Just as the undesirable leftovers of farm animals, such as pig intestines and feet, are linked to the slave diet, watermelon is the food most associated with the 19th and 20th century depictions of blacks as lazy simpletons…The record of watermelon’s role in racism is well-chronicled. As Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute fashioned it, “since the earliest days of plantation slavery, the caricature of the dark-skinned black child, his too-red lips stretched to grotesque extremes as they opened to chomp down on watermelon, was a staple of racism’s diet. Over time, the watermelon became a symbol of the broader denigration of black people.”
– Theodore Johnson, “African Americans and the Watermelon Stereotype”
You can be a good person but still be racist.
You can be progressive and believe every human being has the right to be respected but still be racist.
You can vote for a half Kenyan president,
read a book by a chinese author,
watch Bollywood films,
eat Thai food,
date a mexican girl
but still be
r a c i s t.
“I told you. I told Jackie she’s going to win and I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink into your mind. And I said, I said you have to put that in a book, and she said you put it in a book, and I said I’m only writing a book about a black girl who’s allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama saying this guy is okay. This guy is fine.”
– Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events)
This guy is fine. He didn’t mean it. It was all in good fun. They’re colleagues — maybe even friends! — so they can joke around. Joke around with the racial stereotype. Kick it to each other like old pals because it doesn’t mean anything anymore, remember? When it’s over, he can walk away. Go to sleep. Maybe dream a sweet dream. She’ll be tugging that ball with her. It’s getting bigger as the other well meaning folks walk by — the friends, the colleagues, the good intentions, malice-less — and maybe she’ll have a good night’s sleep. Maybe the ball won’t be too big and take up space. In the room. In her head. Maybe the trophy and her words can block it out for a time. Maybe.
But what of that brown girl? She dreams of a burden-less victory. She dreams of no more people who are okay or fine.
*You can see the moment of Handler’s comment during the 2014 National Book Awards here at 40:03. Congratulations to Jacqueline Woodson on her win for Brown Girl Dreaming under Young People’s Literature.