Friday, January 26, 2018

Examples Of & Comments About The Children's Rhyme "I Like Coffee, I Like Tea, I Like Sitting On A Black Man's Knee"

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest revision: April 28, 2021

This pancocojams provides examples of and commentary about the children's rhyme "I like coffee, I like tea, I like sitting on a black man's knee". That rhyme is also given as "Do you like coffee? Do you like tea? Do you like sitting on a black man's knee?"

The content of this post is presented for folkloric and socio-cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

My internet searches for the children's rhyme "I like coffee, I like tea, I like sitting on a black man's knee" suggest that it is (or was) a relatively widely known rhyme in England. Most online examples of "I like coffee...I like sitting on a black man's knee" indicate that it was (or is) chanted while jumping rope. Although the author of "I like coffee...I like sitting on a black man's knee" rhymes is unknown, for the reasons I've articulated below, it seems obvious to me that the author of this particular version of "I Love Coffee I Love Tea" was White.

The earliest publication that includes the "sitting on a black man's knee" versions of "I Love Coffee & I Tea" rhyme appears to be Iona Archibald Opie's and Peter Opie's 1959 book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. However, the Opie's version of that rhyme is a question: "Do you like coffee? Do you like tea? Do you like sitting on a blackman's knee"? The passage from that book which contains this rhyme is presented as Excerpt #1 below. 

I believe that this version is a "trick question" was supposed to result in an automatic and "obvious response from children who weren't [aren't] Black (the intended audience for that and other rhymes) that "Yes. I like coffee and yes I like tea" but NO. I don't like sitting on a Black man's knee." (Having said yes both times, the "trick" is that the person answering the question would be lulled into responding "yes" to a question that about an action that is extremely unacceptable (for children who aren't Black).

Few analysis of children's recreational rhymes that I've read consider that this rhyme and some other children's recreational rhymes might have different meanings for Black children than they do for White children. Although we [Black people] teach our children that they shouldn't sit on any strange man's lap-unless he's the Santa Claus at a cultural event during the Christmas season- for the most part, sitting on the knee of a Black man who is known to a Black child doesn’t have the same risque, sexualized, and scary connotations that it had in the past and probably still have in the 2000s for White children and other non-Black children.

It's significant that "Black men" are the only racial/ethnic population that are featured in these rhymes- There are no comparable examples of "I like coffee...I like sitting on a White man's knee" or "I like sitting on an Asian man's knee" or "I like sitting on a Latino man's knee."

Although we [Black people] teach our children that they shouldn't sit on any strange man's lap-unless he's the Santa Claus in the store or cultural event during the Christmas season, we don't hold those negative stereotypes about Black males and thus Black children wouldn't interpret this rhyme in the same way as White children.

I don't remember "I like coffee...I like sitting on a black man's knee" from my childhood (in Atlantic City, New Jersey, early 1950s). I wonder if anyone outside of England remembers this rhyme. If so, for the folkloric record, please share that information in the comment section below. Please include demographics (especially your race/ethnicity, geographical location, and decade that you remember this rhyme). Thanks!
My custom is to capitalize the racial referents "Black" and "White". However, I've used the lower case "b" for "black man" as that is how that referent is found in the examples I am quoting.

In contrast, the contemporary rhymes "I like coffee, I like tea, I like a Black boy and he likes me" were probably first composed by Black people. Click Racialized Versions Of "I Like Coffee I Like Tea" for a pancocojams post about those rhymes.

Also, click for the closely related pancocojams post entitled "Selected Examples Of Referents For Black People In Children's Rhymes"

These excerpts are given in relatively random order, and are numbered for referencing purposes only.

The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren
Iona Archibald Opie, ‎Peter Opie
[First published in 1959]

[page 65] -Given in section entitled “Guile”
..."’Can you say tea-pot backwards?’ (The person says “pot tea” and you say you know he is)’
“Do you feel like a cup of tea??” ‘Yes’. ‘You look like one”.

'Are you soft?’ ‘No’. ‘Are you daft? ‘ ‘No’. Are you far off of it?’ ‘No.’ (You say, ‘I thought not”.)

This last is almost one of those triple-question tricks in which the person is led to expect that the answer given to the first two questions will also do for the third:
Do you like apples?
Do you like pears?
Do you like tumbling
down the stairs?

Do you like white
Do you like pink?
Do you like falling
down the sink?

