March 27, 2020

E is for Eenie

        (My theme for this year’s A-Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Eenie meenie miny moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go.
Eeenie meenie miny moe.

        Kindness to animals is always a virtue, even if the tiger needn’t have hollered quite so loudly over such a very small injury.
        I’d like to talk about how I imagine the story: of catching a tiger - by the toe, no less!, feeling sorry for its distress, and letting it go again.  But unfortunately I think this is the place, instead, to acknowledge the problematic content of some nursery rhymes.
        This was the counting-out rhyme of choice for my fellow children and me when I was growing up.  We used it all the time, occasionally with the addition of My mother says to pick the very best one and you are IT, if we wanted to draw it out.  And yes, it was a tiger, with never the slightest suggestion of anything else, and no racist overtones, undertones, or tones of any sort.  I did not even realize that other versions existed until I was an adult, when I discovered that in fact there are seemingly infinite variations in all the parts: the nonsense words, the thing that’s caught, and the response to it.  So no, there’s really nothing problematic about this precise nursery rhyme, but there is a particular other version that is more than merely problematic.  (To be explicit, for those who do not know, some people know the second line as “Catch a nigger by the toe.”  This is a word I would never want to use, but as a linguist it is important to be honest and accurate about the words people do use, not the words I think they should use.)
        Given the age of variants of the rhyme (one theory is that it originates in Old Saxon divination) and geographical distribution, it seems likely that the racist version is not original, but developed in the US south.  Unfortunately, that racist version was popularized by Rudyard Kipling, among others, so it gained far too much of the market share in the early twentieth century.  That’s left a bad taste in some people’s mouths, and I can absolutely sympathize that those who grew up with the offensive version should get an instant negative gut reaction at hearing the opening words.  However, I don’t believe that the non-racist versions should be condemned because of guilt by association…  Also, if we’re opening the can of worms that is offensive content in nursery rhymes, we should be at least as concerned about sexism; abuse of spouses, children, and animals; and prejudice against various peoples throughout the British Isles and Europe, as well.
        I haven’t included in my A-Z challenge any of the rhymes that I consider dreadful, but of course different people are offended by different things to different degrees.  One could fairly ask why we keep these rhymes at all, if they’re so problematic.  So, what do you think?  Do you see any value in passing on culture from the past, and what do you think should be done with the parts of cultural history we wish we didn’t inherit?  Where do you draw the line, and
how do you think we should handle these problems?  And what’s your favorite counting-out rhyme?
        A final note for impressionable children:  Do your best to be kind to everyone.  Sometimes even a tiny pinch on the toe can be painful.

[Picture: Eenie Meenie Miny Moe, rubber block print by AEGN, 2004 (Image from my book).]

6 comments:

Kathe W. said...

Well as a kid I was brought up to treat everyone the same....my folks were very firm about that- I never heard the "N" word til I was in high school. Really upset me as I'd been brought up to treat everyone as equals. I had all sorts of unpleasant introductions to racism as a teenager. I remember Tiger in that poem. I really don't have an answer to your question other than
one should explain to their kids simply to treat everyone with respect and kindness.

Nilanjana Bose said...

As far as I am concerned, I think history should be preserved the way it was, without sanitising. I don't think I'd hold anyone responsible for their ancestors' cruelty or insensitivity, so long as they themselves don't deal in prejudice or cruelty now. It's important to know the history so that we don't make the same mistakes again. My two cents. All the best for the A-Z, brilliant theme!

Deborah Weber said...

This is one nursery rhyme I didn't know - apparently in any of its iterations. I think it's important to bear witness to all the ways we've hurt others through deliberate cruelty or unconscious ignorance. But I also think it's important to make conscious changes - if we're not evolving, what's the point? So everything is a teaching point - where we were, and where we are, and how we might wish to become.

Kristin said...

I'm black and i grew up in a black neighborhood so needless to say, we didn't use the offensive version. I have no problem with people discussing the offensive version

Finding Eliza

Jade Li said...

I think you handle it well here. It is an opportunity for a history lesson.

Stuart Nager said...

I am of the same mind as Jade. It is important to open up the blinders to realize how things were handled in the past, why they occurred, and doing the best to pinpoint the area of origin.

The original stories that The Brothers Grim heard had very brutal passages, and the morals were "This is what could happen to you" if you didn't pay attention. They "cleaned"/censored some of it for print; Disney made them shiny. Little Red Riding hood: don't talk to strangers, esp if they look "shady". Girls get raped that way.

I never knew of any additional passages to Catch a Tiger. I'm glad I never heard them as a kid.