Saturday, September 30, 2006

Musical Tradition

My great grandmother was a kind, caring and loving woman. She raised many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Each summer, her kitchen would fill with the aroma of fresh-made peach jam, and plum preserves from the trees in her back yard.

She would come over to our house in the evenings, and we would play Yahtzee and Gin Rummy for hours on end. We would stay up late on the sofa, and she would tell tall tales from the past. She would also sing sadly-sweet songs from from her youth to season the stories and send us of to sleep.

One of her favorite songs, which she would deliver with a slow-tempo drawl (she was actually from Pennsylvania), was called "STAY IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD." ( c.1899)

It went a little something like:

Lilac trees ablooming in the corner by the gate,
Mammy in the little cabin door.
Curly headed pickaninny comin' home so late,
Cryin' 'cause his little heart am sore;
All the children playing 'round have skin so white and fair,
None of them with him will ever play,
So Mammy in her lap takes the little weeping chap,
And says, in her kind old way:

Go play in your own back yard
Never mind what the white child say
Now what do you suppose that they could do
To a black little coon like you
So, stay inside of the high yard wall
And Honey, don't you cry so hard
Go play as long as you may
But stay in your own backyard.

Ev'ry day the children as they passed old mammy's place,
Romping home from school at night or noon,
Peering thro' the fence would see this' eager little face,
Such a wistful, lonesome little coon;
'Till one day the little face was gone forever more,
God had called this dusky little elf,
And Mammy in the door sat and rocked as oft before,
And crooned to her old black self


Seriously, that was her favorite song.

At some point in my youth, I became too distracted with friends and girls and cars and such. My great grandmother would still come over, but I had no more time for stories and old songs. Eventually, she died, and all memory of that song slipped from my mind.

Then, one day, years later, I heard the word "pickaninny" spoken out loud, and the horrible lyrics came flooding back into my head. I was horrified as I reviewed them one-by-one, recognizing the sweet-seeming old song's segregationalist intent... Like the pledge of allegiance, or the 223rd Psalm, some words you recite without ever paying attention to the meaning.

Grandma was, as I stated, dead by this time, so I never had the opportunity to clarify what she felt in her heart whe she sang the tune. (What the Hell were you thinking, old woman?!?)

Therefore, in her honor, I would like to clarify her personal understanding of the song's lyrics on her behalf:

An African-American single working mother
With an eco-friendly home garden
Waited for her charming son (with his traditional afro-centric hair style)
to return home from his under-funded public school.

As she stood in the doorway of her government-subsidized affordable-housing unit,
She saw her son approaching.
He appeared visibly distraught.

Upon lengthy questioning, her son informed her
That he had been the victim of a string of hate crimes.
Fearing for his safety, but being a pacifist at heart,
The mother instructed her son to practice conflict avoidance,
And play within the safe confines of the housing unit playground facility.

Over time, the boy's absence was noted by his fellows at school.
The friends became concerned with the mother's over-zealous seclusion strategy.
However, the good Lord took pity on the boy and eventually killed him.


I'm sure that's what grandma meant. I'm sure of it!

Reading for Comprehension:
1. What, YOUR great grandmother never did anything horrible?
2. When I finished writing this, the time was 11:11. Just saying...
3. I tried to add a pickaninny picture to the post, but I feel too much shame.



  1. My grandmother was much worse. And the hate she felt was very strong.

    It was my grandfather though that made me see how things could be so different.

    We were playing chess one day and he was lamenting about a family in town that was a good family, at least "until their son went and married a catholic girl."

    I knew about racial prejudice prior to that day. Religious prejudice was new.

    One more reason to cheer for the Cylons.

  2. Good job on that polictically-correct translation. I knew you had it in you.

  3. Wow... did great-grandmother have a lawn jockey on her porch too? ;)

    My granny still does.


  4. i came upon your blog by chance. . . but maybe it wasn't by chance. . .very interesting post, and great "revision"" :)

  5. Kanye West9:21 PM

    Brian's Great Grandma hates black people.

  6. I suspect my paternal grandfather, a kentucky man and a member of a hell fire and brimstone church, was less than PC, but I do not have any specific recollection of him participating in KKK rallies or more subtle racist behavior. My maternal grandparents were good Episcopalians so they loved everyone and drank a lot.

  7. Two completely separate comments:

    1) when in Dc this pass week - on the radio - kid you not - a commerical for a Chevy deal with the word "Coon" in it. Made me feel uncomfortable until I passed the Cluck-U Chicken stand - so CLUCK-U!

    2) When in Jr. High and the first boy to take an interest in me was Black - my mother put her foot down and said "you can't date him" - then said and I quote - "And he's not even light skinned - he's as a darky!" - and I said back - well so am I! Which didn't go over very well.

  8. ...and he tried to stick his tongue in your mouth


Be compelling.

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