When I was a small kid, people called Brazil nuts “nigger toes.”  Racism wasn’t a concept to me then.  The idea that they were “toes” bugged me.  In my mind, I knew they were a plant item that grew on a tree or a vine or something, but I was completely puzzled that someone would revel in the idea of eating a black person’s toe.  Obviously it was the big toe… so what happened to the other toes?  Do you eat those too or just throw them out, like you do the with the rest of the frog when you eat frog legs?  Oh wait.  That’s right.  They’re not really toes.

I grew up in a small Midwestern town with a definite caucasian majority.  I wasn’t really aware of the idea of racism as a kid until I was about seven or eight, and that was because of conversations at “the beach” at Lake Storey.  You see, we used to go swimming in the lake, and our town had a huge lakeside pavilion.  It was build next to a sandy bank on the north side of the lake that served as a beach.  There was a clay bed beneath the sand to hold it in place (I used to like to dig under the sand, pull up the clay, and use it to line the moats of my sandcastles). It was hardly a real beach, but then Lake Storey wasn’t a real lake either, it was a man-made body of (murky) water controlled by a spillway.

Sometimes when I was playing at “the beach” I would hear other kids talking about “Nigger Beach.”  This mysterious place, it seemed, was positioned somewhere on the other side of the vast body of water that was Lake Storey, but I couldn’t see it because it was strategically positioned out of sight from the pavilion where we were playing.  Distance, angle, and trees obscured it from view.

Some of the white kids told some incredible stories of the things that would go on at Nigger Beach.  It seemed a scary place, someplace I surely wouldn’t want to be caught.  At times when I was able to get a paddle-boat to venture out on the water, I made sure to stay on the north side of the lake.

It seems that even as late as the early ’70s, there was an unspoken rule of segregation regarding Lake Storey.  I never went to the south side of the beach until I was a teenager, but I’ve heard stories from black people who grew up in my town about playing at the south side beach.  Apparently it was quite active back then.  By the time I saw it, it was an abandoned area with a run down pavilion, which I noted was a much, much smaller than the building on the north side of the beach.  Also, I noted the lack of a sandy appearance.  It seemed the “beach” was more of a “paved with cobblestones” kind of thing.  By the ’80s, the segregation had gone from the lake, but hardly anyone played there anymore anyway (they even tried to revive the area with a water slide).  The south side pavilion area, though, retained the name “Nigger Beach” well into the ’80s, even among many blacks.

It’s strange to think that kind of attitude was commonplace in my lifetime.  An even stranger tale of racism was told to me by my grandfather.  Apparently, while a crew was building one of the city’s new schools across the street from his house (I think before I was born), he had conversations with some of the construction workers.   One of the subjects revolved around bricks.  In their supply of materials, there were some bricks that had baked longer than others, making them darker in appearance.  They were shooting for a sandy-beige color and the darker ones took on a more brownish tint.   Grandpa said they called the really dark bricks “nigger babies.”  Apparently, they’d built an entire wall of the school, spacing the “nigger babies” and bricks of other various tints around for an even look.  When they’d nearly completed the wall, a supervisor made them tear it down and rebuild it without the “nigger babies.”   Why?  Simply because they were “nigger babies” and he didn’t want his wall to have anything to do with “niggers.”

Now granted I got this story second hand, but my grandfather was not one to tell tall tales and my hometown has stranger tales of twisted logic.  After all, they let “Nigger Beach” stay in operation into the ’70s, yes?  Even now, there are white people in my hometown who are vehemently racist.  Not that it’s unique… I currently live in Oakland and racism thrives there in many ways; whites against blacks, blacks against whites, blacks against Latinos, everyone vs. the Chinese.  But what’s strange to me is the time before I realized my small town culture was racist.  Back when nigger toes were nigger toes and it was no big deal.  You know… I wonder what black people call Brazil nuts.

By the way, Brazil nuts are neither from Brazil nor are they nuts.  They are seeds and they’re from Bolivia.

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Link:  Urban Dictionary’s definition of “nigger toes”
Image purchased from 123RF Stock Photos

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