I like ice cream.
To be fair, ice cream doesn’t like me. I am lactose intolerant and I for sure don’t need the calories or cholesterol, but mmmm mmmm, I like an evening with Ben and Jerry way more than a date with Jack Daniel. And that’s saying something.
Like most Americans I have fond childhood memories of playing outside with my friends in the summertime: no cell phones, only a simple mandate to be home before it got completely dark. They were simpler times. My parents knew my friends’ parents. The neighborhood was itself an organism, a study in symbiosis. When someone’s mom wasn’t around, another mom filled in. It was simple and elegant.
One of the best memories from this idyllic time was the far-off sound of the ice cream truck. Good Humor, Mr. Softee, didn’t really matter. You could hear it from a couple blocks away, just time enough to get money for you and all your friends from the closest house. I always preferred Good Humor to Mr. Softee. I got a chocolate eclair bar, or sometimes a Nutty Buddy cone.
I’m smiling thinking about it. Are you?
If so, then I am sorry for what I am about to do.
The ice cream truck song is, apparently, racist as hell. I don’t mean racist as in, it evokes an era that was idyllic for privileged whites and anything but for our black counterparts. I mean racist as in, it was a song, published and recorded by a white performer, whose title/lyrics actually went, “[N-word] love a watermelon ha ha, ha ha!”
So yeah, really racist.
How I learned this isn’t important, but maybe it will take a little edge off the moment. We were on our phones, my wife, my son, and I, looking for a new used vehicle for him prior to returning to school. He needs a certain size and type of car/truck/SUV to be able to carry drum and musical equipment to and from school and gigs. My wife joked that she found a windowless van that was affordable. And I thought I would be funny and Google "ice cream truck song," and then play it over and over again. Yes, it was absolutely an annoying idea and in poor taste. Guilty as charged.
When I searched for “ice cream truck song,” I was taken aback by the first few results, including this one with the very woke headline, “Sorry to ruin your summer, but the 'ice cream truck' song is racist AF.” It was prescient, as it turns out, because it totally ruined my summer!
You can read the article but here’s the gist: The tune came to the US with Irish and Scottish settlers in the 1700’s and two hundred years later became known broadly as “Turkey in the Straw.” But in between those two points of time, it was published as a minstrel-type song about a fictional character called Zip Coon. It was commonplace in the 1800s to lampoon free black men out in the open this way, even to the point where – after the turn of the century – “coon cards” were marketed, trading cards with racist cartoon characters on them, to collect.
It was at this time, the height of this type of unforgivable mass marketing, that two things happened:
One, another version of the song, this time the “watermelon” title referenced above, was recorded.
And two, ice cream parlors in U.S. cities would regularly play this and other minstrel songs in their stores. Why? Who thought for a moment that this would be a good idea? Couldn’t say. But later in the century when people – let’s be clear, white people – began the migration from city to suburbs, ice cream trucks were born to preserve revenue from the ice cream eating (white) public. And to make sure everyone knew what was on the truck coming down your street, past the picket fences, they used recordings of music that used to play in the urban parlors.
We Boomers, particularly above the Mason-Dixon Line, didn’t know any different. We weren’t around in the Jim Crow era. And, as we are discovering only recently, our history books have been edited to soften or omit entirely the more ugly social and governmental practices with regard to racial injustice. It was just the ice cream truck to us.
But I’m going to go out on a limb here today and say, for the record, it’s time to get rid of that shit. I’m not talking about passing laws or torching ice cream trucks in protest. Neither of those is useful. I’m saying that we, as a western society, as the United States of America, should immediately demand of these independent purveyors, removal of all such music from these vehicles. Replace it with the Star Spangled Banner. Replace it with Yellow Submarine. Replace it with anything that hasn’t been recorded with lyrics that include the N-word. Ever.
Now I’m not suggesting that anyone has been reading this blog closely and consistently enough for my position on ice cream truck music to raise a flag. I aspire to that level of fandom. But if you had been reading closely and consistently, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute, Sport. You have been out there raising your voice and wringing your hands about how counterproductive it is to focus on cleansing the world of stupid stuff like Trader Joe’s boxes and Jimmy Fallon routines from 10 years ago. What could be more inconsequential than friggin’ ice cream trucks, dude?”
Thank you for asking, Imaginary Reader in My Head. I am happy to address this. I’ve thought about it a lot.
Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it costs nothing to do it – nothing, not one cent. Because it shames no one. Because it acknowledges to the most important audience we have – our children – that we are awake and aware, finally. We are thinking about our actions and the consequences thereof. We are placing people, other people, above habit.
Imagine how much more ice cream a truck would sell by very publicly banning this music and replacing it with something innocuous, and telling everyone why. Am I dreaming? Maybe. But answer this: Would any ice cream truck sell one less Bomb Pop by doing it? No.
It’s all upside, no down-side. It’s drawing the line at something fundamental and saying, “how people feel is important – important enough so that I can do something different.”
For too long people didn’t care, and then they didn’t know. I’m still very opposed to shaming an entire generation for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK to write ourselves a pass. Our parents wanted us to be better than they were; every parent wants that. We can do that, be better. But it takes mindfulness and purposefulness. It takes education, and then just the tiniest bit of effort.
I had a drama teacher/director in college who would tell me, “Do something different,” when he wasn’t jazzed about my performance. It used to make me livid. “You’re the director! Tell me what to do!” Nope, he would say, “I don’t like it, do something different.”
I channeled my frustration into finding ways to “do it different” and, almost unilaterally, it was better.
We shouldn’t need someone to tell us what to do to be good human beings. If we pay attention, it should occur to us. Something should occur to us. And if we don’t know what to do, well, okay. If we all have the same goal in mind, if we’re united in becoming better, then anything we do will be better.
Better than nothing.