From symbol of black self-sufficiency to symbol of ridicule
December 8, 2014 7:12 PM   Subscribe

 
Not to diminish the seriousness of the article, but isn't it kind of tortuous to read a post about lovely sweet heavenly delicious crunchy dribbling watermelon in December?
posted by oceanjesse at 7:37 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]


I don't remember where this was, but the only other place I've read an explanation of the watermelon bit, they also talk about watermelon (and fried chicken) being... Delicacies? End-of-summer food? A reward for diligence, basically, so to eat it all the time was intemperate, for lack of a better word.
posted by PMdixon at 7:50 PM on December 8, 2014


Probably happens much less in well-developed parts of China today, but a *LOT* of watermelon eating during terribly hot sweltering summers is standard in many regions in China. I mean, watermelon eating 3 times a day or more, to the point where you're truly sick and tired at the sight of yet another slice pushed onto you by your relatives, even though it still tastes good, you truly don't want to see another slice for the rest of the summer but you eat it because you must. Because it's eaten mainly as a cheap and plentiful (I remember the calls of the watermelon seller doing the rounds of urban apartment buildings twice a day every day... many people dumping their hundreds of watermelon rinds in the street and in the river was a major garbage pollution problem) *coolant* rather than as a food per se. You can even buy these common little packs of tiny round "essence of watermelon" pellets which don't taste of anything and are probably phony medicine but are supposed to cool your body down.
posted by Bwithh at 8:00 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


It seems like this would somehow be connected to Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, from 1849, which talks about the eating of "pumpkins," but that isn't mentioned in the Atlantic article.
posted by XMLicious at 8:05 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


hmmm dubious barely supported speculative cultural analysis in the piece:
"There, the fruit symbolized many of the same qualities as it would in post-emancipation America: uncleanliness, because eating watermelon is so messy. Laziness, because growing watermelons is so easy, and it’s hard to eat watermelon and keep working—it’s a fruit you have to sit down and eat. Childishness, because watermelons are sweet, colorful, and devoid of much nutritional value. And unwanted public presence, because it’s hard to eat a watermelon by yourself. "

Of course you can easily eat a watermelon by yourself. And even if you ate it with others, why is that assumed to be a public act?
It doesn't have to be messy - you could use a spoon rather than the slicing method
"It's hard to eat watermelon and keep working - it's a fruit you have to sit down and eat" - this is true for all kinds of type of food.
"Childishness" - wtf?
posted by Bwithh at 8:06 PM on December 8, 2014 [8 favorites]


Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence.
-
a Georgia newspaper reported that a black man had been arrested for poisoning a watermelon with the intent of killing a neighbor. The story was headlined “Negro Kuklux” and equated black-on-black violence with the Ku Klux Klan, asking facetiously whether the Radical Republican congressional subcommittee investigating the Klan would investigate this freedman’s actions.

It's funny how much this feels like modern racism, which some view as different in method because at least it has to be hidden a bit because polite society rejects open racism. For the first quote I think of Trayvon Martin with his skittles and (watermelon flavored) Arizona drink, how those were symbols of how he was an unarmed innocent young person. Racists tried to subvert those symbols to mean he must be making "lean" because he's a drugged up thug.

For the second I think of every, "But what about the black on black crime!" excuse we get after a cop kills a black person. This sort of racism was there right along with the more direct sort, and it needs to be stamped out just as much.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:07 PM on December 8, 2014 [12 favorites]


Oh Dem Watermelons
posted by AtoBtoA at 8:24 PM on December 8, 2014


Well, I have another theory.

There are all kinds of food that are considered African American: watermelon, fried chicken, ribs. A lot of this is called 'soul food'. What all this food really is, is food from the South. As African Americans moved north to escape the South after the Civil War, the rest of the country saw the food they were eating, Southern food, and associated it with the people eating it, African Americans.

And, in fact, getting good Southern food outside of the South often means going to a restaurant run by an African American.
posted by eye of newt at 8:50 PM on December 8, 2014 [10 favorites]


This is one of the topics that fascinates me most in food history - how a food can become a cultural trope, and one so virulent, as well. I've read about the the chicken thing a bit, and touched on watermelon and fishing as 'lazy' tropes in this lawn statue thread.

dubious barely supported speculative cultural analysis in the piece:

Bwith, I agree it's not nearly well enough cited, but none of those assertions are at all off base in terms of the analysis in American cultural history. Sure, you could do all those things, but there was a certain way nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Americans thought about watermelon, and all of those things played into it. I've got some slides like these ones in a talk I give where the "childish" association comes through - meant-to-be-humorous images of 'pickaninny' caricature kids gamboling around at the festive occasion of eating something sweet (sweetness was a big deal for 19th century kids in general, hence all those stealing-jam anecdotes - there wasn't a lot of candy around yet).

