It's summer and the watermelons are everywhere. And for the first time in many years, I am buying and consuming watermelon whenever and wherever I please, without concern for who is watching. My new carefree approach to the luscious red fruit is due in large part to my 3-year-old son, who dearly loves watermelon.
There, I said it: My son loves watermelon. That doesn't seem that earth-shattering, does it? Are there children who don't love an ice-cold piece of watermelon after a summer day of play?
But for me, watermelon has never been just a summer treat. It has always carried the weight of racial stereotype. As an African-American woman and now mother, I have always worried about the image of watermelon.
The stereotype and caricatures featuring blacks eating watermelon - and the companion assumptions about the purported laziness, uncleanness, and mental inferiority of black children and adults - haunted every piece of the red fruit I consumed through childhood and my adult years.
Although I've never completely avoided watermelon, I always had rules about when, where, and how I would eat watermelon. Eat a big slice in public? No. Discreetly eat cubes of watermelon mixed with other fruit in a salad? Yes. Eat watermelon in front of co-workers (most often white)? No. Take watermelon as my offering to a communal dinner or brunch? Absolutely not.
Of course there were exceptions to my watermelon rules. Like the time a co-worker brought a whole watermelon to a party I hosted. She and almost everyone else at the party were white. I spent more time than I like to admit trying to figure out if she was making a statement by bringing the melon. In the end I decided the statement she made was just about the sweetness of the fruit, not about race.
I doubt her family knew anything about the racist caricatures of children eating watermelon slices that stretched their mouths, with exaggerated lips, from ear to ear. I think most people under 30, and many under 40, either haven't heard of such stereotypes or think of them as ancient history. In my family, such things were not forgotten but remembered and passed on as cautionary tales about how demeaning ideas about the descendants of African slaves persist.
Recent events have made me think about those images and what impact they have on our culture. Earlier this summer the Mexican Postal Service released a series of stamps featuring the image of Memin Pinguin, a black comic book character with exaggerated lips and a disheartening similarity to the pickaninny images of the Jim Crow era in the US. None of the five stamps shows him eating watermelon, but they reminded me of other racist images. That was followed by news that Parks Department in Miami had scheduled a ghetto-style talent show and watermelon-eating contest for a summer camp picnic. I began to wonder whether or not we had really moved beyond those old stereotypes.
Those kinds of incidents are the reason I had formed rules about eating watermelon. My system mostly held up until my son was old enough to eat whole fruit. He favored watermelon - so much so that he would lean out of my arms to grab a piece as we walked by a serving table.
Still, he is too young to understand the history. He does not know what a pickaninny is - or a stereotype, for that matter. But he knows what a seedless watermelon is. At first I wanted to keep him from eating watermelon in public, but I realized that was pointless and unfair to him. Why should I - why should we - avoid something we enjoy just because of the possibility of someone else's ignorance?
It is, after all, only a piece of fruit - originally from Africa and now a part of American culture. Though I want to make sure my children are not adversely affected by stereotypes and assumptions based on race, I also want them to just be. Just be human, American, and African-American. In spite of the controversies this summer, I hope we are still making progress in that direction.
I have decided to let whoever sees us react as they may. And to let my family eat watermelon now and then. We are not stereotypes and will not be bound by them.