With kindergarten done for the day, I was hungry for a snack. A plate of cookies sat on the table. The old radio on the counter cranked out a tinny Doris Day. “Que Sera, Sera? Whatever will be, will be.” My mother sang quietly along with Doris as she rinsed silverware at the faucet.
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#$@&r by the toe,
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
I reached for the chosen snack, but my mother’s hand stopped me. Her eyebrows came together in a troubled wrinkle when she knelt down beside me. I felt the weight of her hands as she set them on my shoulders. Am I in trouble? Her words came out in quiet, measured tones.
“Susan, I don’t ever want to hear you say that word again.”
“Which word, Mommy?” I had said many words. Which one was "that word"?
My mother drew me close to her. The “N” word struggled out from her lips. “N#$@&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 entirely of boogers all green and yellow and drippy, so of course you would not want to have any bodily 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 don't use that word.”
It means a Black person? My 5-year-old brain had trouble processing this thought. Why would anyone need 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 or she 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 devalue the humanity of another because of skin color.
My mother’s hold tightened. “You’ll never use it again, will you?”
“No, I won’t.” I said. There was no reason to, now that I knew what it meant. It made no sense to use it.
Racism. It takes root at a very early age. I had had a glimpse into the world of adults where individuals 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 that afternoon and set a precident. I'm thankful for a mother who seized the moment and planted the seed to examine and question while I was so young. Still, a peculiar door was cracked open that day, and a little bit of my innocence ran through it.