Some more references from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (an awesome resource)

I just ran across this video in my feed a couple weeks ago, where Psyche Williams-Forson (who wrote the book about chicken in AFrican-American history) and several other food/history scholars talk about black identity and food.
posted by Miko at 9:32 PM on December 8, 2014 [13 favorites]


Yeah, the chicken thing. One of my favorite foods is fried chicken, from a particular place here in St. Louis. If we're having Hodak's, my mood is improved all day. Family meals for birthdays or whatever usually involve going and getting 80 pieces, and there's a lot of birthdays.

So if I go to Home Depot, and the black checkout lady asks me why I'm in such a good mood, I have to be careful when I answer honestly, so I don't sound like one of the bajillion racist schmucks in town.

(At least twice I've been told, "actually I prefer hot wing pizza.")
posted by notsnot at 9:42 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


See, this is why I'm never honest. I would just say, "It's pizza night!"

It communicates, "I am excited about a universally loved but ethnically and regionally coded food product!" which is most of the truth while avoiding the awkwardness.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:03 PM on December 8, 2014


Being embarrassed to talk about food you like because the other person might think you think they like it sounds horrible.
posted by michaelh at 10:19 PM on December 8, 2014 [8 favorites]


Welcome to social anxiety. :|
posted by Drinky Die at 10:20 PM on December 8, 2014 [21 favorites]


Very illuminating article, I thought.
posted by painquale at 10:27 PM on December 8, 2014


"...because it’s hard to eat a watermelon by yourself."

I've eaten so much watermelon at one time that I was practically confined to the bathroom with a continuous need to pee. I think I even ate watermelon while on the toilet. If an obsession with eating watermelon is wrong I don't want to be right. Don't tell me it's hard to eat a watermelon by yourself, author, you just haven't really met me yet.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:34 PM on December 8, 2014 [11 favorites]


You can't talk about this topic without the wonderful and empowering video of "Petey Greene eating a watermelon."

Like a fucking BOSS! I love that man.
posted by symbioid at 10:40 PM on December 8, 2014


Not to diminish the seriousness of the article, but isn't it kind of tortuous to read a post about lovely sweet heavenly delicious crunchy dribbling watermelon in December?

No. Its torturous.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:13 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]


"We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick" Numbers 11: 5-6.

Interesting that the bible mentions watermelons as being eaten by the Israelites while they were in their 400 or so year period of bondage to the Egyptians. Way back in the 2nd century BC somebody brought the fruit from its native turf in southern Africa into Egypt - and way back then it was clearly seen as a good food to feed slaves working in a hot environment. It would not surprise me if the prejudice against those eating it could be traced back even that far.
posted by rongorongo at 2:10 AM on December 9, 2014 [9 favorites]


Being embarrassed to talk about food you like because the other person might think you think they like it sounds horrible.

I think it's reasonable. It's impossible to dodge the layers of meaning that are going to pop up in an interaction between a white person and a black person who are strangers and one is stuck in their 'work' frame and the other is at leisure shopping and within the first minute that black worker hears 'fried chicken.' There's enough intentional racism black people have to deal with (and probably in that very store) that it's totally reasonable to check oneself and avoid giving any impression of racism, even if unintentional. If you'd like a more self-serving explanation, it's more comfortable not to have to have a 'uh, that was awkward' moment and backpedal and explain yourself, which never goes well and sort of ruins the interpersonal moment.

Like, I get that that's a small shame to feel the need to edit yourself out of courtesy and because racists ruined this for you, but what I think is worse, and more sad, is being embarrassed to admit you like a food you like because it has two centuries of being used in abusive racist caricatures against people like yourself. As Williams-Forson (I think, I haven't re-viewed it since watching a couple weeks ago) says in the above interview, she can't bring herself to eat watermelon when anyone is watching.
posted by Miko at 5:54 AM on December 9, 2014 [14 favorites]


This is a great article, and very timely. We're just entering Reconstruction and yesterday dealt with the "blacks don't work and live off the government dole" trope that, in many way, began as a reaction to the work of the Freedman's Bureau in the South. This is a great article to begin the class with, thanks.
posted by absalom at 5:56 AM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Being embarrassed to talk about food you like because the other person might think you think they like it sounds horrible.

There's a lovely section in the novel Invisible Man in which the narrator feels both empowered and alienated by the act of eating food on the street, something his mother had always warned him not to do lest white folks think ill of him. I know Southern women who will still never be seen eating unless they're in their own home. As Franz Fanon noted, living as a colonial subject aptly simulates madness.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:16 AM on December 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


An elderly relative gave us one of those hideous lawn jockey things, only it's clearly a black kid standing on a bale of cotton. The thing has been repainted garishly. As we can't get rid of it yet we tried to hide it in a corner of the garden.

