Eenie, Meenie, Minie, Mo

I was just a wittle baby when my mommy would scrub my wittle toes in the bathtub with my wittle boatlike scrub brush, while singing, “Eenie, meenie, minie mo. Catch a nigger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eenie, meenie, minie mo.”

As a wittle baby, I giggled and splashed as my mother would recite the rhyme while tickling my wittle white toes. I had no idea of the racism of the rhyme and didn’t understand it until years later. Undoubtedly the little dittie, which my mother found so innocent, had an impact on my young brain.

I am Jewish and I recall when I was young, my mother telling me about the Holocaust and how our cousins were murdered because they were Jews. She was so aware and so angry with anti-Semitism and how the Nazis judged people only by their religion and sent them to their deaths by the millions.

So how could someone so aware of anti-Semitism, and a Democrat to boot, be a racist and judge people not by their religion but by their skin color? I believe she meant no harm but truly believed, that people of color are inferior to whites. I recall her referring to African Americans as “colored” and even as “niggers.” Didn’t seem wrong to me.

There were no African Americans in the Paramus where I was raised. I can’t remember when I saw my first African American, much less when I had any conversations. There was no way I could know that there is nothing intrinsically bad about any group of people, whether based on their race, their religion, their sexual identity or anything else.

As I got older, I remember the jokes about jungle bunnies. I had no reason to raise any objections. It was just a joke, something that today would be called a macroaggression. Like saying “I didn’t know your kind was that smart.”

Living in my cloistered enclave, I was utterly unaware of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s. I was old enough to understand if only someone had told me about freedom riders and Woolworth’s and Rosa Parks. I didn’t hear a peep and the subject never came up at the dinner table.

While the Klan was getting stronger and lynchings were gaining steam, I was watching TV and my favorite little puppet, Howdy Doody, the one with the red freckles and his buds, Buffalo Bob Smith, Clarabelle and Princess SummerFallWinterSpring. And who could ever forget Dilly dally? What a wonderful life.

That was 1959, the year that four black students sat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., sparking six months of the Greensboro Sit-Ins. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed that year in Raleigh, N.C.

And Ruby Bridges became the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South (William Frantz Elementary School) following court-ordered integration in New Orleans, La.

And I watched Buckwheat a million times as he shuffled along behind Alfalfa and the rest of “Our Gang” as they got into raucous and hilarious shenanigans. That was just lovable Buckwheat. So what if he was supposed to have no brains? He was funny and he was musical. That would be William “Billie” Thomas Jr. but for me he was always that little boy with the toothy grin and the black skin

I howled with laughter at the antics of “Amos and Andy.” I remember “Andrew H. Brown, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’s ever heard.” Andrew shuffled while the Kingfish scammed any way he could. I guess Amos had a job as a cab driver. But he was nowhere as interesting as Andrew, Kingfish and his overbearing, overweight wife, Saphire. And then there was lovable Willie “Lightning” Jefferson, a slow-moving Stepin Fetchit–type character.

Originally a radio show, Amos and Andy was voiced by two white actors. Good thing they hired blacks for the TV show. It made it so much more realistic. Huh?

And then there was the Jazz Singer, the first talkie, which featured then megastar Al Jolsen, a Jew, in blackface and singing “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles, my maaamy.” He was wonderful and so realistic with those white teeth sticking out from that coal black face when he got made up as a darky from Georgia.

And who didn’t love King Kong, especially the part where the brave, bright white explorers came upon the temple inhabited by black savages who ate each other and probably wanted to rape the white women but were only too willing to carry the baggage of the white visitors.

And oh did I love those pancakes with that overweight, oversmiling Aunt Jemima on the box.

For the record, Wikipedia notes that the rhyme, “Eenie, meenie, minie mo,” is rooted in the slave trade. It may come from slave selection or a description of what white slave owners would do if they caught a runaway slave.

Some favorite tunes in my childhood include “Pick a Bale of Cotton” with the words, “Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton. Gotta jump down, turn around, Oh, Lordie, pick a bale a day.” The song glorified and makes fun of slave conditions. All innocent fun.

“Jimmy Crack Corn” had the unforgettable lyrics, “Ol’ massa’s gone and I’ll let him rest/They say all things are for the best/ But I’ll never forget ’til the day I die…” It’s about a slave who laments the death of his master as good Negroes would.

“Oh! Susanna” is about a dumb, naive slave who sings out, “It rain’d all night de day I left, De wedder it was dry, The sun so hot I froze to def. Susanna don’t you cry.”

And finally, the song that will live forever, for its humanity and understanding: “Camptown Races.”

Its lyrics, “De Camptown ladies sing dis song — Doo-dah! Doo-dah!/ I come down dah wid my hat caved in — Doo-dah! Doo-dah!/ I go back home wid a pocket full of tin — Oh! Doo-dah day!”

The great lyricist Stephen Foster was trying to imitate black speech of those backward darkies. A national treasure, Foster also wrote such classics as “Fighting for the Flag Day and Night,” “For the Dear Old Flag, I Die,” “I’d Be a Fairy,” “Massa’s In de Cold Ground,” “Old Black Joe” and oh so many more.

That’s just scratches the surface of the people and things that influenced my childhood and fed the beast that is racism.

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Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer

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Phil Garber

Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer

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