Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Just a Joke About Them "Chiggers"

[Here is the brief memo by Ichabod Rain on his childhood in Poosah City I promised to look up for you in my last post]

Being a white boy from up north, I'll never know (Great Potato be praised) what it's like to grow up in a place like Poosah City as a "chigger" just because your great, great great great grandparents didn't run fast enough when the slavers came.

My family moved to Poosah City when I was 9 years old -- segregation and what it meant was something new to me. I quickly learned was that there were two kinds people -- people and "chiggers".

The signs were everywhere. "Chiggers" were to seat from the back of the bus, separate water fountains, schools and, although they could eat in the same restaurant, "they" partook their meals in a dingy room at the back. True, the signs said "colored" and not "chigger". But that was a facade just as the phrase "separate but equal" -- the stress being on "separate", "equal" came in second or third place at least.

The epithet "chigger" itself was a tool in the beastly back beat to Jim Crow as it cawed in Poosah City. A story I often overheard as a child perhaps can give a better perspective of the reality. The story was told as a "joke" -- but the message was deadly serious:

Two boys* decided to go up north and they both struck it rich together. The one boy asked the other what he was going with all his money:

"I'm going to buy me a big white car, a suit and a white hat with white shoes to match. Then I'm going hitch up with a pretty blond white woman, go back to Poosah City and drive down Main Street -- what are you going to do with your money?

The other boy just kind of shuffled his feet and said, "I'm going to buy me a big black car, a black suit and a black hat with black shoes to match. Then I'm going to get me a good-looking black woman, go back to Poosah City and watch them hang your BLACK ASS
from a lamp post on Main Street!!!"

But it wasn't a joke for the thousands of black "boys" who had seemed "a bit too uppity" to the "good old boys", or had just been at the wrong place at the wrong time.

* In the Poosah City of my youth, "boys", when referring to adults, always meant "chiggers". The exception was when it was used in a phrase like, "good old boys" -- then "boys" refers to whites who understood how to "keep them chiggers in their place"

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