‘The Southern Negro in no particular more palpably exhibits his epicurean tastes than in his excessive fondness for watermelons. The juvenile freedman is especially intense in his partiality for that refreshing fruit,” read one of the illustrated newspapers of the 19th century.
It was common then for early newspapers to make fun of blacks eating watermelon because it suggested that they were either lazy, messy or not prepared to be free men and women. The 1915 movie “The Birth of a Nation” also exemplified that notion.
That film featured a watermelon feast where slave masters basically urged their slaves to take a break and eat some watermelon. In other instances throughout history, slave masters entertained themselves by watching blacks eat watermelon.
Like other cultural symbols that speak to an ugly era in history — reflected in the swastika and torches on full display during the recent racially inflamed demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia — watermelon has come to represent for blacks, one of the most racist tropes in the American experience.
And so many were irked when a 41-year-old white probationary Detroit firefighter, Robert Pattison, brought a watermelon wrapped in a pink bow as a gift to the Engine 55 station, where the majority of the firefighters are black.
“I have never seen a watermelon brought as a gift in my 32 years as a firefighter in this department. We agreed with the commissioner for doing the right thing by letting him go. This is not the time for anything like this,” said Darrell Freeman, president of the black firefighters association, the Phoenix of the Detroit Fire Department.
“With all the stuff going on around our country involving racism, we sometimes have to stop and think about what we do. This shows we still have a long way to go with race relations.”
Freeman, whose group was founded after the 1967 Detroit racial unrest, said the idea of bringing a watermelon to work, which historically stood as a repugnant symbol that captures a dreadful experience for blacks during and after slavery “just opened a can of worms for us here at the department.”
In news reports, Pattison said he did not mean to offend anyone with his gift.
But Eric Jones, the fire commissioner, in an email said he stands by his decision to let Pattison go after the Sept. 30 incident.
“There is zero tolerance for discriminatory behavior inside the Detroit Fire Department. After a thorough investigation, it was determined that the best course of action was to terminate the employment of this probationary employee,” Jones said.
Former Detroit NAACP executive director Heaster Wheeler, who worked for 14 years as a firefighter and left in 1991, welcomed the decision.
“What happened is unfortunate,” Wheeler said. “I could not walk into a predominantly Jewish experience and give a gift of a swastika and play dumb. You know what the swastika stands for."
Wheeler said under the current national racial climate, it is hard for anyone to claim ignorance of replicas of hate that are now part of regular mainstream conversations and debates.
“The guys who were marching in Charlottesville knew they were holding symbols of hatred,” Wheeler said. “There is too much blood continuing to flow in the streets of America over these symbols. I thought the leadership of the department was judicious in the way it tackled this situation."
Wheeler added, “It is not OK to take watermelon to work. This is a teachable moment where we could learn from this action.”
But what if Pattison did not mean to suggest anything repulsive with his gift?
We cannot know what is in Pattison’s heart. We have no evidence to suggest that he is a racist.
All we can judge him by is the gift that he selected to take to a majority black-staffed fire station. That gift is no sign of endearment for blacks and has never been a symbol of pride. It has been just the opposite.
Perhaps this is a teachable moment for all of us in dealing with offensive symbols and to learn about the black experience as well as other experiences that make this a rainbow nation to understand why certain things are deemed offensive.
After all, if Pattison truly believed in his heart that bringing watermelon was just like taking cake or strawberries to work as a gift, he needs some schooling on the legacy of racism and the contradictions buried in our democratic experiment.
He needs to know that not everyone shares the view of a watermelon as a harmless gift. Because in this diverse nation, we all see the world through our own experiences. Educating each other is one way to break down stereotypes. Such uninformed actions only reinforce decades of cultural insults.
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