In anticipation of spending time with my kids after school I got to thinking about how we play and interact when at a park. And as much as I love the time, it’s a physical challenge (being out of shape) to participate in the good ol’ game of tag. Thus I’m typically hoping they choose to play on the swings, find others to run with, go down the slides, or just throw the ball back and forth, but please don’t make me chase.
This brought to mind one of my old poems where I was reminiscing of my own childhood and a variety of the games played. Freeze-tag, hide and go seek, and mother-may-I, and red light-green light were amongst the variety. Hide and go seek stood out for several reasons and one of those were the different jingles used in deciding who would have to “go seek.”
The three jingles that I can remember are-
1. Eenie-meenie-miney-mo, catch a nigga by his toe, if he hollers let him go, Eenie-meenie-miney-mo.
2. Bubble gum bubble gum in the dish, how many bubble gum do you wish?
3. My momma and your momma was hanging out clothes, my momma, socked your momma, right in the nose. What color was the blood?
As much as I liked saying those jingles, I liked the melody that we sung while hiding our face and everyone else scattered to their places of hiding. It went “5-10-15-20, 25-30-35-40, 45-50-55-60, 65-70-75-80, 85-90-95-100, whoever’s round my base is out and no billy-goat.” I loved that. And I’m still confused on what “no billy-goat” means?
But of those jingles to decide who would be “it,” the first (eenie-meenie-miney-mo) stood out. I mean, maybe it’s the fact that we learned it (as written) by the time we were five years old. It really stood out around 1993 when I was serving in the US Air Force. Something sparked me to ask others if they knew the jingle and there were these very big gracious smiles and I could see them positively thinking of their childhood. I could also see them singing to themselves so I decided to sing out loud. “Eenie-meenie-miney-mo catch a …” and I stopped. Most would continue to sing without interrupt and used “tiger” where I was taught another word. However there were a few who either stopped, looked up, curled an eyebrow, or did something other than to continue to sing.
It was funny to me, and the looks on their faces were priceless. They knew that I knew what the next word was to be out of their mouths but they clearly weren’t comfortable with me knowing that. So as the others finished their “tiger” version, I interrupted with a big smile and laughter and said, “Hold up. Since when does a tiger have toes?” And essentially the younger generation were clueless to what they were saying. After poking into this a little, one of the Non Commisioned Officers who was originally from Florida noted that when he was a kid the “tiger” wasn’t a “tiger” which eventually brought out that they used the same racial epithet I used as a child. What was surprising, was that I got him to share with me the entire jingle and it went, “Eenie-meenie-miney-mo, catch a nigger by his toe, if hollers make him pay, half a dollar every day.” I was somewhere between relieved and angry to hear this.
Relieved that we were able to talk about (even if on the fringes of) that taboo topic and acknowledge the use of that word was a common part of our pasts. Angry that their version actually included slave-like reference to capturing a runaway slave and forcing him to pay a fine for escaping. I didn’t express the anger, but my goodness that was bothering. I did challenge the concept of making him pay and questioned the origins of the versions in hopes of getting us all to think a bit more about how some unfortunate portions of our country’s past shaped many of the things we did then (1993) and today.
I would go on to believe that me singing eenie-meenie-miney-mo was in some big or small way continuing legacies to be long dead. So I stopped. I also realized that the violence captured in “my momma and your momma was hanging out clothes” was no better than eenie-meenie-miney-mo. More importantly, I gained great validation for the importance of being willing to have difficult conversations with others especially around race. Realizing I could create a safe environment for the uncomfortable discussion, but obviously requires parties on all sides to be open.
Bubblegum, bubblegum, in the dish. How many bubblegum do you wish?