of "ring tunes" (circle songs) in this 1904 book "Jamaican Song And Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Ring Tunes, and Dancing Tunes. With introductory essays." by
Walter Jekyll, coll. and edit., 1904 (Dover reprints), The Folk-lore Society, LV. [posted by Q (Frank Staplin) on "Songbook Indexing: Calypso/Caribbean Songbooks"

That same discussion thread but a different post (comment) includes a listing for a Jamaican song entitled "See Ma Little Brown Boy?". That song is included in the book Calypso Songs Of The West Indies by Massie Patterson and Lionel Belasco (1943).

“Brown Girl in the Ring is a children's ring game thought to have originated in Jamaica.

Players form a ring by holding hands, then one girl or boy goes into the middle of the ring and starts skipping or walking around to the song. The girl or boy is then asked, "Show me your motion." At this point the child in the center does his or her favorite dance. If asked "Show me your partner," he or she picks a friend to join him or her in the circle. It has been played for many centuries in all of Jamaica.”
While the person in the middle "shows" her or his motion (does a dance or some other movement) the other people forming the circle try to do her or his same motions. Afterwards-according to the group's play instructions- the middle person picks someone to take her or his place.

"Standard lyrics" for "Brown Girl In The Ring" can be found in the 2012 pancocojams post whose link is given above.

Here are some explanations about words in this song:
"ring" = circle

"in the ring" = standing in the middle of a circle

"Johnnycake (also jonnycake, johnny cake, journey cake, shawnee cake and johnny bread) is a cornmeal flatbread that was an early American staple food and is prepared on the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Jamaica."

"She looks like a sugar in a plum" - My guess is that this means that the girl looks very sweet.

Tommy Sjöström, a commenter in the Boney M video that is given as Example #1 wrote in 2009 that "The sugary juice that can leak from a plum is often brown. And sweet."

On July 7, 2008 a concerned White parent posted a comment in asking whether the game song "Brown Girl In The Ring" is racist. Tami Winfrey Harris, the Black blogger who is/was the editor of that site, concluded that this song isn't racist. I agree with that "Brown Girl In The Ring" isn't Necessarily or intrinsically racist. However, I do believe that the song originally was racial in that the word "brown" probably was a reference to the children's skin color.

My guess is that this song was composed at least in part to help Black children develop and reinforce self-esteem. I recall reading* that an old version of this song had the title and refrain "Black boy in the ring". However, "Brown girl in the ring" is the title and lyrics that have become fixed for this song. More comments about the word "brown" are found below.

A contemporary way of playing "Brown Girl In The Ring" that I observed at a Caribbean day program in 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area is to sing this game to reinforce children's knowledge of their colors. When "Brown Girl In The Ring" is played that way, the color that is named refers to the color of the blouse or shirt that the person in the center of the circle is wearing. For instance, if the girl in the center of the circle is wearing a "blue" blouse or shirt, the words to the song are "There's a blue girl in the ring". But if the boy in the center of the circle is wearing a red shirt, the words to the song are "There's a red boy in the ring".

But singing "Brown Girl In The Ring" with a multiracial group of people and using different color references for articles of clothing could be problematic because people may think that you are using color references to identify members of different races or ethnicities (with "ethnicity" here meaning the United States definition of "Latino/Hispanic"). I don't believe that "being color blind" is the goal that we should be striving for. Instead, I believe that we should be working for a time when a person's race or ethnicity has no positive or negative valuation. I think that it would be highly unacceptable to teach children a song that points out the differences in color that people have for the sake of doing so or for the sake of patting yourself on the back about how racially accepting you are.

As a point of information, while it's usually acceptable in the United States nowadays for adults to use the references "Black people" and "Brown people", it's no longer socially correct [if it ever was] to use the color references "red people [for Native Americans] and "yellow people" for [East Asians].

