Saturday, September 1, 2012

Eeny Meeny Miney NO

When I was a kid, a lot of things didn't make sense, or didn't seem fair. When we were choosing who would be "it," by applying the eeny meeny miney moe protocol, some flicker in my brain told me that there should have been a strict mathematical principle involved that would predetermine the result. At the least I should have been able to figure out that any eeny meeny contest with only two people in it will always go to the meeny person, or that with three people it will always land on the eeny person. Yet somehow the result was always a mystery to me until the very end, because I was too distracted by the concept of catching a turkey by the toe to puzzle it out. Could you call them "toes," exactly? And wouldn't that be really hard?

In the "not fair" category was the infuriatingly arbitrary non-game "Mother May I," in which the designated autocrat in charge could tell her favorite to take three giant steps, and could tell everyone else to take baby steps, and that was that, no matter how polite you were. This was an added unfairness on top of the unfairness that I had never been, and still am not, able to take a giant step.

And many things didn't make sense. I was pretty young when I heard a rumor that people could come in different colors. I had been familiar with black and white, even realizing that it was an approximation--for instance, "white" referred to the shade represented by the single crayon called "flesh"--and I more or less accepted "red" although the red people in question were at best reddish, but when mom said there were yellow people too, I was very excited. I guess I bugged her about it for days. I was visualizing a tribe of proto-Simpsons. Finally mom found a suitable example and quietly pointed him out to me, and we both learned something. I learned that adults made weird and subtle distinctions, and mom learned how to make her child bellow "but MOM, he's not YELLOW" on a crowded sidewalk.

Other things were just plain dumb. We used to do this thing where you'd pluck a buttercup, that small yellow shiny flower, and hold it under your friend's chin. If it reflected yellow, it meant she loved butter. Well. That was dumb, for two reasons. We were a low-budget margarine family, and only bought two sticks of butter a year, for the adults to indulge in on high holy days. I thought real butter tasted strange and icky (I got over it), and I couldn't see why anyone would take the word of a buttercup over my own. Two, it wasn't much of a conclusion. The buttercup reflected yellow under everyone's chin. The whole exercise seemed pointless. We kept doing it, though, because it felt kind of good to have someone tickle your chin with a flower.

It was only recently it occurred to me that the point of the exercise was to weed out dark people. Just because everyone in my neighborhood reflected buttercups didn't mean it was universal. I am going to be very quiet about this revelation because I don't want the Republican Party to start going after the voter fraud we don't have any of with mandatory buttercup testing at the polls. It's bad enough that someone who is not even your mother can keep you from taking giant steps in this world.

And I realized something about that eeny-meeny-miney-moe turkey, too. My parents may have had very good reasons for keeping the "nigger" out. But most people don't.

89 comments:

  1. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Court, said, "Eeny meeny miney moe, eagle, robin, blackbird, crow . . . and I forget the rest, but it was non-racist. It took me a long time to figure out why she did it wrong. I had always just said the words, never thinking about their meaning. She was my favorite teacher!

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    1. Seems like there could have been room for a turkey in there.

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  2. Just because people don't accept a reason does not keep it from being a very good reason. The good news is: it's been so long since I heard the"off-color" version that I had to stop and think what word we used to use.

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    1. I also had trouble imagining the turkey "hollering."

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  3. I grew up with the assumption that things which didn't make sense would someday become clear. There were a lot of those, because I was the silent kid playing in the corner, unnoticed by adults but hanging on their every word.

    Most of those things did become clear, but they were replaced by stuff a lot worse. For example, why is there no law against stoopid? I worked for an educational group whose mission was simply to teach people to think. Those who didn't understand -- and they were legion -- thought it was a cult.

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    1. Thinking is very subversive, my dear! We should strive not to do it.

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  4. I had to stop for a minute to figure out your last sentence. I'm not sure if I ever learned it with that word or not. But, the word "tiger" is what automatically pops into my head for word we used in the eenie meenie game. How weird and sad that it would have had the "n" word! And, funny how we used eenie meenie so many times to make decisions.

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    1. I'm almost 50, but I never heard the racist version, either. We just used "tiger."

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    2. I think most people I knew used "tiger." I assure you that neither tiger nor turkey is the original version.

