Edited by Azizi Powell
Anecdotal evidence suggests that early versions of the chant that is now known as "Five Little Monkeys" (also known as "Ten Little Monkeys") was based on the "Shortnin Bread" song.
These early versions of "Five Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed" used the "n word" plural or "darkies" as referents for Black people instead of the word "monkey". And "monkey" itself is a word which has also been used in the past and the present as an offensive referent for Black people.
This post presents a compilation of the online comments that I have found to date about the probable racist roots of the "Five Little Monkeys/"Ten Little Monkeys" chant. This post also includes my comments about that information and about another possible source for that chant.
The content of this post is presented for folkloric and cultural purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/07/versions-of-shortnin-bread-1900-1950.html for the closely related 2014 pancocojams post "Versions Of "Shortnin' Bread" Song (1900-1950)"
VIDEO EXAMPLE OF "FIVE LITTLE MONKEYS"
"Five Little Monkeys" by ABCmouse.com
ABCmouse.com Early Learning Academy, Published on Jan 6, 2014
The classic children's song "Five Little Monkeys" (or "5 Little Monkeys") helps children learn basic math skills. As each little monkey falls off and "bumps his head," children will learn about basic subtraction skills in the context of this quirky song.
TEXT EXAMPLE "FIVE LITTLE MONKEYS'
Five little monkeys jumping on the bed
One fell off and bumped his head
Mama called the doctor,
And the doctor said
No more monkeys jumping on the bed
Four little monkeys jumping on the bed etc.
Three little monkeys jumping on the bed etc.
Two little monkeys jumping on the bed etc
One little monkey jumping on the bed
One fell off and bumped his head
Mama called the doctor
And the doctor said,
Put those monkeys right [back] to bed.
-various sources, including http://www.kidsongs.com/lyrics/five-little-monkeys.html
POSSIBLE SOURCES OF AND COMMENTS ABOUT EARLY VERSIONS OF "FIVE LITTLE MONKEYS JUMPING ON THE BED"
This is a response to the question: "What is the origin of The Five Little Monkeys [chant]"?
respondent: Books and Literature SupervisorMyrab51
"It derives from the original first verse of "Shortenin' Bread": Two little (insert N-word here)Lyin' in bed One of 'em sick An' de odder mos' dead.Call for de doctorAn' de doctor said,"Feed dem darkies on shortenin' bread" We all know the chorus: Mammy's little baby loves Shortenin', shortenin',Mammy's little baby love shortenin' bread. Unfortunate, but true.
Like many children's rhymes and songs, the rhythm of the verse was too catchy for people to abandon, so parents/teachers simply changed the characters and the action. "Monkeys" belies this... unfortunately monkeys and apes have often been used as stand-in characters for African-Americans. This rhyme was beginning to be cleansed as early as the late 1930s. My 77-year-old mother heard "Five Little Monkeys" on my child's Baby Genius CD recently and said "Monkeys? It's 'Five Little Darkies' and the doctor says to feed them shortenin' bread!" So the N word was already out of favor in the northeast US by the time she was a child, and "darkies" was preferred for both the beginning and ending phrase.
This quote was reformatted for this post,
ChromaKelly, 09-19-2010, 01:56 PM
5 Little Monkeys - racist?
..."I'm not real crazy about 5 Little Monkeys jumping on a bed anyway (I remember hearing it with "N" as a kid)… I'm sure the vast majority of the people repeating this rhyme have no idea it has any racist roots. So, do I just let it go, or educate people? Even though I can't be 100% certain."
ChromaKelly, 09-19-2010, 08:14 PM
"Just to clarify, I'm not like, "everything with a monkey in it is racist". I'm mainly talking about the version of 5 Little Monkeys that goes -
Five little monkeys swinging in the tree
teasing Mr. Alligator can’t catch me….can’t catch me
along came Mr. Alligator quiet as can be
and snapped that monkey out that tree *
*It's the combo of monkeys plus being eaten by an alligator that's tweaking with me. Anyway, I was just wondering if anyone knew whether or not this was based on the alligator bait thing."
From http://babyandblog.com/2014/04/5-childrens-songs-with-racist-histories/# "Five Children's Songs With Racist Histories", posted by Angele, April 29, 2014
GB Harris, May 6, 2014 at 3:01 pm
"I’m not a Mom but I came across this website to find some activities for my little sister. I had heard from my grandmother about some of the songs and phrases that we think of as “modern” today actually had their roots from several centuries ago & blatantly included racist, sexist, etc language. I had heard of the racist version of “Eenie Meenie Mini Moe” but the last one “Short’nin Bread” made my mouth drop because I recognized it as “Three Little Monkeys”, a song I was taught in private school no less. To my horror I realized N-word was replaced by monkeys, a veiled racial epithet to refer to black people once again. I’m torn between never wanting to hear these songs again to wanting to incorporate this into a class children learn by elementary. I think the more you learn about the past, the more prepared you are, as long as you do not wallow in it. Growing I think my family could have helped more about being completely honest with how I as a black woman was going to encounter racism and the varied ways I could combat it. Either way, I am learning for myself, but a more open dialogue would have helped with my development."
Angele, May 12, 2014 at 10:51 pm
"GB Harris, you are right, the lyrics and rhyme structure in that verse of “Short’nin Bread” have a STRONG resemblance to 5 or “10 Little Monkey’s Jumping on the Bed.” I have heard from many people that the origin of “10 Little Monkey’s Jumping on The Bed” was racist, but while doing research for this post could not find any reputable sources to confirm or negate that claim. I visited quite a few libraries and chatted with various reference librarians, and museums as well. I didn’t find anything on the origin or authorship of the song. There is a book published by Eileen Christelow, but even she states she is not the original author and she does not know who is. It is unclear how long “10 Little Monkey’s Jumping on The Bed” has been around, if it came before or after “Short’nin Bread,” etc. The only online reference I found was this:
This reference is very anecdotal, and while it may be true, I didn’t consider it a scholarly source of information so I didn’t include it in the post. But I will say the resemblance is undeniable."
