In this piece, Angelou describes a game of hopscotch, using it as an extended metaphor to speak about how Black men, women, and children have to move through a racist world. She explores the meaning of freedom and alludes to the dangers of pushing too far. ‘Harlem Hopscotch’ was first published in The Poetry of Maya Angelou, a spoken word collection. It was later published in her first print collection, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, in 1971.
Explore Harlem Hopscotch
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by describing what playing hopscotch is like. The pavement is hot, and so, you have to jump into the air, trying not to put both feet on the ground. She makes several allusions to the nature of the world by suggesting that good things come to those who can afford them and that “Everybody” has to be for “hisself.”
The speaker makes it clear that this is more than a game of hopscotch. She’s also using it to define the Black experience. Since the players are Black, they have to keep moving. Soon they’ll be out of food and need to pay rent. Jobs are hard to come by, and everyone, like the hopscotch players, are contorting themselves to try to make ends meet. If you land with both feet on the ground, the game is over. The speaker concludes by saying that some believe this means she’s lost the game, but she thinks it means she’s won.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of racism, poverty, and empowerment. The poet uses the game to define what it’s like to grow up Black in the United States. It’s a tenuous position to be in as one is meant to play by a particular set of rules. They require balance, perseverance, and hard work. They also require that a Black man, woman, or child, do whatever they can to survive in less than ideal circumstances. But, as the poet explains the nature of the world, her speaker sets herself apart from the crowd. In the last lines, she suggests that she is going to play the game differently. When others say she’s lost, she’s going to remain determined that she’s won. This suggests that freedom and empowerment come from maintaining one’s independent ideas about what success looks like.
Structure and Form
‘Harlem Hopscotch’ by Maya Angelou is a four-stanza poem that is separated out into three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one final rhyming couplet. Some readers might look at this and feel as though Angelou was attempting to hint at the format of a game of hopscotch. This piece has fourteen lines, and when considering the format of the stanzas, it is impossible to ignore its similarities to a sonnet. It also contains elements of a ballad in its song-like rhythm. The poem rhymes in couplets. This means it follows a loose pattern of AABBCCDDEEFFGG. Some of these are half-rhymes, and others are full rhymes.
There is no specific metrical pattern at work in ‘Harlem Hopscotch.’ But, the poem does feel musical. This is due to the poet’s grouping of stressed beats and examples of internal rhyme. The majority of the lines are around seven syllables, creating a feeling of unity without a pattern.
Throughout this poem, Angelou makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into a line. This might occur through the use of punctuation or through the meter. For example, line one of the first stanza reads: “One foot down, then hop! It’s hot” or line one of the second stanza. It reads: “In the air, now both feet down.”
- Dialect: occurs when the poet uses alternate spellings and grammatical structures that allude to a specific dialect or manner of speech. For example, saying “Everybody for hisself” in line four of the first stanza and “Since you black” in line two of the second stanza.
- Alliteration: seen through the use of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “Curse and cry” in line four of the second stanza and “Good” and “got” in line two of the first stanza.
One foot down, then hop! It’s hot.
Everybody for hisself.
In the first quatrain of ‘Harlem Hopscotch,’ the speaker begins by directing the listener, a Black child, in the rules of hopscotch. These are directions that are likely going to be familiar to most readers. They involve jumping on one foot across squares on the ground. It’s a game that requires determination and concentration. It also requires a great deal of balance and technique. By using hopscotch as the extended metaphor in this poem, the poet is connecting the skills it takes to play the game to the skills it takes to navigate the world as a Black man, woman, or child.
The poet speaker also emphasizes some of the other rules, ones that apply to the broader world. People with means are going to get what they want out of life, and everyone has to focus on their own success. Or, “Everybody for hisself.”
In the air, now both feet down.
Curse and cry and then jump two.
In the second quatrain, the poet gives the listener more directions while inserting other pieces of advice about the world. The game of life requires players to work hard and always be aware that rent is going to come due and food is going to run out. It’s a tough way to live, but the game has to be played. It’s also important that as a Black person, the listener doesn’t “stick around.” This connects, once again, to life and the game.
All the people out of work,
That’s what hopping’s all about.
In the third and final quatrain, the speaker brings the game towards its conclusion. She knows that people are going to doubt the listener and their ability to make it to the end of the game. They are going to count the listener out, but they have to keep hopping, even when things get desperate.
The use of words like “twist and jerk” in this stanza emphasize how difficult it’s going to be to navigate to the end of the game. One has to contort their body and work in ways they might not have expected.
Both feet flat, the game is done.
The final couplet ends the poem with two perfectly rhymed lines. This adds to the overall musical quality of the verse. As two feet land flat at the end of the board, some might say, “I lost.” But, the speaker has her own opinion. She’s determined that she “won.” While the rest of the poem is about playing by the rules and doing whatever one can to make it to the end of the board, this concludes alludes to the freedom the comes from independent thought. The listener can determine whether they’ve been successful in life.
Yes, Maya Angelou lived in the neighborhood for ten years. She, like fellow poets Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, was inspired by her experiences there.
‘Harlem Hopscotch’ has elements of a sonnet and a ballad. The format, fourteen lines, a concluding couplet, and turn between the twelfth and thirteenth lines are parts of the sonnet form. But, the rhyme scheme is quite different, and the poem has a distinct musical quality that evokes the ballad form.
The speaker is a Black man or woman who likely lives, or lived, in Harlem, New York. The speaker knows what it’s like to grow up Black in a white world and is attempting to share the lessons they learned with a young person.
The tone is matter-of-fact and encouraging. The speaker is sharing the difficulties the listener is going to face but also encouraging the listener to persevere through them and even find their own freedom in the end.
Angelou likely wrote this poem in order to share her’s and others’ experiences of what it’s like to grow up Black. She sought to share these experiences as a way of connecting with her broader community and perhaps making those who are outside it understand the Black experience more fully.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Harlem Hopscotch’ should also consider reading other Maya Angelou poems. For example:
- ‘Alone’ – a moving poem. It explores the topics of solitude and loneliness in a way that all readers should be able to relate to.
- ‘Caged Bird’ – an incredibly important poem in which the poet describes the experience of two different birds, one free and one caged.
- ‘Human Family’ – expresses an incredibly relatable message about family. The poet speaks broadly about the world, unity, and how we are all connected to one another.