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    3. I grew up in a small town in Ohio and, sadly, the original version was quite common during my long-ago childhood. I can't remember how old I was when I realized that it wasn't a nice thing to say, but I'm sure that's one of the reasons why I hate the word so much now.

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  5. I never thought about the original Eeny meeny version, but I also said it without thinking because I did not know was an N***** was and I liked the sound of the rhythm. Non-thinkers glad we became thinkers.

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    1. Did you also do the "my mother told me to pick the very best one and you are not it" afterwards? That's in there in case you accidentally pick the wrong person to be "it." There'a just a ton of justice in this game.

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  6. Excellent, Murr. A similar insight for me was when I discovered a stored copy of "Little Black Sambo" in my childhood things. It was a book I had once loved, but I was horrified to see it twenty-five years later.

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    1. We had Little Black Sambo too. I remember the book and its illustrations distinctly. Sambo was (East) Indian, with a turban and pointy shoes. He got chased by tigers and they whirled around so fast they turned into butter. Another reason it would be hard to catch a tiger by the toe.

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  7. Had to add, what a sweet picture in the middle there :)

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  8. I remember Little Black Sambo and eenie, meenie...N-word as a child too. I didn't think anything of it. This is how insidious racism is, and how easy it is to indoctrinate children, when parents are irresponsible.

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    1. First time I heard that version I was shocked to the core.

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  9. I didn't know what "nigger" meant either, until once I heard a neighbor call Muhammad Ali (he was known as Cassius Clay then) "the most arrogant nigger I ever saw". Now it didn't occur to me to wonder whether this man had a vast acquaintance with black people or not because I thought he was referring to prize-fighters, and "arrogant" wasn't in my vocabulary at the time either, so I figured what he said was meant to be a compliment. Words are sure funny.

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    1. Good thing you didn't go on to use the word that way. Well, any way.

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  10. To this day, I can't hear "eeny, meeny, miney, moe" without thinking "catch a nigger by the toe," because that's how I learned it very early in life. By the time I learned what the word meant, somebody, somewhere, had introduced "catch a tiger by the toe." Mostly I still avoid it because I so hate the original version. Brazil nuts also had another name, if you recall. "Nigger toes." Once I understood, it shocked me that people could be so cruel.

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  11. When I first heard the name Brazil nut, I did not know what it was.

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  12. When I first heard the name Brazil nut, I did not know what it was.

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  13. Never forget the time as a kid seeing a "coloreds only" restroom while on vacation in the south. Asked my parents what that meant. They explained it was "separate but equal". It sure didn't look equal to me.

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    1. Totally equal. The white restroom was just equaller.

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  14. What a brilliant post. Great job, Murr. When I was a kid, we all said, "catch a tiger by the toe", but most of the time we used a different rhyme altogether to do our "picking": "My mother and your mother were hanging up clothes; my mother gave your mother a punch in the nose... etc."

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    1. Whoa! Don't you be talkin' 'bout my mother!

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  15. I was a "catch a tiger" child, myself. I somehow knew the other version existed but was naughty to use. Of course, growing up in rural Iowa, there weren't too many people of color other than those with farmer's tans.
    Then again, I was too busy trying to repair my hurt feelings from kids not wanting to pick me for various games to put any thought into the "N" word.

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    1. I was so bad I just felt sorry for the kids who had to decide between me and the kid with the flippers.

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  16. When I was a boy in Springfield, just down the road here, the stock response to being questioned about the origin of contraband was "stole 'em off of a dead nigger, and he ain't gettin' em back."

    Oh, for the simple wholesome days of the great generation!

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  17. Since we are the same age, and grew up in the same zip code (before there were zip codes), I find it odd that you said the turkey version while I said the Tiger version. We read Little Black Sambo too, but I never thought of it as anything other than exotic and weird when I was a child. Then we read History Can Be Fun, only it wasn't. Oh, and we mostly settled things by Rock, Paper, Scissors; something I wish we could use on certain politicians these days! Elaine M.

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    1. I'm not sure ANYone else said "turkey." Anyone? Hello?

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    2. No..what we said was "monkey".

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  18. Nope - Tiger here, too - but didn't use it much anyway: not many "It" games get played when you have trouble rounding up even ONE brother or sister, living out in the sticks...
    "some flicker in my brain told me that there should have been a strict mathematical principle involved that would predetermine the result." I like how your brain worked/works, and I suspect that's because it's rather like mine. Always trying to figure out how things work, then and still. And the dolts who are using their poor brains to be "worried" about voter fraud? I'm pretty sure THEY have a predetermined result in mind for their little game. They are the ones who should be subjected to some sort of mandatory testing - of their motives. If the Courts don't act appropriately, perhaps there is some variety of buttercup we could find...