Also, notice that the color referent "Brown" and not "Black"* was used in the song "Brown Girl In The Ring" to denote Black people's skin color. Unfortunately, even in the year 2012 because of the history and current conditions of racism, many Black children in the United States, and possibly also in Jamaica where the song "Brown Girl In The Ring" likely originated, consider being called "Black" (or "Blackie") an insult and prefer to be called "Brown". That said, in the United States, in political discourse adults use the phrase "Black & Brown people". In that phrase "Black people" refers to people of African descent [who can have very light skin, brown skin, or very dark skin] and "Brown people" usually refers to Latinos/Hispanics, and other People of Color from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.

I believe that the "Brown Girl In The Ring" game song could have purposely or unwittingly negative consequences -for example if people sing this song in a majority White setting where there is only one or only a few children of color- meaning "children of some black African descent and/or other children whose skin complexion is brown." I've read comments about brown skinned girls who were given “the honor” or the responsibility of playing the role of the "brown girl in the ring". Even if other people thought/think that this is an honor, it may not be considered that way by those "brown skinned girls".

It might be a good idea before playing this game to simply explain to the children that this song is entitled "Brown Girl In The Ring" to help children feel good about themselves. But -given the possible racist or at least culturally insensitive connotations that could result from changing the word "brown" to some other color- I'd probably just sing the "brown girl in the ring" or "brown boy in a ring" words and not replace those words with some other color - regardless of the race or ethnicity of those playing this game. And I would not purposely select a "brown girl" or "a brown boy" in a predominately non-Brown or non-Black group to be the first child in the middle because that "others" that child.

Example #1: Boney m Brown girl in the ring

thepiperchile Uploaded on Jun 30, 2007
Selected comments from this video's discussion thread (Numbers are given for referencing purposes only)
1. Tu Muy Bien
"Dont get mad to me but, if the song is called brown girl, why there's any latin girl in the video ( mexican ,venezuelan, colombian, puerto rican, argentinian, peruan )
I love the song, I love the rhythm, but now that I can translate, I can see, the letter of the song is pretty poor. I would prefer not to know what this song say."

"This is a Jamaican folk song.....there is no hidden meaning to it...ugh!"

3. amaryllische
"Dude, "Brown Girl in the Ring" is the name of a children's game! That's what the song is about. So the only one who isn't able to "translate" is you."
I believe that YouTube commenters need to be more understanding toward people whose first language isn't English. English is probably not be Tu Muy Bien's first language and he or she may have thought that "brown girl" referred only to Latin/Hispanic females since that is one of the main way that referent is used in the United States. Instead, commenters "jumped" on him or her.

4. mr y mysterious video
"true story....
when i was about 6, there was only one black girl in our whole school in wales.
they played this song at our xmas party, we all sat in a circle while she danced for our entertainment - it wasn't a racist thing though - we were being literal and she seemed to enjoy herself."

5. Becca Secret
"funny, my aunt thought this song was rascist xxx"

6. feinferno
"i wish we still had music like dis reminds me of the old days back in guyana sitting on my uncles front porch with a coconut cutting it to get coconut water"

7. Trelli28
"I remember this song growing up! The ring game we used to play in Jamaica :-)"

8. asomra
"@Trelli28 A lot of Islands had this song in school. I'm Guyanese , my mom was listening to this growing too. This song will never die, people from the whole world will be singing and playing to this at some part."

9. Charms434
"All I think of is the movie touching the void and when the guy was deliriously close to death this song was stuck in his head, and he's praying he doesn't die to this song LOL"
Click for information about Joe Simpson's 1988 book "Touching The Void" and the 2003 documentary film that is based on that book. Cainefan, a commenter in that Boney M discussion thread wrote in 2009 "... Someone analyzed that it may have to do with the lines from the song "show me your motion" and it was his brain telling him to keep moving."

10. locorojo25
"anyone tell me wot the song is about? brown girl in the ring? boxing or wrestling? she looks like a sugar in a plum. wot does that mean. catchy tune but wots it about?"

11. mjaooajm
Neither one. She is in a dancing ring."
"ring play" = circle game songs

Read the comments above about the probable meaning of the line "she looks like a sugar in a plum".

12. mr y mysterious video
"i was 7, at school in ely, cardiff, wales.
it was christmas, the entire school gathered in a big circle while the sole black girl in school stood in the middle and danced with all her heart to this song - a true story.
and yet... it was all so innocent, nobody had any malice but they wouldn't try that these days!"

