One of the hallmarks of progress, both societally and individually, is when we realize that something we thought was benign is actually not. When it comes to progress on racism, the cultural norms of language are frequently where those realizations occur.
For example, there are many common phrases we use that are racist, which many of us having no idea. And now The Conscious Kid on Instagram has shared how a collection of standard nursery rhymes most of us recited or sang as children that also come from racist origins. Some of them come from the blackface minstrelsy era, when white people dressed in blackface and sang songs portraying black people as uneducated caricatures. Others started as blatantly racist rhymes, then changed over time to be palatable to a more enlightened audience.
As we take these in, it's good to be aware that nostalgia and familiarity will naturally create resistance to the notion that these rhymes are problematic, especially if we aren't part of the racial group on the receiving end of the racism these rhymes stem from. Our minds will defend, justify, and qualify in order to keep fond memories from our childhood in tact.
Many of us learned Eeenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe with the phrase "catch a tiger by his toe" or maybe "catch a tigger," but the original rhyme used the n-word. Gross.
"Ten Little Indians" is problematic on its face, but is actually worse when you see what the original lyrics were.
"Chinese, Japanese" was a common playground recitation when I was little, and though I recall learning that it was wrong, it didn't seem nearly as horrifying as it does now. Who the hell originally came up with this, and how did it travel so far?
"Five Little Monkeys" might not seem like anything problematic—until you learn that "monkeys" used to be "darkies" or the n-word.
And then there's the ice cream truck song. The familiar tune that's synonymous with summer—also sung by kids as "Do Your Ears Hang Low"—was originally a song called "N****r Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!" Yeah.
Same goes for "Shortnin' Bread." Yikes.
Many of us sang at least part of "Oh! Susanna" in school music classes, and it's often considered a classic. But look at what the song was actually about and how horrible some of the lyrics were.
"Jimmy Crack Corn" is another familiar tune from childhood. I remember singing it in some capacity, and now I'm appalled that the term "Massa" ever came out of my mouth as form of entertainment.
Finally, "Camptown Races." Really? Yep. Again, from the blackface minstrel era, a song that basically made fun of Black people.
Now's a good time to ask ourselves what we should do with these rhymes now that we know their origins. Of course, there are bigger issues than nursery rhymes, but all of the seemingly low-significance incidences of racism add up to a crapton.
When we know better, we do better—at least in theory. Now that we know, let's do something with this knowledge. Would it really be that hard to place these rhymes in the archives of history and not continue to actively use them? Are there really no alternatives that children can become familiar with instead?
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