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    1. Digitalis, maybe, in sufficient quantities?

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  19. So much for the post-racial presidency. Most normal people don't operate as you've described, including Republicans. That buttercup thing was a bit off point, though it did bring back sweet childhood memories.

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    1. Oh, heck, honey, half the time I don't even have a point, and the rest of the time I don't know what it is until I get there!

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  20. "Tickle your chin with a flower?" may well be the best pick-up line I've ever heard :)

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    1. Dave used to claim you could approach someone with "tickle your ass with a feather?" and if they don't respond well, you can say you'd said "particularly nasty weather." Always an angle.

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  21. Eeney, meanie, miney, moe, catch a baby by its toe, it will holler let me go, eeney, meanie, miney, moe.
    That is how we sang it!

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    1. You had such a delicate childhood!

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    2. Over protective parents I'd say. And wouldn't that be child abuse?

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  22. I may be slightly off the string of the conversation here, but... saw a copy of 'Little Black Sambo' in the French Quarter just last week. Stood there and read it. And I still don't get it! Is it just me or is the story just weird?

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    1. It's weird. Tigers don't turn into butter. Parts of tigers turn into aphrodisiacs for dreadful Asian men but not butter.

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  23. Murr, you sure do get me thinking about things I'd forgotten. As a baby boomer, most of my generation caught the N-word by the toe (never heard the turkey one) but we weren't allowed to say that word in my family. My grandfather was a dispatcher for C.P.R.; many of the train porters were black and he made a point of learning all their names and called them Mr. & their last name. He wouldn't have tolerated them being called by that word. So I never eeny-meenied. The threat of soap was a vivid and real one: I wouldn't have dared.

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    1. I had friends with the soap treatment, but I never got it. Instead, I was given no verbal ammunition to earn soap.

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  24. Ah for the good old days. We ate nigger toes, and caught a nigger by the toe... We also had "indian panties" (they creep up on you.)

    Oh, yeah and the concept of the Indian Giver.


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    1. I remember the Indian giver, but not Indian panties. Lordy lordy.

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    2. Please, please,please explain "Indian Giver" to me. I use the phrase occasionally (because it describes a taker-backer with such diligence), but I immediately recoil, just knowing it *has* to be racist.

      I have heard/read completely and diametrically opposing sources for/to it: one saying Indians were not trustworthy (c'mon now...seriously?) and the other saying that 'colonists' were forever 'taking back' (and reneging on) promises/treaties. Somehow, the poor First Nationals got saddled with the moniker because of their passive role in the cheat.

      Please help me, I am still wallowing in the shame of only recently discovering that 'gyp' is racist! (Well, at least bigoted.)

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    3. Wikipedia says "Indian giver is an expression used to describe a person who gives a gift (literal or figurative) and later wants it back, or something equivalent in return.

      The term "Indian gift" was first noted in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson, and "Indian giver" was first cited in John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1860) as "Indian giver.[1][2] When an Indian gives any thing, he expects to receive an equivalent, or to have his gift returned." Thus it was really an exchange of gifts and not a matter of selflessness."

      And that pretty much squares with my memory of the term. In many native cultures, if you express admiration for something belonging to someone, even now, they will offer that thing to you as a gift "beautiful dog" "take him he's yours" and simple politeness demands that if you accept the gift, you must offer something of equal or greater value. But of course the Europeans who encountered such behavior didn't understand this and were shocked and indignant when they discovered that reciprocation was expected. Thus "Indian Giver" was born.

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  25. We said "catch a tiger by the tail" and used dandelions for the liking butter thing. I guess because there were no buttercups where we lived and I don't know if I have ever seen buttercups and shall now have to google them.

    I do agree. A lot of those childhood games were unfair. Maybe that is how we learned at a young age that being in the position of power was everything in some games. Some people obviously liked being in that position and have never wanted to give it up. ;)

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    1. It is an early introduction to power and injustice, if you don't have siblings to fight with. I didn't. I had three siblings, and we never had a fight. So all this stuff really floored me.

