Black History Month Activities: Play Some Hambone!

BLACK HISTORY MONTH (1)When it comes to fun activities for Black History Month, this one is hard to beat.

In fact, I can tell you from firsthand experience that regardless of what month it is, kids of all ages love to learn some hambone.

Whether you’re working with wide-open elementary school kids, or “too cool” middle school students, or earbud-wearing high school seniors (or adults!), they’ll have a great time with this.

What is Hambone?

Hambone, or “pattin’ juba,” is the ancient African and African-American art of making rhythm on the body.


Well, people don’t always have access to musical instruments, and yet, we all have a need for music. Hambone provides rhythm – – a beat – – for dancing, or singing, or just purely for fun.

Ingenious, really.

Give it a try with your students…

Black History and Hambone

Scholars generally agree that patting juba, or playing “hambone,” has its roots in Africa with traditional drumming and hand clapping used for social dancing.

Because the drum was used as both a method of communication and as a vehicle for communal gathering, dancing. and solidarity (to say nothing of its historic role in some African cultures as a call to war), its use was often restricted by the slave owners once West Africans are brought to the Caribbean and the American colonies. In fact, South Carolina legally banned the use of the drum after a large slave uprising in 1739, and other colonies followed suit.

Many music historians, including the noted scholar of African American folk music Dena J. Epstein, believe that this prohibition contributed to the development of hambone.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

Numerous 19th century primary sources describe African Americans throughout the American south (Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina) striking their own bodies in various ways to produce rhythmic accompaniment for both music (banjo, fiddle) and dancing.

Slave_dance_to_banjo,_1780s(Speaking of the banjo, did you know that this now-iconic symbol of American culture started as an African instrument? It was reimagined here in America with a dried gourd for the body, a long section of wood for the neck, and animal guts for the strings.)

Hambone All Year Long

I hope you won’t consider this strictly an activity for February any more than American independence is something we celebrate only on July 4, or the spirit of giving is something that’s only important during the winter holidays.

This is North American history, period.

If you’re teaching the Civil War, or the Underground Railroad, or the Early American Republic, or the North American economy, you now have a super-engaging, direct tie-in through this hands-on activity.

And even if none of the above applies to your curriculum, just have fun with this. I hope that you and your students will use it all throughout the year.

BTW, have you seen what actor Morgan Freeman has to say about Black History Month?

More Black History Month Activities and Resources

Education World
National Education Association
Fact Monster

Please let me know how your “hamboning” is going in the Comments section below!

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