13. Doris Smith
"For West Indian Brown Girls Everywhere!"

14. Francisco Castillo Mata
"Qué bonitas son las pieles morenas, y cuanto han sido maltratadas por el " hombre blanco" ( y lo siguen siendo, más sutilmente, tal vez ). En un tiempo lejano, todos fuimos negros, o de un color oscuro. Son los orígenes de toda la humanidad. En EEUU, por ejemplo, todavía hay muchísimo racismo, y a veces no se molestan ni en disimularlo ( también en España, por supuesto). Bueno, el vídeo es encantador, y la música muy contagiosa. Solo espero que no me fusilen por haber expresado ciertas ideas, y que la USA Air Forcé no me bombardee."

Google translate from Spanish to English:
"How beautiful are the brown skins, and how much they have been battered by the "white man" (and they are still, more subtly, perhaps). In a distant time, we were all black, or a dark color. They are the origins of all humanity. In the US, for example, there is still a lot of racism, and sometimes they do not bother or disguise it (also in Spain, of course). Well, the video is charming, and the music very contagious. I just hope they do not shoot me for expressing certain ideas, and that the USA Air Force did not bomb me."

Example #2:
"Brown Girl In The Ring: Bahamian Expats In Los Angeles"

The Coconut Channel, Uploaded on Jul 24, 2008

At the July 2008 picnic celebration in Los Angeles' Griffith Park of the Bahamas' 35th anniversary of independence from England, a group of exuberant adults burst into the ring games of their childhood.
This video documents performances of various "ring plays" (circle game songs) that people from the Bahamas living in the United States played. That game begins at 5:19 and continues to the end of that video. I wrote a comment asking about the name of the game that was played before "Brown Girl In The Ring" and the words to the second and third verses of that song. Here are the responses to my question:

from dakingofhearts91: 2012
"The Game played before brown girl in the ring was red rover. The lyrics to the other song goes like this "blue hill water dry no where to wash my clothes, I remember that saturday night we had fried fish and johnny cake. Man take one to satisfy woman take two she make a moo(move)"

After thanking "dakingofheart" I asked if that version that the people in the video sang was traditional. Here is her response to that question

"Brown girl in the ring was not played properly. In Blue hill water dry, they had "boil" fish and johnny cake."Fried fish and johnny cake is not a Bahamian dish.Are any of them actually Bahamians.Once the get all the lyrics and someone to teach them the melodies, they'll be straight.
Yes I am 100% Bahamian."

Example #3: San Andrés Colombia Es 7: Brown Girl in the Ring (Ronda de la Morenita)

Liceo Infantil Marco Cali, Published on Nov 1, 2013

Durante el recrreo los niños juegan y bailan la ronda tradicional Brown Girl n the Ring (la Morenita de la Ronda), mientras su maestra Ofelia saluda a su amiga Eugenia Robinson y la invita a que hable con los niños y les comparta su sabiduría sobre la cultura de San Andrés, Providencia y Santa Catalina...
La profesora Eugenia Robinson es un personaje real de las islas, le hemos querido rendir un homenaje a ella y a todos los raizales de la isla que inspiraron el trabajo realizado en este proyecto. Algunas de las líneas en el guión son sus propias palabras. Pueden conocerla y aprender más con ella en:
this video no longer exists]
Google translate from Spanish to English:
During recess, the children play and dance the traditional Brown Girl n the Ring round, while her teacher Ophelia greets her friend Eugenia Robinson and invites her to talk to the children and share her wisdom about the Culture of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina ...
Professor Eugenia Robinson is a real personage of the islands, we wanted to pay homage to her and to all the raizales of the island that inspired the work realized in this project. Some of the lines in the script are his own words. You can meet and learn more with her at:
Here's information about San Andrés:
"San Andrés is a Colombian coral island in the Caribbean Sea. Historically tied to the United Kingdom, and politically part of Colombia,[1] San Andrés and the nearby islands of Providencia and Santa Catalina form the department of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina.[2][3] San Andrés, in the southern group of islands, is the largest of the department. The official languages of the department are Creole, Spanish, and English."

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