I’m not a racist! And I don’t know Paula Deen, star of the Food Network, or what’s in her heart so I don’t know if she is or is not a racist. But I certainly empathize with her and find most of the problems that have come her way unacceptable after her only crime was answering, truthfully, “Yes, of course” to the question, “Did you ever use the N-word?”
When I was a child growing up in New York City in the 1950s, a common childhood counting rhyme handed down to us from the older kids was:
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a nigger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go.
My mother said to pick this one, out goes Y O U.
We did this over and over and over again every time we needed to pare down our numbers. So I guess that means I, too, would have to answer “Yes, of course” to the question, “Did you ever use the N-word?”
So if you’ve already jumped to a conclusion and judged me as racist just because I recited this rhyme in my single-digit years of childhood, you’d be wrong. All the kids on my block did this merely as a way to get on with a game needing fewer participants. And if you find the current-day use of the word “nigger” uncomfortable (as do I), just check “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” in Wikipedia and you’ll find the following, truthful description:
“There are many common variations, such as replacing tiger with “piggy,” “nigger” (when the word was still in common use), “tinker,” “tigger,” “chicken,” “monkey,” “baby,” “spider ... .”
Important note: WHEN THE WORD WAS STILL IN COMMON USE
In the summer of 1957, we took a family vacation to New Orleans with a stop in a small town in Mississippi to visit my dad’s distant cousin, Margie. One afternoon, while driving down a road, someone asked what time it was, but no one had a watch. Seeing a black man working in a field, Cousin Margie pulled to the side of the road and yelled, “Hey nigger, do you have the time?” By age 11, I knew this question was offensive, but to my surprise the black man respectfully yelled back, “Yes’m, it’s quarter to 2.” So my take on this unforgettable experience is that what was unacceptable in New York in 1957 was OK in back-country Mississippi.
Fast forward 50-plus years, and some folks might want to judge me (and Paula Dean) in light of today’s culture against what was normal and acceptable then. I don’t think so. Over time, people change, culture changes, and what’s acceptable and unacceptable changes and evolves. We’ve seen these changes with regard to abortion, gay marriage, and women in the workplace, just to name a few.
So let’s get real and start telling each other the truth. There was a time in this country when the word nigger (yes, let’s say it in all its ugliness) was common vernacular by most folks in the South. In my neighborhood, we called black folks “colored people” until “black is beautiful” entered our vernacular. Now it’s “African American”—just another example of how words and culture continue to change.
I imagine virtually everyone who grew up in the South in the 1950s and ’60s used the N-word. Some of them were racists and some were not. But rather than focusing on what someone said many years ago, shouldn’t we focus on how folks live their lives and how they treat others today? Isn’t that the only behavior that really matters?
Gary Wechter lives in Arroyo Grande. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Gary Wechter - Arroyo Grande