Nursery Racism?

How long does it take for the unsavory origins lurking under many of our most well-known cultural artifacts to dissipate? Do they ever?

Until today I remained blissfully unaware of the backstory behind “Eenie Meanie Minie Moe,” that seemingly-random-but-actually-predetermined nugget of doggerel many of us used on the school playground to choose between two equally preferable alternatives. A recent op-ed from the Kansas City Star not only educated me on the topic, but treated it as common knowledge, an assertion I’m not totally convinced is accurate. In any event, this apparently innocuous nursery rhyme conceals the grim specter of a racist past long forgotten by many of us: while the version I’m familiar with featured “a tiger” to catch, the original quarry was “a nigger,” belying the chant’s antebellum roots. And here I’d always thought Zed’s rendition from Pulp Fiction was merely a grotesque perversion.

This brief history lesson was occasioned by a local billboard advertisement prominently featuring the phrase. The op-ed’s author demands that the brewery that commissioned the ad excise Eenie from its campaign on the grounds that “the history is too fresh [and] the rhyme still evokes the N-word.” It certainly does for him, and presumably others as well, but how common is this knowledge? And how much does that even matter?

Clearly, millions of children have uttered Eenie throughout the years with hardly a thought to how offensive it might be. I was one of them. Now that I know about the rhyme’s sordid past, the thought of allowing my own future children to recite it strikes me as unseemly, to say the least. But is shouting down the use of every questionable catchphrase in the mass media really a constructive use of educated black time?

Well-intentioned though they certainly are, the Kansas City pundit’s concerns look relatively minor to me. I’ve long believed that the race card shouldn’t be played lightly so as not to trivialize racism’s truly pernicious instantiations. Perhaps instead of insisting that all language that makes us slightly uncomfortable (unlike, say, the n-word itself) be summarily shuttered, we should use it to educate others and start a critical discussion about what does and doesn’t constitute protestable speech. After all, the black community has far more serious issues than Eenie, and wasting precious column inches on something so trifling makes educated black liberals look petty and unserious.

Besides, giving the American lexical closet a truly thorough cleansing would probably require more effort than anyone’s willing to exert. I wonder if our indignant columnist is aware that the idioms “cake walk”/”to take the cake” and “jailbird,” among many others, trace their origins back to slavery. Does either serve the cause of racism today? Maybe, but I doubt it. This same misdirected hostility is occasionally marshaled against idioms with no historical connections to racism, such as the master/slave terminology for IDE computer drives that found itself banned by LA county in 2003 after a black employee complained.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. Not every case of suspected linguistic racism will be as clear-cut as racial slurs, but going overboard against less-than-significant slights like Eenie is a good way to get onto the wider community’s ignore list. Real racism is out there doing real damage, and nitpicking the little things only makes the difficult job of persuading its many doubters and deniers even harder.

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Published on July 25, 2006 at 12:28 am. 6 Comments.
Filed under mainstream culture,racism.