A private girls' school in Northern California wanted to incorporate Black History Month into lunch time, so it decided to serve fried chicken, watermelon, and cornbread. As the Associated Press reports, school officials are apologizing because that was a really, really horrible idea. The school's principal wrote a letter to parents, who were offended, and said the school doesn't "perpetrate racial stereotypes." Unfortunately, that's exactly what they did.
In honor of Black History Month, we'd like to explain exactly why your fried chicken and watermelon lunch is ill-advised, with the hope that people will find better ways to honor this month.
Why is fried chicken racist?
Fried chicken isn't racist. Eating fried chicken isn't racist. A lot of people like fried chicken, and some happen to be black. In 2010, a black chef at NBC served fried chicken and collard greens in honor of Black History Month. QuestLove was not impressed, and stirred up a Twitter storm when he tweeted the picture. “I don’t understand at all. It’s not trying to offend anybody and it’s not trying to suggest that that’s all that African-Americans eat. It’s just a good meal,” the chef, Leslie Calhoun, told The Grio, adding, “I thought it would go over well.” It did not.
The problem stems from the way fried chicken is associated with black people, and the historical baggage that comes with it. The same way blackface recalls minstrel shows, the "black people love fried chicken" image recalls negative portrayals of black people. According to Claire Schmidt at the University of Missouri, it started with Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film on the founding of Ku Klux Klan. In one scene:
[A] group of actors portraying shiftless black elected officials acting rowdy and crudely in a legislative hall. (The message to the audience: These are the dangers of letting blacks vote.) Some of the legislators are shown drinking. Others had their feet kicked up on their desks. And one of them was very ostentatiously eating fried chicken.
"That image really solidified the way white people thought of black people and fried chicken," Schmidt said.
And in case you're tempted to think that sort of portrayal is a thing of the past, like minstrel shows, think back to what professional golfer Sergio Garcia said to his nemesis, Tiger Woods, when asked if he'd ever invite Woods to dinner. "We'll have him 'round every night," Garcia said. "We will serve fried chicken." Woods was not amused. When Republican Colorado State Sen. Vicki Marble associated diabetes and mortality rates with barbecue and chicken, even the Colorado GOP had to take a step back.
Why is watermelon racist?
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.
Remnants of the connection between shiftless, lazy blacks, and watermelon still remain today. You know the song the ice cream man plays (not "Pop Goes the Weasel")? Well, the original version, from 1916, is titled "Nigger Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!" And again, you might say to yourself "Well, what does that have to do with post-racial America?" Well ...
Exhibit A—Urban Dictionary:
Exhibit B—This racist message board:
Niggers are attracted to bright colors and large amounts of sugar, not unlike their cousins who swing from trees.
Niggers get obsessed by trivial pleasures like watermelon, fried chicken and bling because it stimulates a vesitigal [sic] part of their primitive jungle brains
Exhibit C—This owner's manual, via a White Power website:
Experienced nigger owners sometimes push watermelon slices through the bars of the nigger cage at the end of the day as a treat, but only if all niggers have worked well and nothing has been stolen that day.
So, no, a slice of watermelon isn't racist in and of itself. But when people talk about black people loving watermelon, they're talking about a lot more than food. They're talking about a stereotype with a lot of racist history—history still embraced by some of the worst people on the internet. History is important—any Black History Month celebration that ignores the experiences and portrayals of black people in this country is shallow at best. If you want to acknowledge black history this month, learn it.
This post previously appeared on The Wire.