Possibly the rhyming aids the delusion, for these formulas are highly popular, particularly with very young children who have just started school. Our daughter, for example, was five years old when she came home with:
Do you like coffee ?
Do you like tea ?
Do you like sitting on a blackman's knee ?
The "Are you soft" example doesn’t translate well into American English. While, I realize that “daft” means “crazy”, I’m not sure what “far off of it” means. But I "get" that these "triple questions" are meant to "trick" the child into saying "yes", when the third answer would definitely be "no". As I indicated in my comments above, given the negative stereotypes that were held about Black people in general, and Black men in particular, for White children in the late 1950s and (likely) for many non-Black children now, I suspect that the answer to the question "Do you like sitting on a blackman's knee" wouldn't have been (wouldn't be) "Yes", but a loud "NO!". For those children (and not for Black children) "sitting on a Black man's knee" would have been (and may still be) something that would not only be socially unacceptable, but also be considered disgusting.

The writer quoted in Excerpt #3 gives another possible interpretation of this rhyme in which "sitting on a black man's knee" was eroticized. If that is the case, the declarative statement "I like sitting on a black man's knee" may be an example of children being risque by challenging societal taboos of sitting on a Black man's lap for sexualized, if not romantic, reasons.

"Type: sound

Duration: 00:47:41


Subjects: Children's games; Children's songs

Recording date: 1982-06

Is part of (Collection): Opie collection of children's games and songs


"There is a short pause in the recording at [00:15:00] and Iona explains that she is now in Flitwick, Bedford. There is much background noise from traffic. Iona begins by talking to some schoolgirls, one of whom is thirteen.

They sing the skipping song 'I Like Coffee, I Like Tea'. The girl sings: 'I like coffee, I like tea, I like sitting on a black man's knee' [00:15:27 - 00:15:34]"

From's%20knee&f=false Richard Hoggart and Cultural Studies
S. Owen
[Springer, Oct 14, 2008]

[summary of this book]

"In this new collection of essays, a range of established and emerging cultural critics re-evaluate Richard Hoggart's contribution to the history of ideas and to the discipline of Cultural Studies. They examine Hoggart's legacy, identifying his widespread influence, tracing continuities and complexities, and affirming his importance."

[page 126]
‘Them’ And ‘Us’ - Robert J C Young
..."Perhaps Leeds was different, but in many English cities, from London to Newcastle, local English and immigrant communities of Jews, Irish, and later Caribbean, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani did meet, and 1957 was the time when this was first becoming a political issue on a national level- it was the year before the first Nottingham riots. In the world of The Uses, there seems to be as little explicit consciousness of black people as of the colonies.

The charlady secures her old felt hat with a large pin with a piccaninny’s head carved on the blunt end-a relic of a day at sea, I suppose’ (118), everyone knows that a local woman had a black child after the annual visit of the circus a few years ago. This illicit attraction is staged more spectacularly in one of the jumping rope rhymes which Hoggart quotes without comment:
I like coffee, I like tea
I like sitting on a black man’s knee (58)

The regular version of this rhyme is
I like coffee, I like tea
I want [the person’s name] to jump with me.

Or more suggestively,
I like the boys and the boys like me

Even Salman Rushdie, in The Satanic Verses, cites a comparatively anodyne version compared to Hoggart’s, when Saladin Chamcha is making threatening erotic anonymous phone calls to Gibreel:
I like coffee, I like tea,
I like the things you do to me.
Tell her that, the voice swooned, and rang off.
(Rushdie, 1988, 444)

The spectral appearance of the eroticised black man’s knee in The Uses suggests another dimension to the rather puritanical sex life that is evoked in the everyday lives of the working class. It also suggests the phantom presence of different communities who register no presence in the book.”

From Bluebells, Cockleshells
Catherine Johnson, Thursday, 14 May 2015
“That's what started me off a walk in those woods last week, I couldn't get this skipping rhyme out of my head;

Bluebells, cockleshells,
Evey, Ivy, O-ver,

Did you play this one? You'd need a big group, and a big rope with two enders, or one ender (nobody wanted to be an ender) and then you'd tie the other end to a drainpipe. Anyway on 'Bluebells, cockle shells' the rope would be swayed, not turned all the way over until the word 'over' in the rhyme. At this the next girl, it was always a girl (and there was only Barry Morgan in our school who could skip I may be wrong here) would run into the rope. She'd sing;

I like coffee I like tea
I like Sheila in with me

And then Sheila would jump in and you'd both skip together and spell out her name as you jumped. But sometimes, and this would be around 1970 in London, I can remember singing;

I like coffee I like tea,
I like sitting on a black man's knee

Which seems completely shocking today - although we didn't think about it then - and did I think I was skipping about my Dad? Not at all, this was the same mythical black man who famously got caught by his toe, best mates, no doubt with the man from China who was forever doing up his flies. Skipping rhymes were always odd and sometimes rude and sometimes completely scatological. Can I just say I am glad those days are gone? I never felt these rhymes were a sign of any kind of innocence.”...

