Under Cover of Nonsense
You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught
Song from South Pacific
We lived in Milwaukee in the 1950’s
and I learned the ditty when I was
five or six years old.
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Knowing the chant was essential
if I wanted to get the last cookie
or have a turn jumping rope.
Catch a n—– by the toe
We would singsong what seemed
to be silly sounds, made-up words.
Nonsense words in a nonsense rhyme.
If he hollers let him go
It was two more years before I first saw
a Black person. Many more before
I understood what I had been taught.
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
Doris, Just Doris
Adults didn’t have first names
when I was growing up in Cleveland.
Except for one.
Mrs. Williams lived on the east side
of our house and had a dog named Soot.
Mrs. Amato lived on the west and had
black hair that hung to her waist. Mrs. Bernon
lived across the street until she died
in a car crash one moonless night.
Children didn’t know adults’ first names
because we were taught to address them all
as Mr. or Mrs. Somebody. Except for a woman
who came to clean Mrs. Bowerman’s house.
She was the first person I ever saw
who had skin the color of coffee with no cream.
Her name was Doris. Just Doris.
Rebecca Leet spent her early childhood in Milwaukee and Cleveland, assimilating racism in places where she only ever saw one black person. She moved with her family to Northern Virginia in 1961, the early days of school desegregation and a time when non-Southerners asserted that racism existed only in the South.
Image of Cleveland skyline by Chris Light, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons