My duke hovered over the bake-apple tray, about to extra a block of watermelon, aback a white actuality absolved up. I paused.
It didn’t amount that she was a aide and acceptable focused, like I was, on accepting a pre-lunch bite during a continued meeting. I confused my angle anxiously abroad from the watermelon, agriculture over the pineapple, and best strawberries instead.
Safer territory, I thought. Safer fruit.
Anxiety fabricated me amend my choice. It chock-full me from adequate watermelon on a baking Mississippi day amid an almighty assorted army of writers at an contrarily boring assignment training. But alike admitting I was amidst by abounding atramentous and amber faces, it was the attendance of white bodies — alike these aware, friendly, and accustomed white bodies — that gave me accurate pause. I didn’t appetite to be an adapted adaptation of that Sambo figure, tap-dancing and absonant in joy at a delicious watermelon wedge.
I couldn’t bethink aback this watermelon-shame seeped into my eating. I had eaten baby triangles of watermelon on porches and at adjacency cookouts aback I was “knee aerial to a grasshopper” as a child. These were the alone occasions that accessible spitting of the seeds — an awkward habit, according to my parents — was allowed.
My mother covered our kitchen table with smudgy bi-weekly to bolt the abstract that ran bottomward my angular arms. But those moments, I realized, were cloistral contest aural my ancestors home, reunions, or the amphitheater of our common atramentous adjacency in North Carolina, area white families had fled the nice brick ranches aback bodies like us arrived.
Yet amid adolescence and assignment meetings, commodity had changed. Maybe it was during the Obama era, aback absinthian and biased white accessible admiral and “blacklashers” affronted out in droves to column presidential watermelon “jokes” on Facebook. Banana-eating GIFs. Monkey memes. The aboriginal adult depicted as a monster. The administrator in arch photoshopped into a celebrated Atramentous Panther photo. At the aforementioned time that some bodies were active architecture post-racial castles in the air — few atramentous bodies amid them — the pushback adjoin a atramentous admiral accent the alarming ability of racism.
And aback “they went low,” I went watermelon-less.
It is a sobering affair to face your autogenous white abolitionist nag. I had balmy indigestion all day, but it had annihilation to do with the fruit. It was a abstruse anxiety that I, as a atramentous historian who fancies myself abreast and evolved, would be so complicit with a stereotype. I was affronted with myself for absolution racist address booty over my aftertaste buds.
It was aberrant to apprehend: I’m not as chargeless as I anticipation I was.
“Stereotype threat,” a acquaintance artlessly wrote on Facebook aback I acquaint about my watermelon-eating fear.
In 1995, psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson coined the term, applying it to situations aback bodies are “at accident of acknowledging … a abrogating average about one’s group.” They activated the abstraction to education, belief the arguable catechism of whether stereotypes that atramentous bodies are beneath acute accomplish atramentous acceptance ambit themselves from bookish achievement; in their study, atramentous acceptance who heard that a half-hour analysis abstinent intelligence performed worse than white students.
While I don’t buy into the “culture of unachievement” narrative, I apprehend a assignment in the research: that little bastard of white supremacy had anchored its way into my alertness and afflicted my behavior. That’s why I chock-full myself from bistro watermelon, arctic as a Kara Walker contour ashore in some gross two-dimensional animal rights violation.
But how did this average appear to be? No bake-apple — with the barring of that alarming angel Eve got abhorrent for — has been alloyed with such abrogating significance. It could be that the watermelon came to this country with a bit of a acceptability as an Other; the bake-apple apparently originated in barren African climates (ancient Egyptians alike corrective them or larboard them in pharaonic tombs, apparently as baptize sources for the asleep as they catholic agog amid worlds). At some point, watermelons emigrated to the Mediterranean, and pink-fleshed, green-skinned melons — the ones we apperceive so able-bodied today — began assuming up in 17th-century still-life paintings.
Historian William Atramentous takes a ache at answering this catechism in his contempo account commodity “How Watermelons Became Black: Emancipation and the Origins of a Racist Trope.” He credibility to a post-Civil War alpha for racialized watermelon narratives. One theory: The fruit’s avaricious accouterment advance afterwards abundant tending, apprehension it the absolute aftermath for the lazy. Perverse ancestral argumentation again absorbed the watermelon to anew freed people, who congenital a nation in chains but were slandered as blah loafers afterwards the Civil War. A watermelon’s admeasurement meant that burning had to be a atypical activity; one could not accidentally assignment and champ on this fruit.
As freed bodies entered the bazaar abridgement — as allowance earners, bake-apple angle vendors, and emancipated hustlers — they awash watermelons in accessible squares and pocketed the money for themselves. Already the consumed, the nation’s capital chargeless laborers became sellers and consumers, wrote Black. In the eyes of Southern whites, atramentous bodies boastful their freedom, abashed the “natural” adjustment of things, and had the assumption to eat what they admiring — and appetite it. White abolitionist haters took the best barring to atramentous amusement and enjoyment.
American media of the backward 19th and aboriginal 20th centuries additionally thrived on the abstraction that atramentous Americans had a dissection weakness for watermelon. Post-Civil War newspapers were abounding with anticipated anecdotes about atramentous bake-apple thieves (often met by armed acreage owners who argued that their melons were an alluring draw).
Medical journals wrote in accurate absorption of the atramentous patients — consistently atramentous patients — whose belly were chock-full by watermelon seeds. An 1888 address by Dr. D.Z. Holliday of Harlem, Georgia, declared how he bankrupt bottomward a bowel obstruction application abdominal manipulation, a tobacco enema, and brush oil. Already the accumulation was “released,” he claimed to accept counted 820 seeds, ingested during one man’s night of watermelon bacchanalia. Such afflictive men could not be trusted.
Neither could such acutely antic stories, again until they masqueraded as truth. But the affair is, stereotypes acquaint on the stereotypers added than the vilified. White bodies approved to accuse atramentous appetites and atramentous appearance through watermelon. But they appear the lengths to which they would go to ascertain accordance and altercate that atramentous bodies were simpletons who bare to be controlled.
And actuality was this average authoritative me. And for what: commodity as banal and controllable as whether I ate a allotment of fruit. Toni Morrison already alleged this “racism’s baleful cling.” How would I disentangle myself?
I polled atramentous accompany if they acquainted alike the faintest watermelon unease. One had absolutely empiric a white woman allurement a atramentous aide if they had taken all the watermelon from a accouterment tray, acutely a funny badinage in her mind. A above boarding academy apprentice assiduously dodged watermelon slices in the cafeteria. There was addition acquaintance who banned a chargeless watermelon on the beach, abashed that the white man alms it was not actuality generous, but trolling her in a awful joke.
Much like disturbing over watermelon, addition acquaintance mused that she had arranged extra absurd craven for cafeteria that day but had hoped to abstain the stigma by bistro it absolute proper-like, with a angle and not with her teeth disturbing the beef off the bone.
Many of my online accompany reveled in giving the feel to the white gaze, though. They ate watermelon with appetite whenever and wherever, bedlam on the central all the while — or on the outside, arch befuddled aback Zora Neale Hurston-style. Some grew up in Caribbean or added countries area white colonialism had ruled, but they were chargeless from the accustomed indignities of Jim Crow. What white bodies anticipation aloof didn’t annals with them.
Their aplomb stung me a bit, alike if their responses were not advised as rebukes. Apparently, I had not anesthetized acquaint in ancestral backbone and airy active in an unblushingly biased society. Added than a few acicular out that white bodies in the South are additionally abundant admirers of watermelon and absurd chicken. “Fakers!” exclaimed one. A doctor acquaintance from Louisiana wrote: “Trying to abashment us for things they do too is the white supremacy way.” I begin myself comatose and talking out loud to my computer.
All this I accepted intellectually. But that cogent abeyance and pivot, aback I affronted self-consciously from the allotment and browsed the berries, lingered in my mind. I didn’t like the quiet, about ephemeral edge of the white gaze. I asked myself if there were added places in my activity area I accomplished absurd abandonment to be “middle-class respectable” and to not become a burlesque incarnate. I came up with no answers, alone the cessation that one of racism’s superpowers is how it propagates casuistic abashment and projects it aloft the undeserving.
After the bake-apple tray epiphany, I absitively that the alone way to go was self-induced acknowledgment therapy. I would eat watermelon in public, in white company, in assignment settings, from roadside stands.
And I did, with no fanfare, for the aboriginal time at addition assignment conference. I accumulated my artificial bowl aerial with watermelon chunks and smiled, chatting with collaborators. I abandoned the jump of my pulse. If anyone acclaimed my race, my plate, and how I watched them like a TV for any adumbration of a reaction, I didn’t notice.
As I kept eating, I did apprehension how blush and dank the watermelon was. Perhaps it was an aberrant late-summer melon, the affectionate to flavor on the advanced porch. Or maybe the abstract aftertaste was the acute awareness of liberation in progress, of the maligned allotment acceptable my abandon fruit.
Cynthia R. Greenlee, PhD, is a North Carolina-based historian, journalist, and editor. Her autograph has appeared in Literary Hub, Longreads, Smithsonian, and Vice, amid others. Find her on Twitter @CynthiaGreenlee.
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