One day a visiting friend noticed the thing and observed that the kid is wearing green pants with a red shirt with black spots. "Kid's dressed like a watermelon," he pointed out.

Now there's a bag over the whole thing. Damn.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:22 AM on December 9, 2014


hmmm dubious barely supported speculative cultural analysis in the piece:

I don't totally disagree with you about this being speculative, but "these racist tropes don't stand up to logic!" isn't really saying much.
posted by almostmanda at 6:40 AM on December 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


hmmm dubious barely supported speculative cultural analysis in the piece:

I think it's a valuable lesson in how one can make any damn thing into a negative stereotype for Actual Reasons, when the Actual Reasons are clearly the cart rather than the horse.
posted by Etrigan at 6:47 AM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


For some resources on understanding why that's not speculative but an accurate reflection of post-Civil War food mores among the white middle class (at whom these tropes are largely aimed):

Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century
How America Eats: A Social HIstory of US Food and Culture
Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America
Never Done: A History of Women and Housework
posted by Miko at 6:55 AM on December 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


I drive my kid to school past a row of rich houses, one of which has two lawn jockeys in the front. They are painted to be white-skinned, but then that begs the question; why have them at all? They're hideous and tacky (the repainting was not done well, either). There is no "art" to them. And no purpose, since no one needs a place to tie their horse (that was the original function, the jockey held a ring to tie your horse's reins to.) It's hard not to assume it's a little coded message, "Gonna hold on to this little bit of racism right here, you bet!"

Of course you can get the same queasy feeling going to one of those strip-mall "antiques" places, that are made up of vendor booths full of crafts for sale. Inevitably, someone has decided that mammies and little black children with red lips are "cute" and "vintage" and have items featuring them for sale. Or old racist signs with those types of images for sale, because you know, it's history and they're antiques and so it's ok. Watermelon is a frequent theme in those.

I want to send every one of those people to the Jim Crow Museum. Except they would probably love it and miss the point entirely.
posted by emjaybee at 7:20 AM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


emjaybee, I totally agree with you in general (about the statues especially), but one interesting thing about mammy dolls and the like is that a lot of the collectors are black (one example and some stories: Collecting Black Memorabilia, Black Memorabilia: The Pride and The Pain, Should Blacks Collect Racist Memorabilia). Some of them give them a critical re-read, some of them see them as emblems of survival, some want to preserve evidence of a racist past. Since I learned more about that I react less badly to seeing them in antique stores. It must be a weird collecting world that brings together the clueless, racists, and black people with an interest in history, but it's a more complex collecting market than I might have at first thought.
posted by Miko at 7:34 AM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I had a law colleague who worked in the office across from mine. She is a black young woman. I ran into her at a grocery store near our office building and noticed that she had one of those Saran Wrapped packages of sliced watermelon but as we both ended up at the register to check out, I noticed she had put the watermelon back. It made me very sad to think that, possibly (obviously I don't know this for sure; maybe she just changed her mind) she put it back to avoid being seen as a black person buying watermelon. Seriously, that sucks. How horrible it is to think that you can't unselfconsciously enjoy something delicious because of that shitty stereotype.
posted by jayder at 8:36 AM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


emjaybee: " And no purpose, since no one needs a place to tie their horse (that was the original function, the jockey held a ring to tie your horse's reins to.)"

Suddenly that poem takes on a new meaning for me:
As I was standing in the street,
As quiet as could be,
A great big ugly man came up.
And tied his horse to me.
posted by RobotHero at 8:37 AM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's hard not to assume it's a little coded message, "Gonna hold on to this little bit of racism right here, you bet!"

Well, if you're looking to be outraged (and which of us is not?), I suppose that's one way to go. But then, how do you explain garden gnomes?

A great big ugly man came up
And tied his horse to me.

posted by IndigoJones at 9:16 AM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


This small, experimental film was my introduction to the use of watermelons as a racial epithet (I was going to say "...to denigrate blacks," but I'm not sure of the acceptability of a term that derives from the Latin for "to blacken").
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:34 AM on December 9, 2014


Not to diminish the seriousness of the article, but isn't it kind of tortuous to read a post about lovely sweet heavenly delicious crunchy dribbling watermelon in December?

No. Its torturous.


Or maybe both, if you read it in the Dry Tortugas.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:35 AM on December 9, 2014


I just finished reading Black Rice, about (clearly) rice, not watermelon, but the author makes the point in the book that rice was used in a very similar way to watermelons in the linked article: as a symbol of black industriousness, or as a symbol of black laziness and childish stupidity, depending on what best suited the ends (i.e. rounding up valuable slaves, or keeping blacks in slavery) of the white writer at the time.

