The year would have been 1963. In May in Birmingham, Alabama, black children protesting for civil rights had been attacked by police with water cannons and dogs, and the city jail had overflowed. On August 28, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about his dream of equality and freedom.
We were living in Greendale, Wisconsin, a virtually all-white suburb of Milwaukee. As kids, we weren’t especially attentive to the news, but we had just learned something troubling. When we were picking who would be “it” in games, we usually used a rhyme passed down through generations of American children in various versions, and this was the one we knew:
Eeny, meeny, miney, mo,
catch a n–– by the toe,
if he hollers, let him go,
eeny meeny miney, mo.
We had vaguely known what the n-word meant, but we had just learned exactly what it was: a vicious insult used against black people, who were being treated unfairly, and we decided we couldn’t say that word anymore.
But the rhyme was useful, and we wanted to keep it, so we brainstormed for substitutes. “Tiger”? It fit the rhythm, but tigers don’t actually holler. “Baby?” Babies certainly hollered. So “baby” it was.
I tell this story not to try to earn praise for our wisdom. We weren’t especially bright or aware, and we were obviously reacting to something we had somehow gleaned from the adults around us or even from the news. Instead, I tell this story to show that the choice to refuse to use the n-word isn’t hard.
And yet some people, as a recent example (but not the only one) members of university fraternity, still say it. Apparently, a lot of people do. Are they smarter than eight-year-olds? Probably. But we had something they might not have: good will. We didn’t want to hurt anyone. We wanted to be fair. We knew better than to call people names.
That’s all it takes.
— Sue Burke