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    2. I tried not to play much with my younger siblings because they were babies to me (3 and 4 years younger)--LOL! I grew up in a brand new 50s suburb that was filled with young couples and LOTS of kids so we had a whole passel of them around. When we played games that needed a lot of participants they were just a bunch of the neighborhood kids.

      I didn't fight much with my brother at all, but my sister came into this world angry and argumentative. She fought with everybody--my mom, me, neighbors. Not much you can do about unhappy people like that.

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    3. That's one thing about being a baby boomer. We're never that far away from another baby boomer.

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  26. Wonderful post, Murr. I grew up in rural Arkansas so you KNOW which eeny meeny version we used, and used without questioning it or even being aware that it was a terrible insult. I still have family in AR but find it very painful to visit since not much has changed among the older generations. Among the kids, though, things do seem to be evolving with greater awareness of the power of words to hurt.
    When we had our first child, my farm-raised mother-in-law gave us a beautiful handmade baby quilt with the Little Black Sambo story in applique. She had put so much work and love into it which we appreciated but we just couldn't use it. I am sure she never understood and thought we were terribly ungrateful. Sad.

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    1. It is sad! Things like that should be in the basement in a box labeled with the giver's name, and just before they come over you can arrange their stuff. Precious knick-knacks you'd never keep yourself, that kind of thing. Again, my memories of Little Black Sambo had nothing to do with African Americans, but a little East Indian boy. Now I'm wondering if my version of the book was a knock-off. I do remember for a while there everyone with a black dog named it Sambo.

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    2. According to this Wikipedia article:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_Little_Black_Sambo
      the original book was as you recall, Murr, about an East Indian boy. However there were other versions put out which used African Americans, and "sambo" became identified as a racial slur.

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    3. Well, there you go. The book we had was old when I got hold of it, a little ancient hard-cover book. No doubt the original version.

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  27. Wow! You mean your childhood wasn't politically correct? How on earth did you ever survive?

    Blessings and Bear hugs for the weekend.

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    1. Yeah, mostly it was pretty well cushioned from overt racism. I don't think that's a bad thing. Of course the whole town was well segregated, and I absorbed that.

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    2. Weren't you originally from NoVa, Murr?

      After living adjacent to our Nation's Capital for over 30 years, I was appalled to learn--just recently--that the reason the District is not perfectly 'diamond' shaped is because the city of Alexandria 'seceded' from the District right before politicians there began whispering, 'emancipation.' In a hauntingly similar (to now) voter injustice, the town folk voted to secede. Guess how the white-only voters voted. C'mon...guess!

      I am/was shocked by the explanation of the District's geometric imperfection because there is little of that racism in NoVa now. Well, at least it is much more subtle than voter disenfranchisement. Wait a minute...

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    3. Yes. Arlington. I grew up next to what would have been known as "the colored section" and yet we had only two black kids in our high school, that I knew of--and they were brother and sister.

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  28. Your comment about a mom having a child yell reminds me of my nephew. He was all of about 2 when my sister and I went shopping. We lived in a mostly white area and never thought about it until my wonderful nephew loudly asked why that man over there didn't have to take baths but he did. Thankfully the older black man was gracious and help us show him that he just had different colored skin. My sister and I just wished for a black hole to sink into and disappear.

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    1. At least your nephew didn't bellow out something YOU'd said. I think small children are pretty good at teaching us to work on our filters (if not our attitudes).

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  29. Contempt born of fear is particularly vicious. And it's easier to belittle them than to acknowledge that our actions regarding African/African Americans give us good cause to fear their retaliation. The fact that they have not raised up in huge numbers against whites says volumes about their fear of us as well. What a ridiculous world we have created! Thank goodness for your sense of humor.

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    1. My sister used to tell me the cure for racism and other isms is to go out and meet as many of the "other" as you possibly can.

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  30. When my aunt were about 7 & 8 they came from the tiny farm community they lived in to stay with Mom and Dad in our relatively diverse city. Mom still talks about Linda running back to the house after encountering one of Dads customers. Barbara, Barbara you've got to come see! There's a man at the shop and he's black as a nigger! Mom was floored. Where had Linda learned that word in relation to a person? Especially when she'd never seen a black person? Linda still talks about the lecture she got that day...

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    1. I'd sure as hell heard the word young, but not in our house.

