17. Watermelon was an Old World food that came to the New World with Euro-African settlement. It appears to have originated in southern Africa. The Spanish brought it to Florida by 1576, the British were growing it in Massachusetts by 1629, and it also appears to have come along with enslaved Africans. Watermelon requires a long growing season and thrives best in hot weather, so naturally it was well-suited to the south. Chomping into a slice of juicy watermelon on a hot summer day is one of the simple pleasures of life. Indeed, Food Tells a Story has been known to plow through half a one in an afternoon all by himself.
But for some African Americans, this simple pleasure has been twisted to the point where some refuse to eat watermelon anywhere other than the privacy of home. Jesse Jackson was once asked whether he would ever eat watermelon in front of whites: “We’re not that free. ‘Cause the stereotype was that deep.”
Indeed, even in the 21st century, the watermelon stereotype has been part and parcel of the torrent of racist graphics directed at President Obama. This “Obama trap” from southern California is about as much as I dare show among civilized people…
The watermelon stereotype plays into a more pernicious form of racist theology—the myth of the happy slave:
Slavery’s defenders focused on the “good masters” and their “happy slaves.” Frederick Douglass shredded the myth in his 1845 Narrative. As we have seen elsewhere, the myth still persists. In 2013, Phil Robertson, star of Duck Dynasty, said that under Jim Crow, he never saw any blacks mistreated, and never heard one complain. “They were singing and happy;… no one was singing the blues.” The conservative journalist James Bowman complained that the film 12 Years a Slave had presented a “one-sided” view of slavery and didn’t mention the “contented slaves.”
Want to know more? William Black has written an excellent article that shows just how complex and vicious the watermelon stereotype became. In fact, you might want to stop and read it right now, because I can’t just lift the whole thing and paste it in here like I magically thought of it myself….
Ok. Let’s move on:
Worse yet, the “Happy Slave” myth must be seen in contrast to its even more dangerous corollary: The Uppity N—-r. This is the foundation of racist theology, and for a hundred years after the Civil War, it was used as the pretext for the domestic terrorism of the KKK and lynch mobs against African Americans across the country. Its excesses were one of the key factors in driving the Great Migration from the south.
Of course, the myth was given new life with the Obama presidency. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, used the term to describe the First Lady in 2011, declaring that it was “uppity” for her to attend a NASCAR race in connection with her support of veterans.
Our “uppity” First Lady, supporting veterans at a NASCAR race
In the 2008 election, a sitting congressman called both Obamas “uppity.” Of course, beyond the literal word, the President’s opponents have used a barrage of code-word equivalents, such as “arrogant.” Fox News commentators have routinely criticized the President for sending his daughters to a fancy private school, and even for eating at nice restaurants sometimes instead of at KFC. Don’t they know their place?
In 2014 (not 1914) the editorial staff at the Boston Herald thought this was hilarious.
The myth even stained the 2016 Super Bowl. Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback, was roundly condemned for being surly and uncommunicative during the post-game press conference. What didn’t get reported, of course, was that Peyton Manning, the victorious Denver quarterback, said that Newton was extremely humble and congratulatory to him after the game. It also didn’t get reported that Manning himself had behaved in much the same way after losing the 2007 Super Bowl, when he walked off the field without even congratulating the opposing QB, Drew Brees. Yet no one criticized Manning; in fact, he was praised for his competitive spirit in taking a loss so hard. Double standard? Of course. All season long, Newton was criticized for the opposite reaction as well, condemned for being too demonstrative when his team scored a touchdown. Uppity.
An uppity Cam Newton congratulates Peyton Manning
Ok, so am I dumping too much weight on the watermelon stereotype? Maybe. But it’s part and parcel of the Happy vs. Uppity myths, and as we have seen, it remains a stereotype very much in play today.
As with all stereotypes, the ultimate falsehood is built on a shred of truth. Let’s break down the watermelon stereotype:
- Were there “contented slaves”? Well, it’s true that the enslaved didn’t uniformly just up and kill themselves. They were “content” enough to keep going, in spite of it all. So I suppose in some sense, it could have been worse.
- Are we more comfortable around happy people than angry people? It’s hard to deny a few million years of human evolution. Somewhere along the line, humans parted company with the other hominids, so that the baring of the teeth became a friendly smile instead of an attack warning. But a smile can also be a defense mechanism or a negotiating tool. If you see me smiling, you may think I’m happy, and that may, in turn, prompt you to let down your guard so that I can achieve my ends. I may be feeling entirely hostile on the inside, but you’ll see only my smile.
- Watermelon is good, and eating it can be messy, delightful fun, especially in the old days when there were seeds to be spit for distance. If you’re not happy when you’re eating watermelon, there’s something seriously wrong.
Indulge me some personal perspective here.
A couple of years ago, my middle son, at the tender age of 26, had a battle with cancer. It required surgery and three brutal rounds of chemo. Throughout, he remained positive, optimistic, and unfailingly polite to the nurses and hospital staff. He made the best of a horrible situation, and yet the happiest day of his young life came a year ago when he was pronounced to be in full remission. That was his personal “emancipation proclamation.” But it would require turning logic on its head to conclude that having cancer didn’t matter, or that it was, perhaps, even a good thing. It was horrible, period, even though at any given moment, he might appear quite happy.
This is the point that got messed up in the recent ruckus about the Hercules children’s book, which many saw as downplaying the realities of slavery and made it appear that perhaps Hercules was a “happy slave,” even as he was plotting his escape to freedom.
(As a historical note, a good deal of the modern “support” for the Happy Slave mythology comes out of the slave narratives compiled as a WPA project during the 1930s. But these should be taken with a couple of grains of salt. First, it’s commonplace that old folks tend to think that life was somehow better back in the old days. Just watch a “Baby Boomer” today get all misty-eyed when talking about the Beatles or Stones, but have no idea of who’s making good music fifty years later. Second, many have suspected that some subjects were telling their interviewers what they thought they wanted to hear, out of a not-unwarranted fear that complaints might have lethal consequences.)
The moral of the story?
Just because us white folks may see African Americans out there enjoying life, and perhaps even a slice of watermelon when we’re not looking, it doesn’t mean that they must also be okay with persistent racism and bigotry. A slice of watermelon doesn’t make up for the Supreme Court’s attacks on voting rights, the injustices and brutalities of our legal system and law enforcement, and persistent discrimination in housing, education, and employment.