Though I'd only experienced a quick moment of mental free-association, I felt like the saying on that shirt, though it had changed "feets" to the more grammatical "feet", had some racist origin, but I wasn't sure. In fact, I wasn't even sure if I'd ever really seen the black-man-being-scared-of-a-ghost scene, yet I must have, or why would the image have leapt into my mind as soon as I saw that shirt?
When I got home I yahooed "Feets, don't fail me now" and sure enough, there were several entries.
According to Wikipedia this phrase was:
"(A) Catch-phrase that possibly originated during the vaudeville and chitlin' circuit days. Spoken by several African-American actors in motion pictures of the 1920s to 1940s, usually when scared by a ghost or such (whereupon the character scooted). Delivered by actor Willie Best (1913–1962) in the 1940 Bob Hope film "The Ghost Breakers"; delivered by actor Stepin Fetchit (1902–1985) in several films; often attributed to actor Mantan Moreland (1902–1973)."
According to another website called The Straight Dope, which describes its mission as
"Fighting ignorance since 1973 (It's taking longer than we thought)":
"(Feets don't fail me now) was one of the catch phrases of Stepin Fetchit, an early black film performer. He basically transitioned the old racist minstrel shows from stage to screen, portraying a humble, fearful Negro caricature for the delight of white audiences. He made a lot of money doing it, but it's still a rather hateful stereotype."
The author of the entry then adds:
"I find it interesting that the phrase has survived to the present, while somehow shedding its deeply racist origins, to the point that it can apparently be used in mainstream marketing (though I haven't seen that myself and would welcome a citation). In any event, if you choose to pick up this phrase for your own usage, be very careful about your audience, lest you inadvertently cause serious offense."
I guess I could give the author a citation now. Because the phrase is apparently being used as somebody's idea of a slogan for the upcoming 2014 Nationwide Children's Hospital Columbus Marathon, which will take place in downtown Columbus on October 19.
Now, granted, the Homage-brand running shirt on display in Second Sole doesn't actually say "Feets Don't Fail Me Now"; it says Feet Don't Fail Me Now", which is slightly different. In fact in my research I came across several different rock songs dating back as far as the 1980's with the name "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" which I listened to and found to be ballads about guys trying to find the courage to leave a relationship or escape from a bad situation. I'm guessing that the inspiration for the slogan on the shirt was the title of one of these rock songs and not the phrase in its original form and usage. I'm also guessing that whoever put those words on that shirt never heard the phrase in its original form and usage.
But though the phrase may have been de-fanged and laundered by time and more innocent usages, "shedding its racist origins", as the Straight Talk" contributor noted, there still obviously hasn't been enough time gone by if its appearance minus one letter on a running shirt causes a stab of recognition in a 63-year-old white lady like myself. And if those words resonated negatively with me, how much more negatively might they resonate with an African-American my age or older who might be watching the marathon and catch a glimpse of them on a shirt that appears to be official apparel of the Columbus Marathon?
Or at least done a little research.