* This is the quote given above as Comment #1 in this pancocojams post.
WAS A VERSION OF "EENY MEENY MINEY MO" A SOURCE FOR THE "TEN LITTLE INDIANS" RHYME?
While I believe that "Shortnin Bread" is the probable main source for “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed”, I wonder if the precursor to "Ten Little Indians" could also have been a source for that children's chant. Tiffany M.B. Anderson wrote an interesting and informative article about that post-Civil War "coon song" which was entitled "Ten Little [n word plural]." http://folkloreforum.net/2009/05/01/%E2%80%9Cten-little-niggers%E2%80%9D-the-making-of-a-black-man%E2%80%99s-consciousness/. Here's the beginning paragraph of that online abstract:
"During Reconstruction in the 1860s, the proud Confederate states found themselves in a place of subordination. Forced to concede their free slave labor, the former citizens of the Confederacy refused to fold their ideology of the inferiority of the freed slaves. A “comic” song titled “Ten Little [n word plural*]" circulated through the United States in Minstrel shows and children’s nursery rhyme books in keeping with this ideology."
*That word is fully spelled out in that abstract.
Here's a comment about a song that is probably the German version of that composition:
"ciara1973, June 29, 2014 at 9:21 am
"In Germany we have “Zehn kleine Negerlein“ (Ten little negros). A horrible song about ten little african children doing the most stupidest things and getting themselves killed. The kindergarten teacher had my sister and the rest of the childeren singing it at a play. I later told my mom about it (she was at work) and she took care of it. Later a punk group changed the name and the text and it is no longer allowed to be teached. Oh by the way, my siblings and I are biracial (african-american and german)." http://babyandblog.com/2014/04/5-childrens-songs-with-racist-histories/#
If "Five Little Monkeys" and "Shortnin Bread" do indeed have racist roots, does that mean that people who are anti-racist shouldn't sing those songs and teach them to children?
I believe that the current versions of "Five Little Monkeys", "Shornin Bread" and "Eenie Meenie Miney Mo" and are acceptable for singing and sharing with children because the offensive references and offensive dialectic words have been removed from those songs/chants.*
*Sentence correction January 11, 2018
Here's a comment that I wrote on July 20, 2014 in response to a query about whether versions of the "Eenie Meenie Miney Mo" rhyme should ever be taught to children or used by children, even if those versions don't include "the n word:
loveisnotenough.com/2007/10/24/ask-arp-what-should-i-do-about-nursery-rhymes-with-a-racist-past "Ask ARP: What should I do about nursery rhymes with a racist past?" Posted on October 24, 2007 by Carmen Van Kerckhove [website no longer available]
"More than seven years after this post was published, I happened upon it while searching for discussion and I’m surprised that there aren’t any responses to your legitimate query.
As an African American community folklorist who is particularly interested in playground rhymes, I’m aware that some playground rhymes – like other folk material – have problematic, and even quite offensive early versions. However, I don’t think that means that people should avoid teaching and sharing with children those politically correct versions which were purposely made to substitute for those offensive versions, or which developed non-racist variants by happenchance.
For what it’s worth, I learned “Eeny Meenie Miney Mo” with the “catch a tiger by the toe” line when I was growing up in the mid 1950s in Atlantic City, New Jersey. And it wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I learned that “tiger” (or some other word) was a replacement for the “the n word”. From reading other online discussions about this song, including your comment, it seems that a number of people who know that “Eenie Meenie Miney Mo” choosing it rhyme don’t know that it once included the “n word”."
I’m not encouraging people to forget the history of rhymes or songs that contained offensive referents. I believe that it would be beneficial for children of certain ages -at least pre-teens- and adults to formally and informally study & discuss this subject as an introduction to and auxiliary resource for the study of anti-racism, multiculturalism, and folklore etc.
What I’m much more concerned about is the fact that some playground rhymes are still being recited today that are racist- for example, some examples of “I Went To A Chinese Restaurant”. I strongly believe that those rhymes shouldn’t be recited, and I would have no problem whatsoever contacting the school or community center if I learned that a teacher or staff person was teaching my young granddaughter those offensive versions of those rhymes. Her parents and I would redirect my grandchild in an age appropriate way if she learned an offensive version of that rhyme or if she learned any other offensive rhyme or song from her friends, from television, or the internet or elsewhere.
However, I would have no problem – and I believe that her parents would also have no problem – if she recited a non-racist version of a rhyme or a song that had a racist version in its past or its present.
I agree with the principal who had concerns about “sensitizing a child to something that we cannot quite explain in full as there is no context for the child – we can’t tell them what the old words used to be.”
Just saying that “Some examples of that rhyme have hurtful words” is too vague unless we also say what those words are. And I don’t think that adults need to do that unless the children are older or are the children are heard using those words or hear someone else use those words and ask us about them."
I re-visited that website today and noticed that my comment was still awaiting moderation. I also noticed that a note indicated that there were 36 other responses to that query. Unfortunately, I can't seem to access those responses. It seems that that website is no longer under active moderation and the comment feature is largely de-activated. But, the points that I made in that comment about "Eenie Meanie Miney Mo" also apply to "Five Little Indians Jumping In The Bed".
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