The curious case of watermelon - Joel Hall

In America, black people have always had a precarious relationship with watermelon, more so than any other fruit or vegetable I can think of.

While I love watermelon, and think it is an excellent summer food, I am instantly suspicious whenever it is offered to me.

The only place I have lived where I had a front porch was my childhood home in State College, Pa. We weren't allowed to eat much on that porch, but I can remember very specifically never being allowed to eat watermelon out there, in full view of the public.

As a child, I never questioned my parents about this, because I was familiar with the negative images and stereotypes associated with black people and watermelon. I was one of the lucky children with a lot of books and reading material at home from the early 20th century, written at a time when the words "Negro" and "mulatto" were considered polite descriptors.

I was very familiar with the picture advertising "Picaninny Freeze," a popular frozen treat of the early South. The advertisement featured a picaninny - one of the most classic black archetypes - with unkempt hair, bulging eyes, candy apple-red lips, and a huge slice of watermelon, as large as the character's head.

In the 1980s, the early Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, featuring stereotypes of blacks, Asians, Germans, and Jews, were still acceptable for Saturday morning viewing, so by the age of five, I had already seen my fair share of banjo-playing sambos and big, fat, black mammies. As a child, however, the picaninny character was particularly hurtful.

The picaninny was easily dispensable, often becoming a snack for alligators, or meeting some other unfortunate end. Whenever I saw the picaninnies, there were always a lot of them, insinuating that their parents were unfit and that their children were a drain on society's resources.

I noticed that the picaninny could often be seen carrying around a slice of watermelon. Because of that stereotype and my desire not to portray stereotypes, I could remember going to picnics and being offended when offered watermelon by someone who didn't look like me. I wouldn't have been caught dead eating watermelon in front of my classmates.

While I've always liked watermelon, only in recent years have I been able to let my guard down and begin to enjoy watermelon like every other American. Those early black archetypes, however, can still generate negative feelings, even though watermelon itself is harmless.

I am sure my conflicted relationship with watermelon is not a unique American experience. That's the reason why I was personally offended when Dean Grose, the mayor of Los Alamitos, Calif., sent out an e-mail with a picture superimposing a watermelon patch on the front lawn of the White House.

Grose announced this week that he would be resigning, but from what he has said to the media so far, I believe he has yet to realize why a picture of that nature would inspire outrage.

With a black president in the White House, there is bound to be some hypersensitivity about perceived racial insults aimed at the president. However, anyone who grew up when cartoons only aired in movie theaters, and on Saturday mornings, can understand why a patch full of watermelons on the lawn of the first black president would be offensive.

I think as we move into this new frontier of racial opportunities, it is also going to require new levels of sensitivity, particularly on the part of our elected officials. It may require us to study our past a little more, and unless we do, incidents like this will keep happening.

One day, I hope to live in a country where we can all eat watermelon and not feel self conscious about it. However, a lot of understanding will be required on the part of everybody to get us there.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at: jhall@news-daily.com.