Not a Satire: Black Woman Oppressed by Watermelon Shame Thanks to Legacy of Slavery
Can you believe this is allowed to happen in The Current Year? Clearly we need to have a National Conversation about this. Follow me on Twitter to get it started.
On eating watermelon in front of white people: I’m not as free as I thought
Racism has a powerful, sneaky way of inflicting shame.
by Cythnia Greenlee
MY HAND HOVERED over the fruit tray, about to spear a chunk of watermelon, when a white person walked up. I paused.
It didn’t matter that she was a colleague and likely focused, like I was, on getting a pre-lunch snack during a long meeting. I moved my fork carefully away from the watermelon, grazing over the pineapple, and picked strawberries instead.
Safer territory, I thought. Safer fruit.
Anxiety made me reconsider my choice. It stopped me from enjoying watermelon on a scorching Mississippi day among an unusually diverse crowd of writers at an otherwise uneventful work training. But even though I was surrounded by many black and brown faces, it was the presence of white people — even these aware, friendly, and familiar white people — that gave me literal pause. I didn’t want to be an updated version of that Sambo figure, tap-dancing and braying in joy at a succulent watermelon wedge.
I couldn’t remember when this watermelon-shame seeped into my eating. I had eaten small triangles of watermelon on porches and at neighborhood cookouts since I was “knee high to a grasshopper” as a child. These were the only occasions that public spitting of the seeds — an uncouth habit, according to my parents — was allowed.
My mother covered our kitchen table with smudgy newspaper to catch the juice that ran down my scrawny arms. But those moments, I realized, were cloistered events within my family home, reunions, or the circle of our middle-class black neighborhood in North Carolina, where white families had fled the nice brick ranches when people like us arrived.
Yet between childhood and work meetings, something had changed. Maybe it was during the Obama era, when bitter and biased white public officials and “blacklashers” turned out in droves to post presidential watermelon “jokes” on Facebook. Banana-eating GIFs. Monkey memes. The first lady depicted as a monster. The commander in chief photoshopped into a historic Black Panther photo. At the same time that some people were busy building post-racial castles in the air — few black people among them — the pushback against a black president underlined the dangerous endurance of racism.
And when “they went low,” I went watermelon-less.
It is a sobering thing to face your interior white supremacist nag. I had mild indigestion all day, but it had nothing to do with the fruit. It was a profound unease that I, as a black historian who fancies myself informed and evolved, would be so complicit with a stereotype. I was angry with myself for letting racist rhetoric take over my taste buds.
It was strange to apprehend: I’m not as free as I thought I was.
. . .
Breaking through the trope
I polled black friends if they felt even the faintest watermelon unease. One had actually observed a white woman asking a black coworker if they had taken all the watermelon from a catering tray, clearly a funny quip in her mind. A former boarding school student assiduously dodged watermelon slices in the cafeteria. There was another friend who refused a free watermelon on the beach, afraid that the white man offering it was not being generous, but trolling her in a nasty joke.
Much like agonizing over watermelon, another friend mused that she had packed leftover fried chicken for lunch that day but had hoped to sidestep the stigma by eating it real proper-like, with a fork and not with her teeth tearing the flesh off the bone.
Many of my online friends reveled in giving the finger to the white gaze, though. They ate watermelon with gusto whenever and wherever, laughing on the inside all the while — or on the outside, head thrown back Zora Neale Hurston-style. Some grew up in Caribbean or other countries where white colonialism had ruled, but they were free from the everyday indignities of Jim Crow. What white people thought just didn’t register with them.
Their confidence stung me a bit, even if their responses were not intended as rebukes. Apparently, I had not passed lessons in racial fortitude and carefree living in an unblushingly prejudiced society. More than a few pointed out that white people in the South are also great admirers of watermelon and fried chicken. “Fakers!” exclaimed one. A doctor friend from Louisiana wrote: “Trying to shame us for things they do too is the white supremacy way.” I found myself nodding and talking out loud to my computer.
All this I understood intellectually. But that telling pause and pivot, when I turned self-consciously from the melon and browsed the berries, lingered in my mind. I didn’t like the quiet, nearly undetectable creep of the white gaze. I asked myself if there were other places in my life where I practiced meaningless self-denial to be “middle-class respectable” and to not become a caricature incarnate. I came up with no answers, only the conclusion that one of racism’s superpowers is how it propagates illogical shame and projects it upon the undeserving.
After the fruit tray epiphany, I decided that the only way to go was self-induced exposure therapy. I would eat watermelon in public, in white company, in work settings, from roadside stands.
And I did, with no fanfare, for the first time at another work conference. I piled my plastic plate high with watermelon chunks and smiled, chatting with collaborators. I ignored the jump of my pulse. If anyone noted my race, my plate, and how I watched them like a TV for any hint of a reaction, I didn’t notice.
As I kept eating, I did notice how pink and juicy the watermelon was. Perhaps it was an exceptional late-summer melon, the kind to savor on the front porch. Or maybe the sublime taste was the heightened sensation of liberation in progress, of the maligned melon becoming my freedom fruit.
Cynthia R. Greenlee, PhD, is a North Carolina-based historian, journalist, and editor. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Longreads, Smithsonian, and Vice, among others. Find her on Twitter @CynthiaGreenlee.
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