Racist Songs of My Childhood #truestory #chicken

Sure, you can say, “It’s just a stupid ice cream song—quit overreacting.” But that’s exactly the fucking point. It’s the most benign, neutral thing I can think of. And this is part of its history (not even buried particularly deep)


via Your Neighborhood Ice Cream Truck Is Playing a Racist Minstrel Song.

So, this reminds me of a song that I was taught by my grandmother growing up. It was a racist song and I had NO IDEA. In fact, when I’d ask my mother what parts of the song meant, she’d obfuscate to avoid telling me the truth. For example, “Mama, what’s a darkie?” “Oh, honey, that’s just a child who is dirty because they are too poor to have running water.” Or, “Mama, what’s a pickaninny?” “Oh, baby, that’s a child who worked in fields picking cotton.”

Uh-huh. I see.

A hint about the song.

This all culminated one day in the third grade when our teacher offered us extra credit points to stand up and sing any song we wanted. Oh, yes…oh, yes, I stood up and sang this song. My teacher was HORRIFIED. And when I got to the middle of the chorus and messed up, and asked to start over, she was like, “Uh, no, how about you just sit down now.” I was mortified and thought it was because I can’t sing well (and I can’t). But when I told my mom about it later she just about died of embarrassment. Also, there was a black kid in the front row. LET ME TAKE A BOW NOW.

So, yes, the lesson of this story is, I guess, don’t let your mom teach your kids racist songs because then their teachers are gonna think you’re a racist. Also, for what it’s worth, I’m not teaching this song to my kid, obviously. But I still know every. single. word, and I still wish darkies were just dirty children. But…that’s not what it means and I offer up an apology to everyone offended by my childhood ignorance.

By the way, this is the song I sang, except in the version I learned, we said pickaninny instead of the n-word — apparently my Appalachian family had some limits when it came to racist terminology. POSSIBLE TRIGGER WARNING! THE N-WORD IS USED!:

Speaking of the n-word…my daughter and I were talking about the book Huckleberry Finn the other day and she was asking why some people wanted to ban it. The subject of the n-word came up and I was like, “Well, there’s this word in there that is very offensive, but it was used really regularly back then. What’s interesting, though, is that the book was one of the most important piece of literature for illustrating that humanity is the same no matter a person’s color, and the use of that word in the book was to help illustrate that lesson.”

“What word, Mom?”

“Uh, it’s, the, uh, n-word.”

“What’s the n-word?”

I looked at her little face and couldn’t bring myself to say it. “I can’t say it. It’s just really never okay to say it.”

“But how will I know what it is?”

“I’ll write it down.” I then looked at a piece of paper and the pencil and couldn’t even do that. “I can’t write it down either,” I said. I couldn’t hand a piece of paper to my beautiful seven year old with that word on it.

“But, Mom, how will I know what the word is?”

I almost answered, “That word should be forgotten.” But finally I realized that it’s still pervasive in different parts of our society and culture, she might hear it and repeat it after listening to some rap, for example. So I explained it by saying, “It sounds like the word bigger but has an ‘n’ on the front.”

She said, “Oh. Okay. I’ll never say it, Mom.”

And I was like, “Cool, because it’s worse than the f-word and it’s so insulting to people that it really just shouldn’t be said, okay?”

“Okay, Mom.”

So…yeah. I couldn’t look into her beautiful face and say such a hurtful, awful word. It sucks so much that there are kids out there who hear it directed at them or their families. I hope some day that stops forever.

When You’ve Got Memphis In You #broadway #musical #memphis

Tonight, Bird and I went to see Memphis. It was part of a Broadway Touring package that Santa Claus brings Bird every year instead of toys. (Um, she still gets toys. Somehow that backfired a bit.) I knew nearly nothing about the show going in. My Broadway loving friends also knew little, expressing that they’d never been interested in the show at all or that they had a friend who said it was just okay. So, I wasn’t expecting much, especially since it was a touring group.

Let me say upfront, I friggin’ loved it. And this is despite some pretty serious issues with the sound. Several of the other people around me agreed that whoever was running the sound board was doing a terrible job because it was distorted enough that we could only make out three out of five words. Enough to know what was going on, but not enough for it to be clear and flawless. There was a song by one gentleman that we agreed we only heard the words “my sister” over and over.

(As an aside, I’m now remembering I had a similar problem with American Idiot. I’m wondering if the acoustics of the theater don’t do well with bands on the stage rather than the orchestra pit. Hmm.)

But the words I could make out, as well as the storyline, really appealed to me deeply. Perhaps it was because I’m Southern but the fact that I was sitting in the South, in a formerly “white theater” just up the street from the former “black theater”, as a member of a predominantly white audience, viewing a show featuring predominantly black performers, yet staring a white male, was a meta experience that deepened and layered meaning onto each scene.

Memphis struck me as different from, say, South-Pacific, in that any racism inherent in the ostensibly anti-racist show is all incredibly self-aware. When an audience like the one I was sitting in is watching certain numbers and those songs are proceeded or followed by lines about cultural appropriation and entertainment fetishization? Well, you know the show knows what it’s doing. It’s not running into accidental racism while preaching about racism. It’s all on purpose.

I admit that I wondered if gay, Southern men of a certain age might really find resonance in this play, in the same way that West Side Story spoke to a subset of gay men in the 1950s-60s. The poignancy of the lines, “Pretend we don’t got none of them crazy laws here in Tennessee, pretend that two grown adults can marry who they like, then would you marry me?” must strike a hard chord.

I was even more surprised to discover that Bird also lovedit. She has declared it her second favorite show that we’ve seen ever, and at this point, the kid’s seen a number of shows. I don’t think she has the cultural awareness or knowledge to really latch on to some of the meta references that I did. She loved the storyline, though, tragic though it is in some terribly real ways.

I think the love story appealed to her. The actors had great chemistry, the choreography of their longing was fantastic, and even though it ends unhappily in that regard, it had been too smart and too real of a show to really end any other way. It had to be done, sad though it was. Even Bird could see that.

The songs were fantastic and I think Santa might be bringing the CD for Bird this year. It was not at all what I was expecting tonight, but I’m so glad that we saw it. It felt really right to this girl who has and will always have Tennessee in her. For better or worse.