Way of the Watermelon

Contrary to convenient belief, the divide in America is rooted more in how we debate than what we debate, and the powers that be want it that way.

What does it say to you that untold millions fervently believe that Trayvon Martin had a can of iced tea in his pocket, not the watermelon drink that was entered into evidence?

Anyone on the side of reason recognizes that Trayvon was indiscriminately conflated with race relations.

From the get-go, Arizona Iced Tea became the can of choice to blend right in with their imagery of innocence. To my surprise, it was the Sanford Police Department that originally misidentified the drink as “Arizona brand name tea.”

I would think that specificity would be paramount in collecting evidence.

That the media initially got it wrong based on the police report can be forgiven, but it’s inexcusable that they never corrected it. Accurately reporting on the watermelon cocktail presented two problems.

The first is that the racial stereotype of watermelon would be inextricably linked to the story. I doubt that most people know the origin of it — I had no idea until I looked into it.

Amazing what you can find out with just a few minutes of inquiry.

Understanding the source of issues is one of the driving principles behind this book, so a little history is in order. It turns out that watermelon was not just associated with African Americans — from William Black’s 2014 article How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope:

In the early modern European imagination, the typical watermelon-eater was an Italian or Arab peasant. The watermelon, noted a British officer stationed in Egypt in 1801, was “a poor Arab’s feast,” a meager substitute for a proper meal. In the port city of Rosetta he saw the locals eating watermelons “ravenously . . . as if afraid the passer-by was going to snatch them away,” and watermelon rinds littered the streets.

According to Black, the United States imported the stereotype — but at first it had no racial connotation.

And lo and behold, as a political ploy it took on a whole new life in the emancipation era.

Black goes on to explain that as an act of benevolence, slaves were often allowed to grow and sell watermelons. But doing so as free people “symbolized black self-sufficiency,” which was the last thing that southern whites wanted.

Well aware of the European attitude toward watermelon, the south implanted that ugly imagery onto those they felt were not ready for freedom:

[In Rosetta] the fruit symbolized many of the same qualities as it would in post-emancipation America: uncleanliness, because eating watermelon is so messy. Laziness, because growing watermelons is so easy, and it’s hard to eat watermelon and keep working — it’s a fruit you have to sit down and eat. Childishness, because watermelons are sweet, colorful, and devoid of much nutritional value. And unwanted public presence, because it’s hard to eat a watermelon by yourself.

There is a twisted irony in forcing people to work for you and then calling them lazy.