Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo: My Nightmare. Our Nightmare.

emmett_till

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

Catch a tiger by the toe

If he hollers let him go,

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

I have spent over a week trying to find the words to tell this story. It is 3:00 a.m.  I am in a strange hotel bed with lousy pillows. I can’t sleep. Maybe a nightmare is best told at 3:00 am.

When Barack Obama was elected President, the social and cultural earthquake I wanted so badly became possible. Certainly not an earthquake that would magically provide a final resolution to hundreds of years of shame, but one that might rip open the racial fault line with a vengeance.

And then came the rhyme.  The damn rhyme.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

Catch a tiger by the toe

If he hollers let him go,

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

My ten year-old daughter, trying to make some choice about lunch or a friend, was employing the old “eeny meeny miny moe” test.  I think she and the tiger ended up picking the tuna sandwich. Yet I almost immediately recalled the countless times in 1950s schoolyards when kids used the same rhyme with a word other than tiger. It was the version that Rudyard Kipling published in 1923 as “A Counting-Out Song” in “Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides:”

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

Catch a nigger by the toe!

If he hollers let him go!

Eenee, Meenee. Mainee, Mo!

You-are-It!

 This would now be the time to confess that I also said that word out on the playground.  But I didn’t. I do remember how it was often used to settle marble-trading disputes. I also remember kids feeling a perverse thrill that they could vicariously participate in the larger, social ugliness.

 But this was a word that could not have been more forbidden in our house, a word I never uttered after the day — at the age of six – that my wonderful Dad heard me say it and placed a bar of Ivory Soap in my mouth and twisted it around a few times.

 But I am stuck. The rhyme echoes and echoes.  A nightmare.   A rhyme. I want to fully celebrate that Barack Obama will be my President. I will. But the intruder is a rhyme; an echo of an ugliness that was part of what delayed this day for so long.

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

And that is where I am right now at 3 a.m.

Knowing that at virtually the very moment that Emmett Till faced his final horror, at the very moment that his mother Mamie first heard the news, kids in my neighborhood were probably out in a park – shooting marbles or playing tag – and reciting:

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

Catch a nigger by the toe!

If he hollers let him go!

Eenee, Meenee. Mainee, Mo!

You-are-It!

 A rhyme. A nightmare.  Our nightmare.

 

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