USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Black’
Game
Gestures
Kinesthetic

“Black and White” Chinese Children’s Game

[The subject is MW. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

Context: MW is my grandmother, who was born in Shanghai and then lived in Hong Kong later on in her youth. She moved to San Francisco as a young adult and has lived in the Bay Area for the last six decades. She is a native Mandarin speaker, but is also fluent in English. I sat down with her and asked her to talk about some stories from her childhood. Before this, she had mentioned a “black and white” game that she played with the other kids, and I asked her to return to that subject and explain it to me.

ME: You mentioned a “black and white” game earlier that you play with your palm.

MW: Yeah, yeah.

ME: Could you explain to me what that is?

MW: Nothing. Oh this? [Holds out hand, palm facing up] Just, we play…

ME: How do you play it?

MW: So we say… and then it’s like, [holds hand behind back, then moves to hold it out in front of her, palm facing up]. You play, it’s the game, right? And then we play game like everybody go, [holds hand behind her back] and only you [holds out hand, palm facing up] is white, is good. Right?

It’s like, we always go like this [holds hand behind back], and then sometimes I go like this [holds hand out, palm up]. Right? That means… I won.

ME: Could you explain why that means you won?

MW: It’s like, we play, who will do okay? If the game, if you throw the ball. Who will be the first one to do it. So we don’t let them know [moves hand back behind her back], and ‘one, two, THREE!’[brings hand back out, palm facing up], right? And with three people, then it’s like we all white, and then this one, this [turns hand over so that palm is facing down], is black.

ME: So ‘white’ is your palm facing up and ‘black’ is your palm facing down?

MW: Yeah.

ME: So how many people do you play it with?

MW: You play it about three people.

ME: If everyone has their palm like this [I have my palm facing down], what does that mean?

MW: Then it’s nothing. But if it’s ‘one, two, three’ and one is out [puts out palm facing up], then he won.

ME: Then why can’t you do this [palm facing up] every time to win?

MW: Because one can start, and then the other ones can follow you, I don’t know. So it’s everybody, like this [palm facing up], then that’s fine, but it should be [flips palm, facing down].

Thoughts: This game stood out to me when MW first mentioned it in passing because I had never heard of a hand game like this, and she called it “Black and White,” which was interesting because the two opposing colors seem to appear a lot in folklore. From what I gathered by my grandma’s description/demonstration, three children play the game and they start with their hands behind their backs. Then, on the count of three, they all put out their hand with it either facing palm up (white), or palm down (black). This part I am the most unsure of, but I think that the goal of the game is to be the only person of the three to have the “white” hand or the “black” hand. Thus, neither “black” or “white” is better, instead, the winner would be the person who chooses how they place their hand uniquely. This is surprising to me, because typically in children’s stories with the colors black and white, one signifies good and the other evil, but in this game they are only meant to signify opposites.

Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Signs

Black Cats Superstition

Main Piece:

“Black cats are bad luck.”

Context and Analysis:

My informant is a 19-year-old female. I asked my informant if she knew of any superstitions people live by.  To this, she responded,  “black cats are bad luck.” My informant does not remember when she first heard this superstition, but she thinks it was around the time of Halloween. She claims she also saw it in a tv show she watched as a child called, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. In the show, the black cat was friends with the witch. The informant states that a black cat is a sign that something bad is going to happen. For example, if you are going somewhere and you see a black cat it means something bad will happen in the near future. The informant recalls,

“One time I was driving in the car with a friend and her dad, can’t remember who it was, but we saw a black cat crossing the road and my friend’s dad turned around and drove the other way. My friend says that every time her dad is driving, and he sees a black cat he has to turn around and take an alternate route.”

The informant says she does not believe this is true and feels bad for black cats because everyone thinks they are evil.

