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"Watermelon Man"
--composer Melvin Van Peebles


Does a famous poet eat watermelon?
Excuse me, ask me something easy.
I have seen farmhands with their faces in fried catfish on a Monday morning.

And the Japanese, two-legged like us,
The Japanese bring slices of watermelon into pictures.
The black seeds make oval polka dots on the pink meat.

Why do I always think of niggers and buck-and-wing dancing whenever I see watermelon?

Summer mornings on the docks I walk among bushel peach baskets piled ten feet high.
Summer mornings I smell new wood and the river wind along with peaches.
I listen to the steamboat whistle hong-honging, hong-honging across the town.
And once I saw a teameo straddling a street with a hayrack load of melons.

--Carl Sandburg, "Potato Blossom Songs & Jigs, Cornhuskers, 1918


I BELONGED to the church,
And to the party of prohibition;
And the villagers thought I died of eating watermelon.
In truth I had cirrhosis of the liver,
For every noon for thirty years,
I slipped behind the prescription partition
In Trainorís drug store
And poured a generous drink
From the bottle marked
Spiritus frumenti.
--The spirit of "Deacon Taylor" speaking from Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology, 1916

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Watermelon

(Citrulus lanatus


This crisp sweet fruit is native to Africa and was cultivated in Egypt in prehistory. Although it spread quickly eastward to lands around the Mediterranean sea and to India, it was not known, apparently, by either the ancient Greeks or Romans. Ultimately watermelons were introduced to Europe by Moors during their invasion of Spain--but it never became a popular fruit.

By contrast, they reached China somewhere between the 10th and 12th century, where they were well regarded such that today China, with Turkey, is one of the leading world producers of watermelons.

Then, when watermelons made the tragic voyage to America on slave ships in the 17th century, they were welcomed with open arms--by South Americans, North American Indians, and white settlers alike. They are documented to have been cultivated in New England in 1629. Even so, I remember reading a book many years ago about Bowling Green, Kentucky, during the time of the Civil War, that talked about how a prideful farmer showed off at a community fair with watermelons he'd carefully cultivated in secret after acquiring seeds "east"--and how furious he was when his fellow farmers quickly scooped up the seeds they'd spit out to grow their own. That was over 200 years later...and they'd only just reached Kentucky?!

In any event, watermelon became associated with America's black slaves--and ultimately became a stereotype, most offensively as a wonderfully happy black boy in ragged clothes and straw hat eating a slice of watermelon. Witness Sandburg's Cornhusker poem cited on the left. It was this stereotype that Director Melvin Van Peebles exploited in his 1970 film "Watermelon Man," where a bigotted white man wakes up one morning to find himself black...and to discover all that that meant, to include running into jerks like himself. Van Peebles also composed the original music, including its signature song "Watermelon Man" that has become a standard in jazz arrangements.

Besides the juiciness of watermelon's red flesh--which remains a non-polluted water source in developing nations--its tough rind is pickled as a delicacy. And its black seeds, beloved by the Chinese as a snack after scorching off the outer coat, form the basis of Egusi soup, a national dish in Nigeria. Thus in a 2/99 African News article, Yinka Ijabiya reports rather tongue-in-cheek that Clive Burton, busy Regional Director of the British Council for West Africa, has had "quite a box of excitement" in his year on the job, including the showing of silly films, a show or two (dwarfed by the French Cultural Center), and his own personal liking of egusi soup.