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James T. Harris

The Watermelon Man

The Watermelon Man

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The Watermelon Man

Watermelon, fried chicken and Obama…three stereotypical staples of the African American diet. All of them tasty, but only one of them good for you. Sort of like…oops! Was that racist?

Before you label me Uncle Tom or a sell-out, know this…I LOVE two out of three: fried chicken and watermelon (in that order). Obama? I wouldn't say "love."

This picture was sent to me by a friend who was driving through Detroit last week. The mural on the building shocked him. He thought it was racist. I laughed because I found the juxtaposition to be typical.

Is the side of this building racist? It might depend on our world view -- or how easily offended you are.

Those who see racism everywhere (who are always looking for it), will probably see it here, as well. If you have a chip on your shoulder and you want to blame everyone else for the way your life is, than racism is always available (if you're a minority...or even if you're not). Where others see racism, I try to see opportunity… to educate, to learn or to discuss. Mostly though, it's all about the culture and values that we choose to embrace. That's what shapes our perception of things.

I am a radio talk show host and a native Milwaukeean, presently residing in Tucson, Arizona. My location has changed but the culture is the same: black folks love Obama and all things ethnic, but many choose to neglect the betterment of the race. Some things just can’t be seen together: e.g., watermelon, fried chicken and Barack Obama.

It’s the culture, stupid.

In the summer of 1980, my sister and I found ourselves enjoying Milwaukee’s lakefront Summerfest festival. It was July 3, the night of Milwaukee’s big fireworks event. Thousands of people were there. It was a very hot day, and I couldn’t wait for the sun to go down. To pass the time my sister and I took turns keeping the watch. She would wander off for an hour or so then it would be my turn. Right in the middle of a changing of the guard, it happened. It was like a scene from a movie. For me, the movie was a comedy, for my sister, a horror show. Over the horizon, through a sea of white, sun-tanning bodies, appeared a brotha…with a gigantic fro…carrying a watermelon (the size of Kansas) on his shoulder. As the brotha’s fro swayed in the breeze, his watermelon danced with the rhythm of the beat as he stepped over bodies in search of a spot to claim. The whole scene played out in slow motion… My sister and I both turned to look at each other, our mouths agape.

 My gaping mouth was barely holding back my impending laughter. Hers was silent in shock and embarrassment.

I could feel her tension, “Please…not, here! Don’t come here!” I must admit that in that moment thirty years ago, I did feel self-conscience, but I imagine that was because I was young and – at the time – unwittingly part of a collective mindset… a child on the liberal plantation. My political awakening and subsequent emancipation were still a few years off. But even then, while my sister felt shame, I saw something liberating in the Watermelon man.

Here was a black man, with a watermelon, marching through a sea of white people without a care in the world. Not self-consciousness, no chip on his shoulder, no racial responsibilities. He was free…as free as many of German ancestry wearing lederhosen or a Chinese woman carrying eggrolls. Here was a black man who was enjoying being black – with a delicious melon of goodness on his shoulder for all to see. Why should he have been ashamed?! Everyone else should have been ashamed for NOT having something so righteous!

When I later told the story to other Americans of African descent, they felt the same levels of shame and embarrassment as my sister did. Some were outraged. But on that hot summer day, neither the brotha with the melon nor the people around him were that bothered. Once again, why should they have been?

The only reason to be ashamed of carrying delicious fruit is because many of us come out of a deliciously deceptive culture. It’s a culture that puts symbolism above substance. One that would rather have an unemployed man run around town and get rejected from every job opening than to tell him to pull up his pants.

Just ask the actor, Samuel L. Jackson, why he voted for the watermelon man. Last week, he admitted to the public that he only voted for Obama because he’s black! Have you heard Maxine Waters, (D. California) lately? She thinks white Republicans are demons. Or talk to many black Obama supporters. Ask them their reasons for support – it inevitably comes down to shallow, skin-deep social pressure wrapped in some inane notion of “social justice.” Skin color over content of character.


The symbolism of the ‘08 campaign has fallen to the floor, and now Hope and Change aren’t enough to pick up the pieces. Nevertheless, amidst astronomical unemployment for Americans of African descent, group-think still gets its way. So much so that any brotha who even questions voting for Obama is guilty of joining the white race. Do Hispanics get thrown out of their race for being conservative? Do Americans of Asian descent? Of course not! And they eat and enjoy whatever they damn well please, too!

Yet, the very people who will find offense with a super watermelon sale sharing the same wall with Hope and Change, feel no shame that under President Barack Obama, Hope and Change has accelerated the culture of death and dependency for millions of blacks in cities like
 Detroit, New York, Milwaukee, Chicago and Atlanta.

It’s the culture, stupid. That’s what needs to be addressed. That’s why a boy who grew up in Indonesia and was raised in a completely white environment can manage to convince the world that he knows what’s best for every American, as well as Americans of African descent. We are that shallow. We are that easily swayed. We devour symbolism and turn our backs on substance.

If only Americans of African descent would see that man on the lakefront as an example to follow, rather than someone to turn their faces from. He knows who he is. He knows what he likes. He thinks what he wants, and he knows where he’s going – even if he has to navigate around a bunch of people to get there.

Why can’t everyone?

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