I too have heard this superstition that black cats are bad luck. It is interesting to note the association with color. The color black is often used when referencing fear, mystery, evil and death. All of these themes are common around the time of Halloween, so it makes sense the informant believes to have heard this superstition around that time. One also wears black to a funeral to represent the mourning of a loved one. Therefore, seeing a black cat by the color alone can imply death. Death is a mysterious subject terrifying for many people. The black cats’ color can be enough to make people fear the superstition. Cats are also animals that hold a lot of mystery. Often it is said cats have nine lives. This makes the superstition that black cats are bad luck even more fascinating because if the color black is associated with death, and cats have nine lives, could this have some sort of implication that cats can take lives? An intriguing relationship to note.  When looking into this superstition I also found a reference to it in the book Fearful, Spirits, reasoned follies the boundaries of superstition in the late medieval Europe by Michael David Bailey. He also speaks of the association cats have with demonic beings and magical connections.

Bailey, Michael David. Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies the Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe. Cornell University Press, 2013.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Good Luck Butterflies

An old woman told my friend that seeing seeing white butterflies is good luck.

Lindsey: I was working on a community service gardening project and this old woman started talking to me. She said that if a black butterfly lands on you, it means you or someone you are close to will die or get very very ill. By the same token, a white butterfly indicates good luck.

Me: Had you ever heard of this before?

Lindsey: No, but I told my mom, and she said that a white butterfly is only good luck if the first butterfly you see in a year is white.

Analysis: In many cultures and religions, butterflies can be a symbol of rebirth. At first, one is young, and then they go into a sort of hibernation, and then they break from a cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. White is an auspicious color as well, in that white often symbolizes purity, goodness, and untarnished youth. To see a white butterfly, an animal which is relatively elusive and fast-moving, is to glimpse at a special gift that feels as though only you were meant to see it.

Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

La-a (pronounced “Ladasha”)

The informant told me about this joke when I asked him about some good jokes he had heard.

Informant: “So this is a joke I’ve heard from many people, some of them have claimed it to be true. The joke goes: ‘I heard about this person named Ladasha, and her name is spelled La-a. So it’s “Laa”, but it’s pronounced Ladasha. And I’ve heard this as a joke from some people. But one person who told me, actually insisted that they knew someone who knew Ladasha. Which is obviously not true.”

Collector: “Why is this a joke, what’s the funny part about it?”

Informant: “Oh, its just typography”

Collector: “When did you hear this first?”

Informant: “High school I believe, a couple years ago. I would hear about it every couple months or so. It was a thing people knew about.”

Collector: “Why do you think specifically the name Ladasha?”

Informant: “Because its funny and it sounds like a real name”

Collector: “It sounds like an African American name. Is there any reason why that is?”

Informant: “Some of those names I’ve seen do have vanity punctuation”

Collector: “So do you think this is poking fun at that?”

Informant: “Probably. I think there’s a Tiana in my high school (T’ana) so it’d be like, ‘T’ana’ so that was a vanity punctuation”

Collector: “So Ladasha could be a real name”

Informant: “Yes. But more likely I think is that someone named their baby that after they heard the joke”

This joke, in my opinion, is likely to indeed be poking fun at some African American names with unconventional punctuation, or as my informant called it, “vanity punctuation.”

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Black Moths

The informant is a student from my folklore class, and we ended up meeting and exchanging stories and superstitions one night.


Script

“It’s really bad luck to kill a black moth, especially the large ones that will land on the wall. They are a sort of bad omen , since the seem to attract death. If you see one in your house, just leave it be and don’t try to scare it away, because it is the spirit of someone who has died, or who is going to die, and the appearance of the moth is either a premonition of a death, or a sign that a death has occurred.”

I asked whether the moth was necessarily a bad spirit, or just a bad omen if you were to mess with it.

“One time when my mother was thirteen years old, she saw a black moth land on the wall of her room. She didn’t disturb it and just left it there, since her mother had told her the same omen. Literally an hour letter, they received a phone call saying my uncle died in a motorcycle accident.”

I asked if the moths visit someone that has a relationship with the spirit.

“Yeah, it kind of solidifies the idea that the moth is supposed to symbolize.”

I asked if her mom knew about the moth’s significance before the encounter described previously.

“No, and then coincidentally enough the death happened. But I’ve encountered moths and I just leave them be.”

