Hand Me that Bowl of Nigger Toes

“Hand me that bowl of Nigger toes,” my grandfather shouted at me across a large oak table filled with family and holiday dressings for Thanksgiving dinner.

I must’ve been around eight-years-old at the time and before I could ask him — what bowl of who — his two daughters, one of them my mother, shouted back at him, “Dad! We don’t talk like that here!” He shrugged them off and pointed at me, “There, boy. By your hand. Shove over that bowl of Nigger toes!”

It was only years later that I learned “Nigger toes” are actually Brazil nuts — and I’ve never been able to touch one or eat one since that infamous Thanksgiving dinner.

My grandfather was an educated man, a civic leader, a pharmacist, and yet he called Brazil nuts “Nigger toes” — and I know he didn’t invent that phrase even though he employed it regularly and commonly as if he were talking about the weather.

Our conversation here on this Urban Semiotic blog last Friday concerning “The Definition of Nigger, Niggle, Niggly” made me wonder how Racism is born, fomented and propagated. We know Racism is taught — but what happens after the lessons are learned?

Does a pharmacist grandfather pass down the idea that Brazil nuts are “Nigger toes” to his young grandson as a value worth remembering and repeating? My feeling is if you asked my grandfather if he were a Racist, he would claim he was not.

Growing up in a Lily-White Nebraska — where the Black population was non-existent except in big urban cores like Omaha and smaller, poorer, niches in Lincoln — it was easy to be a Racist while claiming not to be one in the heart of farmland and alfalfa and pigs and corn, where no faces of color were seen for miles in any direction and there was no challenge of thought. Strangers were never welcome and if you had dark skin, you were a stranger by default and demonized in order to keep you out. If your last name wasn’t German or Czech you were not to be trusted.

If you wanted to see dark skin color, and you lived in middle Nebraska, you had to drive four hours East to Omaha — and you did your sightseeing in the car. You never mingled with “them.”

You only observed them — objectified them — and made up stories about them and their wealthy lives on welfare while you “slaved” hard in the hot sun tilling the land. If you traveled to an international hub like Atlanta, then you were overwhelmed with all the “jigaboos” who were “walking around freely” — “Dad! We don’t talk like that here!” — and you locked your car door with one finger while wildly pointing with the other.

I remember not being scared of my grandfather’s objectification of Blacks, but rather by the reaction of my mother to my grandfather’s labeling of Blacks. She was overwhelmed and outraged — as was her sister — and she made it entirely clear that sort of talk was not welcome or acceptable at any time anywhere. I can’t remember my mother ever calling anyone a “jigaboo” and while she never called them “Nigger toes” she did enjoy eating a Brazil nut or two.

Now I’m left to wonder about Racism and the family. Values and morals are handed down from one generation to another and yet there are some prejudices that are handed down and accepted — someone taught my grandfather his Racist vocabulary — and some are rejected: Someone taught my mother and her sister not to repeat or accept what they heard growing up at home.

Does Racism education require extrication of the body from the values? My grandfather was born, and lived most of his life, around an 11 mile radius in the center of a closed-community Nebraska — while my mother and her sister moved from that middle core and landed three hours East in Lincoln.

My mother has lived all of her post-high school life in Lincoln. Her sister has lived all over the world and currently resides in the South. Does Racism demand proximity for propagation of the hate? Or can those vital moral values — skewed or not by ignorance and non-exposure — still haunt you miles away from home?