Culture  /  First Person

Tell Me Why the Watermelon Grows

Throughout its botanical, cultural, and social history, the watermelon has been a vehicle for our ideas about community, survival, and what we owe the future.

My father, who was born in segregated Arkansas in the 1940s, would have grown up inundated by advertisements, postcards, films, and TV shows that depicted Black people as watermelon-eating buffoons of either the happy-go-lucky-and-ignorant or the thieving-and-conniving types. My mother, born in segregated Chicago during the same period, said she remembers being stung by a watermelon joke on a nightly TV variety show, maybe The Johnny Carson Show of the 1950s. Martin Luther King, Jr., remembered refusing to eat watermelon in mixed company when he was at seminary in Pennsylvania: “I didn’t want to be seen eating it because of the association in many people’s minds between Negroes and watermelon,” he told a journalist from Redbook in 1956. “It was silly, I know, but it shows how white prejudices can affect a Negro.”

And Dr. King was not alone. It was enough to make whole generations of Black people self-conscious about eating watermelon. Psyche Williams-Forson, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and the author of Eating While Black, said it is still common for people of a certain age to have reservations about eating watermelon—or, rather, to be seen eating watermelon. “I cite Black people who are absolutely, in some instances, adamant that they would not eat watermelon in public, unless it’s cut up in cubes or unless it’s served a very particular way,” she told me. 

On my latest visit to my parents’ house in Illinois at the tail end of the watermelon season, we bought a big melon in Beardstown, and my father did yeoman’s work cutting most of it into irregular cubes to stash in the refrigerator. The rest he cut into tiny wedges to eat right away. But even when presented with this, the most modest and daintiest wedge of rind-on watermelon, my mother will slice the flesh away with a knife and fork and cut it up before eating it. When I ask why she bothers, she just says that’s how she likes to do it. 

In Senegal, where I moved a decade ago, watermelons are a winter fruit, reaching peak ripeness in November or December when the weather cools, so I have started to associate them with the end of the year holidays. No Senegalese Christmas or New Year’s celebration at my mother-in-law’s house would be complete without one or two watermelons cut into manageable wedges so we can eat them directly from the rind. 

I wonder about these small differences between my husband’s family in Senegal where the watermelon is simply enjoyed, and my own family in the United States where the watermelon isn’t just a luscious fruit, but also a symbol of violence, a metaphorical weapon whose cut still stings and sometimes burns. 

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