Background & Analysis

When I asked if other colored moths are also bad omens, the informant said it is only the black ones, since the color black is associated with death. Also, she described them as somber creatures that always travel alone, and tend to be very frightening and intimidating since their size is so tremendous.

The informant’s mother is from a small, secluded town that is surrounded by mountains called Monjas in Guatemala. Although the town has become more modernized over the past few decades, many of the traditions and superstitions still circulate. The informant is from Boston, MA, but attends USC, and she often travels to Guatemala to visit family.

Present in folklore across many cultures are animals or other figures that represent death. Death is universal, and even though cultures and traditions can be very different, one of the things that binds everyone together is the cycle of life. Over time, humans have become more and more obsessed with death, whether it be the fear of it or the fascination with it. The black moth is just another example among countless others.

Folk speech
Game
general
Riddle

Black Magic

In order to do Black Magic, you are going to need two performers.  Performer #1 is the asker while performer #2 is the guesser.  Performer #1 tells the audience the he/she has a telepathic connection with #2 and tells #2 to leave the room.  #1 then tells an audience member to pick any object in the room.  #1 will then say that he/she be able to transmit what the object is to #2.  After the audience member picks (we will say a chair for this example), #2 returns to the room.  #1 will then start asking questions such as, “Is it this shirt? Is it her hair?” #2 will then respond with “no” until finally #1 will ask “Is it the chair?” and #2 will say, “Yes.”  At this point the audience member will be shocked that #2 was able to figure out the object.  The trick here occurs when #1 is asking the questions about what the object is; the object that is named right before the chosen object is always predominantly black in color.  For example, #1 will ask, “Is it her shirt?” and points at somebody’s black shirt.  The color black is the cue that the object in the next question is the chosen object.  If people ask for hints as to how the trick work, just tell them to think about the name of the game.

My informant told me about this game during a dinner party.  On this occasion, my informant wanted to play this game but unfortunately for her, nobody else in the group knew about it.  She decided to tell me about it so that I could be performer number two. We both performed the game a couple times with the other people in the dinner party, and everyone was constantly throwing guesses for how I was able to correctly ascertaining the chosen object.

I asked my informant where she got this fun party game from and she said she had learned about it from her cousin at a family reunion party.  Her cousin had wanted to convince her younger relatives that she was psychic and she used this to do so.  Hearing this, I speculate that this game is probably derived from fake psychics who wanted to prove their ability.  By practicing this activity, the “psychic” would then be able to convince customers that there “powers” are real.

Folk speech
general
Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Blason Populaire Joke

The informant learned this joke, which falls under the category of blason populaire, from one of his friends in junior high school. He says that he has also heard it from other active bearers as a “black joke”:

“How do you stop a Mexican from drowning? The answer is, of course, take your foot off his head.”

The informant says that when he performs this joke it is usually in a group of friends who consider vulgar jokes acceptable and that he varies the ethnicity to match the group’s prejudices. He also admits that sometimes he tells the joke when he’s “around people who are racist” and he doesn’t “want to make any waves.”

He considers it to be a “pretty bad joke” but says it’s “easy to use for a cheap laugh, as an icebreaker.”

The informant grew up in Tujunga, which according to the LA Times’s 2009 “Mapping LA” project has a black population of only 1.8%. It is therefore not surprising that he would have heard the “black joke” cognate, since the members of the audience to the joke would have been unlikely to be black or have black acquaintances on whose behalf to be offended. However, it is perhaps more surprising that his friend told it to him as a Mexican joke, since according to the same project, 14.7% of Tujunga’s residents have Mexican ancestry. It may be that the joke was more acceptable to tell because some members of the active bearer’s audience had Mexican ancestry and were willing to laugh at themselves, or perhaps the informant’s friend had Mexican ancestry himself.

Source: Ardalani, Sarah, et al. “Tujunga.” Los Angeles Times. 2009. Tribune Newspaper. 25 April 2011 <http://projects.latimes.com/mapping-la/neighborhoods/neighborhood/tujunga/#ethnicity>.

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