America’s Most Popular Nursery Rhymes Mock Slavery

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Some of Americas most popular nursery rhymes are filled with racial remarks regarding slavery.


Reported by Yolanda Spivey

Recently, NPR reporter Theodore Johnson III wrote an article about the racist origins of the song that is played in virtually every ice-cream truck across America.  The original song titled, “N*gger Love A Watermelon,” was once a negro minstrel song that had deep racially offensive lyrics.  The discovery of this fact not only ruined the writer’s childhood memories, but the childhood memories of thousands of people as they learned the true origins of that song.

A good friend of mine Andrea Jeffcoat, shared an article from that disclosed a few nursery rhymes that also have racist origins.  That’s right, nursery rhymes—and some of them are currently part of the curriculum in elementary schools across the nation.

These discoveries are proof that racism and bigotry are so deeply embedded in American culture and society that it is virtually invisible.  The issue is not only spilling over out of the mouths of men and women in powerful positions, it’s now spilling out in things that we deem as harmless.

Here are a few popular nursery rhymes that exposed with a breakdown of its origins:

Eenie Meenie, Miney, Mo (Early 19th Century)

The Rhyme: “Eenie meenie, minie mo, Catch a n*gger by the toe.  If he hollers, let him go. Eenie, meenie mine mo.”

Alternative version: “Catch a negro by this toe/ If he hollers make him pay Twenty dollars every day.”

The meaning: The meaning of this rhyme is rooted in the slave trade. There’s an idea that it comes from slave selection or a description of what white slave owners would do if they caught a runaway slave. This song was part of a 2004 lawsuit against Southwest.  The Black plaintiffs in that case sued the airline for discrimination because a flight attendant had used the rhyme while urging them to take their seats.

Pick a Bale of Cotton (1801-1861)

The Rhyme: “Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton. Gotta jump down, turn around, Oh Lordie, Pick a bale a day.”

The meaning: The song is glorifying and poking fun at the conditions of slaves.  In 2005, the song made the news when a school in Detroit incorporated “Pick a Bale of Cotton” in a choir performance.  Officials removed the song from the program after complaints.

Jimmy Crack Corn (1840’s)

The Rhyme: “Ol’ massa’s gone and I’ll let him rest/ They say all things are for the best/ But I’ll never forget ‘til the day I die….”

The meaning: The song is about a slave and the death of his master. There’s a point where the slave (who is singing the song) laments for his master, but some scholars argue that there is subtext of the slave rejoicing.

Oh! Susanna (1848)

The Rhyme: “It rain’d all night de day I left, de wedder it was dry.  The sun so hot I froze to def.”

The meaning: The protagonist of the song is a slave who is portrayed as dumb and naïve. In the song, the singer can’t grasp the ideas of temperature and geography.

Camptown Races (1850)

The Rhyme: “De Camptown ladies sing dis song—Doo dah! Doo dah! I come down dah wid my hat caved in—Doo dah! Doo dah!  I go back home wid a pocket full of tin—Oh! Doo dah day!”

The meaning: The vocabulary used by lyricist Stephen Foster is meant to mimic Black speech that was popular during that time. There’s a deliberate choice here to make the singer sound uneducated.

So now that we know that these popular nursery rhymes have racist roots, should we ban them from our schools’ curriculum?

Although the lyrics have been changed on almost all of these songs, are they now mindless and harmless, or is there something embedded deep in them that is forcing us to remember America’s racist past on a subconscious level?

If it were up to me, I’d say to abandon these songs.  Put them in a museum somewhere and let’s visit them when we feel like it.  Let’s not force our children to learn and sing these offensive songs that have a root of hatred pulsating behind its melody. Let’s come up with some new nursery rhymes! I think it’s time.

What is your opinion on this matter?


Yolanda Spivey writes on a  variety of topics and is the founder of Black Insurance News. She can be reached at or you can visit her Facebook page.