I was checking out Chester Himes’s first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, the other day, trying to remember how that rhyme went. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a… And I couldn’t remember what you were supposed to catch by his toe. I remembered how I learned the poem, but I knew that wasn’t right. I knew there was something else you were supposed to catch by the toe, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember what it was. I dug around in the recesses of my brain, trying to bring it up. It wouldn’t come to me. I didn’t want to look it up on the internet because 1.) I don’t want wikipedia to become my long-term memory and 2.) come on, I had to remember what I was really supposed to let go if he hollered.
Eventually, I gave up thinking and slunk back to my computer to look it up. Tiger. You probably already know this, but it’s a tiger that you catch by the toe.
I sat there, looking at my computer screen, thinking, who the fuck ever heard of catching a tiger by his toe? I looked at all the different versions—fishy, piggy, monkey—and none of them sounded familiar. One British version caught a fairy by his toe. I could’ve pictured us as kids using that one, if we’d been British, if someone had thought of it. But we never did. So tiger. It must’ve been tiger.
The thing is, though, we never said tiger. When I was a little kid, hanging out with all the kids in the neighborhood, divvying up teams for wiffle ball or whatever, we always said, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a nigger by the toe.” I find it hard to picture now: a bunch of cute little White kids, mostly blond, tan in the Florida sun, gathered up for a game of something in the street, looking as all-American as can be. And we were all-American with our little rhymes of “catch a nigger by his toe, if he hollers let him go.”
I don’t know what we said when Rudy Smith played with us. Probably the same thing.
By the time I was old enough to know better, I’d quit making my choices using that rhyme.
I’m not sure where it came from. I’m sure my parents didn’t teach it to me that way. I don’t blame it on the fact that I grew up in the South, either. I remember hanging out with some older cousins in New York. I was only five or six years old. One of my cousins had taught me a joke, and he was prodding me to tell the other cousins. I wasn’t all that stoked on telling the joke because I didn’t get it. I told it anyway: “Sammy Davis, Jr. walks onto a bus. The bus driver says to him, ‘Back of the bus, nigger.’ Sammy Davis, Jr. says, ‘But I’m not a nigger. I’m a Jew.’ So the bus driver says to him, ‘Get off.’ ”
I didn’t know who Sammy Davis, Jr. was. Hell, I didn’t even know what a Jew was. I did know that jokes like that got me in with the older kids.
Then, there was this other time. I was in my late twenties, living back in Atlanta, hanging out a the Little Five Points Pub. A guy walked in the door. It took me a second to recognize him. He sat two stools over from me and took his own couple of seconds to remember me. His name was Andy. He’d been a regular at another bar where I used to work the last time I’d lived in Atlanta. We said our hellos and chatted for a bit. Andy said, “It’s been a long time.”
And it had been a long time since we’d seen each other. The two years that separated my lives in Atlanta flashed through my head. I’d lived in a couple of other towns, made and lost friends, traveled all around the continent, held a few jobs, got fired from one of them and almost got into a fistfight with my boss just so that I could pry my final paycheck from his fingers. The two years seemed like dog years to me. So I expressed this passage of time to Andy the best way I knew how. I said, “Yeah, it’s been a coon’s age.”
“A what?” Andy said, suddenly angry.
“A coon’s age,” I said. “You know, like a raccoon could have been born and lived his whole life in the time since I saw you last.”
“Oh,” Andy said, but he seemed like he was done talking to me.
The bartender came along, chatted with both of us, and the afternoon started to while away.
A few minutes later, I remembered that “coon” was a racist term for a Black person. I was White. Andy was Black. We were sitting deep inside of Georgia. Fuck.
I thought about that expression. Did it really mean what I thought it meant? Was a coon’s age really the lifespan of a raccoon, or something that makes less sense but is more racist? Was Andy sitting there, fuming that he had to sit next to a racist motherfucker like me? Should I apologize? Would it help?
I don’t remember how I handled the situation. I probably just had another drink.
I thought the word “pickaninny” referred to the braids that little Black girls wore. I thought this because I remember once standing with my mom and one of her friends, who was an elementary school teacher at the school that I went to, and my mom’s friend saw two little Black girls with braids and said, “Oh, look at the cute little pickaninnies.”
I was very embarrassed when, decades later, I learned what pickaninny really meant.
I’ve been thinking about all of this stuff lately, and probably for obvious reasons. I think I was a member of the last generation in America that was raised amidst such flippant racist language. In the late eighties, the whole Political Correctness movement came along. And it got a lot of backlash because no one knew what it was okay to say and what it wasn’t. The term African American doesn’t exactly work, because what about someone like Charlize Theron, who grew up in South Africa, immigrated to the U.S., and is White as hell? Isn’t she an African American? And what do we call Black people in Europe? And the terms black and white don’t work because we’re talking, in all cases, of a variety of browns. So you can capitalize White and Black to indicate that you’re referring not to a color but to a social construct, but even as I capitalize these words in this column, I feel like a pretentious jerk. So, granted, Political Correctness is a pain in the ass.
Still, it’s got to be preferable to allowing an otherwise nice little kid like myself to grow up chanting “catch a nigger by his toe.”
As I’ve said, whatever term you use now, it’s going to be inexact. The term “people of color” may seem like the silliest because not only are all people “of color,” but the term itself is just a syntactical variant of the old racist term “colored people.” Regardless, if we go beyond these pithy little observations, we can recognize that, at least as a society, White people stopped saying “nigger.” That has to be a great thing.
The term itself was created by a slave holding society. It’s the derogatory term that reasserts White superiority. Every time it’s used by a White person, whether he’s a Nazi or a little kid deciding who’s going to be the captains of the wiffle ball teams, it’s reasserting racial superiority. This is more serious than we typically acknowledge. There have been various neuroscientific studies recently that show that language causes us to react in ways that we’ve only recently begun to understand.
The word “nigger” is a good example of this. It’s a difficult word for me. I can type it and use it in this column, but I can’t bring myself to say it out loud, even here in my office, where I’m completely alone. I had a vague idea of why this was. I knew it was something about hearing that word in the voice of a White guy who has the accent of a former slaveholding state. But then I came across a book called The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker. Pinker explains that when we use certain words, it triggers a flow of oxygen into the limbic system in our brain. “Nigger” is one of those words. When we hear it or say it, our thought patterns flee the more rational frontal lobe of our mind and race down to the reptilian part of our brain. We literally race back to an early stage of evolution. This isn’t to say that saying the word makes you dumber, it just means that, when you say this word, you’re using the dumbest part of your brain.
So then I think again about Political Correctness and all the backlash against it. I can understand how it can be a pain in the ass. Everything that leads to progress can be a pain in the ass. Some people felt like restricting the words we can say is a form of censorship. Well, it can be. But in the case of attacking the word “nigger,” no one banned you from using it. You’re welcome to use it. You just look like a jackass if you do. And you should look like a jackass. You’re using the least evolved part of your brain when you say it. But I shouldn’t say “you” here. Chances are you’re not doing this at all. Chances are, you’ve evolved.
I’m not saying that demonizing the use of that one particular word has ended racism and paved the way for a Black U.S. president or anything drastic like that. I’m just trying to understand how we teach things like racism to little kids and how it was taught to me. Also, I think that demonizing certain terms has stuffed racism into the closet, as opposed to making it something that is overtly indoctrinated into us.
Hopefully, we’re all better off catching tigers by the toe.
Author’s note: This is the sixteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #48. For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.