Folk Speech/Games

The phrase as performed by Pam:  “Eenie Meenie Minie Mo, Catch A Nigger By His Toe.  If He Hollers Let Him Go, Eenie Meenie Minie Mo.”

Pam said that she used this chant as a child to pick sides for games such as tag and kick the can.  Every person that wanted to play the game would put their shoes together in a circle, and one person would be the “counter.”  The counter would touch one person’s shoe for each word of the phrase, moving clockwise around the circle.  When the counter reached the final word, “Mo,” whoever’s shoe he or she was touching would be “out.”  Then, the process would continue until every shoe except for one would be touched and out.  That person would be “it” for the game, the position that nobody wanted to be in.

Pam said she probably learned this phrase from one of the kids in her neighborhood.  They would play games like tag and kick the can after school, and this phrase would almost always be used in order to designate who was “it.”

Pam said that she doesn’t remember using the term in a derogatory way, but she just remembers hearing people say it all the time.  Even though Pam grew up in a northern state (IL), this phrase was used not long after segregation ended.  Because she played these games before the popularization of the Civil Rights movement, she said that children would utter the phrase without second thought.  She now realizes that the phrase is racist, but she did not realize this as a child.

Even though Pam explained that the word “nigger” was not considered derogatory within her friend group, I think it was still likely a racist term.  However, the children that performed this phrase were probably unaware of that fact.  The phrase had likely been passed down for generations in the United States, blatantly representing racist values of white Americans.  The phrase also represents the tendency for children to experiment with their new understanding of words.  Even though most of the words are nonsensical, performance of the phrase demonstrates a child’s ability to rhyme correctly.

It is interesting to note that I also played this game as a child.  However, instead of saying the word “nigger,” we would say “Tiger.”  I had never heard of this earlier version of the phrase.  This difference most likely stems from the fact that people have become more racially conscious, social groups have become more racially mixed and people have become more politically correct.  That the phrase represents an extreme shift in popular culture in regards to racial tension.