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  31. The really, really ironic part of this is that the human race began in Africa. Period. There was migration to ALL the other continents at various points in history when the ice fields were larger and the oceans lower. This allowed travel over then-existing land bridges and made ocean travel on primitive boats possible as it entailed less ocean to cross. At least that is what the evidence to date tells us, using archeology and DNA testing.

    Although, even if all our origins were not from the same place, why the big deal about differences? Pffft.

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    1. And, to get on another subject, Africa was pretty much in the same place then as it is now. Which means we've been here for a nanosecond, but for some reason we think we own the place.

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  32. My version, learned from my mother, was "catch a fellow by his toe," but what I heard and repeated was "catch a feather by its toe," until I realized the absurdity of feathers having toes.
    The phrase "Indian giver" was totally inappropriate, especially since most people would think it referred to an Indian, when surely it originally referred to our government, which continually gave and then took back from Native Americans... land, rights, etc. Treaty after treaty was signed, violated and ignored by the US government.
    The current situation on many reservations is truly dire, with the highest unemployment anywhere. So the opportunity to do better by first nations people still exists. We could hardly do worse, (but shouldn't spend time imagining how).
    If I were queen/president/powerful person, we would start allocating resources toward solving problems, rather than making new ones.
    "Peaches, apples, pears and plums, tell me when your birthday comes... " Not sure how that made choices, but I like the sound of it.

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  33. Mine's September 24,
    I'll be waiting at the door.

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  34. I remember the Brazil nut thing, the Little Black Sambo thing, the counting off rhymes, both of them growing up in the 50s.
    We even had a Sambo's restaurant here when we first moved here in 1970. It stayed Sambo's, but the little black boy in white face make up disappeared as the logo fairly soon after we arrived. It made you uncomfortable to go in the place.

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    1. This is a weird-ass country we live in. I hope we can hang onto it.

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  35. The good news is that we've come far enough away from racism that we're even having this conversation. Not that long ago, the use of the n-word would not have raised many eyebrows at all in our country.

    The bad news is that racism seems to still be out there, in large quantities, and that now it also seems to be masquerading as other things, like "taking our country back", etc.

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    1. Yeah, right! "Take our country back?" From whom? Meem?

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  36. Exactly. Though I don't believe the N word is nearly as common among the younger generations. Thank goodnes....

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    1. I remember the older generation saying that about us. Could be true, but some of us did some unlearning. Almost nothing unnerves me as much as a "peer" making a wink-wink nudge-nudge racist comment as though I must be in agreement.

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  37. Hey Murr! Ah yes, we did the un-PC version, and didn't know any better; I doubt my folks would have corrected me on it. And when we met our first "turkey"? Well, he got a pretty hard time of it. I met up with him years later, and apparently I'd be slightly less beastly than the other kids. Still, not good times. Indigo x

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    1. At least you classed it up with an accent.

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  38. We used "tiger" in the rhyme, and yes, we also did the "my mother said to pick..." thing if we didn't get the person we wanted. Totally unfair, but as everyone getting to do the count had the option to use it, the playing field was evened out in the end.

    Definitely used buttercups, too. My mom is Irish, and loved teaching us all the little rituals and myths of childhood. Except Santa Claus... we never believed in Santa. Mom and Dad gave us presents.

    Another aspect of the racist / history issue... I collect vintage linens, both for fun and for profit. Any vintage tablecloth that portrays black-faced women in kerchiefs, holding cooking spoons, is immediately double the price of any other tablecloth of the same brand and size. They label them "black americana"... but to me, it just seems like white people trying to profit off of the racist ways of the past. I mean, I know those times existed, and history is history, we can't and shouldn't try to erase it or paint it rosy. We need to remember. And learn. And get better, instead of worse.

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    1. I have my mother-in-law's original Joy Of Cooking in which she frequently refers to "the colored cook."

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  39. "I was too distracted by the concept of catching a turkey by the toe to puzzle it out. Could you call them "toes," exactly?"

    This made me snort/laugh.

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  40. Excellent post.. never a surprise, here. I cringed as I was reading and remembering how that rhyme first went. Then it became tiger and I also seem to recall hippie just as I was becoming too old for all that. Nobody has tickled my neck with a buttercup in a long time. Perhaps I'm more credible than I used to be.

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    1. Catch a HIPPIE by the toe? That's starting to get a little close to home.

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