With kindergarten done for the day, it was time for a snack. The old radio on the counter cranked out a tinny Doris Day. “Que Sera, Sera?” My mother sang along with Doris.
What will it be? Which cookie is the biggest? My finger touched each cookie as I recited the familiar words:
“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a n#$@&r by the toe,
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
I reached for the chosen snack, but my mother’s hand stopped me. Her eyebrows knit together as she knelt down beside me. I felt the weight of her hands on my shoulders. Am I in trouble? Her words came out in quiet, measured tones.
“Susan, I don’t ever want to hear you say that word again.”
“Which word, Mommy?” I had said many words.
My mother drew me close to her. The “N” word struggled out from her lips. “N#$@&r. Do you know what it means?”
To me, the word sounded like “booger”. I had always imagined it to mean a big monster made completely of boogers, so of course you would not want to have any body contact with him. A toe was a small enough appendage to grasp without getting your hand too sticky. He would not like you gripping him by the toe, so he would open his dark toothless maw and let out a wretched groan. Then, you would let him go.
I thought I knew the meaning of the word in question, but apparently I did not.
My fingers fidgeted with a shirt button. “No. What does it mean?”
“It’s a word that some people use when they’re talking about a Black person. It’s not a nice word. It hurts people’s feelings. We are not going to use that word.”
It means a Black person? My 5-year-old mind had trouble processing this thought. Why would anyone want to catch a Black person in the first place, and by the toe no less? Why catch anyone by the toe? An arm, maybe. But a toe?
The more perplexing questions were, why was there a word that was meant to offend a Black person when he had done nothing to you? And, why was this in a children’s poem? It was my first exposure to the concept that some people classified the value of a human based on skin color.
My mother’s hold tightened. “You’ll never use that word again, will you?”
“No, I won’t.” I said. There was no reason to, now that I knew what it meant.
Racism takes root at a very early age. I had a glimpse into the world of adults. People said things to wound someone else who was merely different than themselves. The purpose was to inflict pain and degradation, without cause. My wise mother had spoken into my heart and taught me what not to say. Still, a peculiar door was cracked open that day, and a little bit of my innocence ran through it.