Can ice cream be racist? The question has lately caused a small dustup—and, as you might imagine, the issue is larger than ice cream. It is, in fact, indicative of a certain psychic roadblock in enlightened black thought of late.
It started with Theodore R. Johnson III, writing on NPR’s blog to tell us that when we hear an ice cream truck play “Turkey in the Straw,” we must understand that the tune has racist origins. Johnson points out that when ice cream trucks started playing the tune in the 1920s, it was not long after the tune had been tricked out repeatedly with racist lyrics—including a minstrel-show perennial called “Zip Coon,” not to mention an awful pre-World War I version he unearthed with the lyric “Nigger Love a Watermelon, Ha Ha Ha.” Furthermore, because ice cream parlors played minstrel songs in the nineteenth century, people in the 1920s and 1930s would have associated “Turkey in the Straw” with its unsavory alternate versions. In response to Johnson, I wrote that by the time those trucks existed, people thought of the tune as simply “Turkey in the Straw,” a song about the farm. No evidence exists that ice cream parlors were ever sites uniquely associated with racist music.