Both watermelons and (certain types of) rice were domesticated in Africa, along with a lot of other stuff.
posted by wormwood23 at 10:07 AM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm pretty sure the folks in the strip malls, being as far as I can see 100% old white ladies*, who exclaim "aren't they cute!" are not collecting for any historical reasons. If a black person bought/collected those it would have a very different meaning.

*Old Southern white lady racism is a very specific kind. They are never mean! They are nice to everyone, and don't really say anything nasty (because that would be unladylike). So it manifests as a sort of willful cluelessness to things like pickaninny dolls, and racist songs/jokes/statements, like they live in a little sunny bubble of childish innocence and therefore how can you possibly be mad at them? Now let Mema fix you a piece of pie! This also makes you the horrible person for telling Mema something is racist and making her uncomfortable and making the whole family mad at you. But Mema never gets mad. She might be a little sad, though and next time you see her will tell you earnestly how much she loves black people, why, her hairdresser is black and a lovely woman!
posted by emjaybee at 10:26 AM on December 9, 2014 [9 favorites]


That's so especially well explained, to the point where it's alarming that it would need to be explained at all since it's so familiar.
posted by deathmaven at 11:03 AM on December 9, 2014


Yeah...that was some of my relatives.
posted by Miko at 12:34 PM on December 9, 2014


I know it from the POV of a black man living on the border of The South who for half his short adult life was apparently adorable to women like this.
posted by deathmaven at 1:00 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


like they live in a little sunny bubble of childish innocence and therefore how can you possibly be mad at them?

It's interesting/sad/enraging how sexism is used by some white women to combat accusations of - or even awareness of - racism.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:32 PM on December 9, 2014


This post and all the talk of lawn jockeys reminded me of one of my earliest toys; when I was three, a neighbor made me a Topsy-Turvey doll. I played with it with no idea of how strange it was.
posted by acrasis at 5:01 PM on December 9, 2014


"Of course you can easily eat a watermelon by yourself. And even if you ate it with others, why is that assumed to be a public act?"

It's not personal size, like an apple or an orange. If I asked for a slice of your orange or a bite out of your apple, you'd likely say, mmm, ok to the former and buzz off to the latter--unless you had a knife. Then you might cut me a slice. Maybe. But a watermelon? Unless you're going to smash it open and eat it with your fingers or jam the broken pieces into yer maw, you have to cut it with a knife. You carve a watermelon--like its a thanksgiving turkey.

I read this with curiosity since I have an early childhood memory of sharing watermelon with my great grandfather in his Oakland, CA home. I'm white, he was white. Whenever we ate watermelon in his house, we ate it on a plate with a knife and fork, and with a sprinkling of salt. I never had a chance to ask him why he liked eating watermelon this way.

I looked for indications in the piece for this mysterious ritual. Maybe the line, "Egypt in 1801, was “a poor Arab’s feast,” [...] a meager substitute for a proper meal..." explains something of it? That's interesting, "substitute". If you've ever had prime rib--tender and under cooked--then maybe the image of a juicy red cube of watermelon on the end of your fork is a simulacrum of this wealth signifying meal. Also, with a large watermelon, there's always more.

And since he was born in 1904, this line "By the early twentieth century, the watermelon stereotype was everywhere—potholders, paperweights, sheet music, salt-and-pepper shakers." would place his generation within this morally ambiguous time (when is a potholder with a watermelon just a potholder?)
posted by xtian at 7:28 AM on December 10, 2014


This post and all the talk of lawn jockeys reminded me of one of my earliest toys; when I was three, a neighbor made me a Topsy-Turvey doll. I played with it with no idea of how strange it was.

I had a golliwog which I called Golly as a preschooler, given to me by my grandparents. I adored it then, and now when I remember the feel of its black fuzzy sheepskin hair I'm so embarrassed about it.
posted by tracicle at 9:14 AM on December 10, 2014


I ran into her at a grocery store near our office building and noticed that she had one of those Saran Wrapped packages of sliced watermelon but as we both ended up at the register to check out, I noticed she had put the watermelon back. It made me very sad to think that, possibly (obviously I don't know this for sure; maybe she just changed her mind) she put it back to avoid being seen as a black person buying watermelon. Seriously, that sucks. How horrible it is to think that you can't unselfconsciously enjoy something delicious because of that shitty stereotype.

Surely she just changed her mind because she noticed what an offensive markup the stores place on that stuff. It's like a penalty on people who walk with their groceries and can't carry a whole melon.

My two year old has become obsessed with Dumbo and I had not remembered the racist caricature crows near the end. I'd pondered why Disney hasn't thrown the movie down the memory hole like Song of the South and then I think of all these literally whitewashed lawn jockeys and things people are willing to shrug at and realize they don't have to.
posted by phearlez at 11:11 AM on December 10, 2014


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