Most people probably can't tell you where they were the first time they ate watermelon in public. I can.
I was 35 years old, in the south of France. I was living in Milan at the time, but I'd gone to Cannes for an advertising festival (one of the wonderful perks that came with my job). In between looking at hours of commercials from all over the world, I had some time to explore the beaches and sample the food at the many shorefront restaurants.
So there I am one sizzling afternoon, lunching with my friend Antonio. It is so hot you can hear the heat. The meal is going swimmingly until the waiter rattles off the dessert selections. I understand all but the last—pastèque. "It's that, over there," Antonio says, pointing. I follow his eyes, and there it is, juicy-red and refreshing-looking—a great big slice of watermelon.
Suddenly I am ten years old, sitting in our old Brooklyn kitchen listening to a conversation between my mother and her cousin Bobby. "June," he says, "You know why I don't eat watermelon? Because years ago, whenever summer rolled around, they'd find the darkest kid in town, give him a pair of new overalls and a big ole slice of watermelon, and tell him to bite into it and grin. They'd hang that poster everywhere."
My mother nods.
Negative images of happy, lip-smacking blacks eating generous portions of watermelon date back to the 19th century. You can still find old fruit-crate labels with pictures like that. There were even movies with titles like The Pickaninnies and the Watermelons.
Okay. I'm thinking too much. I'm annoyed. I want dessert. I want some watermelon. But first I have to dig through a few hundred years of ignorance—back to that first fool with a capacity to draw who saw a couple of slaves enjoying a piece of watermelon. It wasn't a crime; the fruit was plentiful and cheap. But it became something to ridicule, something that would keep the workers in their place by turning them into caricatures. He drew their lips huge and red. Splashed silly wide grins across their faces and made it so the whites of their eyes practically glowed in the dark. He gave the boys short, kinky hair; the girls, dozens of tiny braids. And he showed them all slurping up the luscious fruit and spitting out those seeds like it was nothing.
My taste buds are screaming, "Waah-tee-mel-lon!"—recalling the obbligato of the guys on the horse-drawn wagons that used to lumber though our Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood laden with watermelons. There would always be one sliced open so you could see its brilliant reds and deep pinks, its glistening jet-black seeds.
We used to eat a lot of watermelon. In fact, there was probably a piece on the table the day my cousin told us how he really felt about the fruit. But that was years ago. Right now I'm in the south of France, and all I want to do is order my dessert. It's not the watermelon that's the enemy, but the image that goes with it. If I eat it, will I be transformed from a well-dressed career woman with slicked-back hair into—quelle horreur!—a grinning pickaninny?
I throw the politics of being black into my shopping cart, too. A fancy market in my Manhattan neighborhood offers two types of watermelon—classic red and contemporary yellow. I've bought the yellow kind several times: It takes the stigma off the black woman making her way through the aisles pushing an enormous wedge of watermelon. But I buy classic red at the big, affordable supermarket, where the environment is less pretentious and so am I.
Blacks aren't the only people who have watermelon moments. A white acquaintance confessed that he'd decided against serving watermelon at a dinner party because he was worried about insulting his one black guest. Another white friend remarked, "That's not very PC" when I ordered a watermelon Martini at a bar one night.
The waiter turns from Antonio to me. "And what can I get you, mademoiselle?"
I give the beach a once-over. I don't spot anybody I know. And everyone looks European. I assume the entire beach won't turn around pointing their fingers and laughing at me. "I'll take the watermelon, please."
There's no reaction from Antonio, from the waiter, from anybody on the beach. My fruit arrives, accompanied by a silver knife and fork. I smile at Antonio. He smiles back. And then, at the age of 35, I dig into my watermelon with the whole world looking on. And it tastes fantastic.