From Seedy Songs and Rotten Rhymes - the poetry of the playground
"I like coffee
I like coffee I like tea I like sitting on a black mans knee With a one and a two and a three (on three lift your skirt, turn tround quickly, bend over and show your bum)"

May 9th 2007, 12:03 am #39
"sasbear [Female]
This may be classed as un PC now but.this is what we sang ...

I like coffee
I like tea
I like sitting on a black man's knee"

May 9th 2007, 12:10 am
asher Female
Originally Posted by sasbear
This may be classed as un PC now but.this is what we sang ...

I like coffee
I like tea
I like sitting on a black man's knee
we sang it as a skipping song
[end of quote]

"as above then I want so and so in with me."
“I want so and so in with me” [means] I want [person’s name] to join me jumping rope.

From Topic: When did you first encounter racism?
Re: When did you first encounter racism?
Sexton Brackets, Reply #125 on: June 13, 2013, 10:10:01 AM »
"Another playground one round my way was

"Do you like coffee?
Do you like tea?
Do you like sitting on a black man's knee?"

There was one black kid in my class when I was eight (1974) and our teacher would regularly mock-glower at him and say "Don't you give me those black looks, boy" in a weird Windsor Davies-type voice, to the poor kid's obvious embarrassment. It was very funny for the rest of us at the time, though."

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  1. 'I love coffee I love tea
    I love the java jive and it loves me'
    Lyrics from Java Jive by the Ink Spots written in 1940

    1. Thanks for sharing those lyrics, Unknown.

      Here's a link to a YouTube sound file of that song:

  2. While searching the internet today for children's rhymes, I happened upon this example:
    "I like coffee, I like tea,
    I like sitting on Bobby's knee.
    Salute to the king and bow to the queen,
    And turn your back on the gypsy queen.
    -Erin Pollard,

    [Note: Rhymes on that page are from the United Kingdom].
    Weren't girls chanting that "sitting on a [boy's name] knee being "fresh" [doing something risque]?

    If so, it seems to me that the element of "risqueness" was significantly increased with the "sitting on a black man's knee" line [for non-Black girls since -as I noted in this post- that action wouldn't necessarily have the same meaning for Black girls as it does for White and other non-Black girls.]

    That said, I wonder if "sitting on a man's knee" was more acceptable in the mid 20th century than it is now in 2018.

    For instance, it's still considered routine for little children to sit on Santa Claus' knee-or is he an exception to this rule?

    And what do you make of this rhyme [portion given in italics]:

    Had a little car car,
    Ran around the cor-(skipper jumps out, and turners continue the syllable until they reenter)-ner
    and slammed on the brakes, but the brakes didn't work,
    So I bumped into a lady who bumped into a man,
    Who bumped into a police car, man, oh man!
    Policeman caught me
    Put me on his knee,

    Asked me a question
    Will you marry me?
    Yes, No, Maybe So (repeated)
    -Source same as the link given in this post.
    I don't think that a policeman putting a girl on his knee and asking her to marry him would be acceptable nowadays. Certainly, [again] for non-Black girls, this "sitting on the policeman's knee" would be far more socially acceptable than "sitting on a black man's knee". But I don't think that action would be all that acceptable for any race/ethnicity of girl or boy nowadays.

    Have times changed that much or am I reading something that's not there into this example?

  3. We used to say this a lot as children and I don't even know where it came from, where I heard it. My mother used to go mad at us saying it. Now I know.

    1. Thanks for your comment, David Oldroyd.

      For the folkloric record, which example of "I Like Coffee I Like Tea did you say and where/when did you say it?

  4. For some reason this rhyme popped into my head tonight and I googled it as I couldn't remember the full rhyme, I had never considered that it would be offensive in any way, but realised how it might be after reading the comments of others. I apologise to anyone offended but can only think of my childhood memories which were innocent and ignorant of offence. I will not remember this rhyme with the same joy as before.

    1. Unknown, thanks for your comment.

      I appreciate what you wrote.

      Best wishes!

  5. Bedfordshire, UK in 1977ish we sang "I like sitting on a bumblebee". No mention of black men or knees. Definitely prefer our version!

    1. Hello, Anonymous. Thanks for sharing your version of this rhyme with demographics for the folkloric record.

      I agree. I like your version of that rhyme, and I can see where that version got the word "bumblebee" from.

      Best wishes!