"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Fried Chicken and Watermelon: Racism Through Food in America

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fried Chicken and Watermelon: Racism Through Food in America

By Farooq A. Kperogi

In the two-part series I did titled “Eighteenth-century racism in twenty-first America,” I cited a racist picture of Obama posted on the Facebook fan page of the Republican Party.

The picture shows Obama eating fried chicken with the caption, “Miscegenation [that is, interracial marriage, which Obama is a product of] is a CRIME against American values. Repeal Loving v. Virginia [that is, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized interracial marriage].”

I then added that fried chickens are “a popular unflattering stereotype of black people here.” Some of my Nigerian readers who are not familiar with what I call America’s culinary racism were confused. What is racist about fried chicken? In what ways does it evoke negative associations with black people? The best question, I think, was this: “Is it the same chicken that is called kaza in Hausa? Is… there more to it than the taste and nutritive value of the chicken?”

Yes, it is the same chicken that is an occasional meat for special occasions in much of Africa.

No one knows for sure how the stereotype of black people as a chicken-eating race grew and flowered in America’s popular culture. But what is certain is that chicken is very cheap here and is considered "junk." During slavery, fried chicken—along with chitlings (that is, intestines of pigs prepared as food)— was the cheapest source of protein for poor blacks. So, over time, chicken became stereotyped as black people's favorite meat.

Another gastronomic stereotype of black people is that they are guzzlers of watermelon, the large roundish melon with a hard green rind and sweet watery red or occasionally yellowish pulp, believed to be native to Africa. It has been stereotyped as the black American fruit, not because its origins are traceable to Africa but perhaps because it was traditionally the cheapest source of natural vitamins for black people.

The Authentic History Center, which chronicles interesting historical facts about American popular culture, says the notion of black Americans as chicken-eating, watermelon-gulping sambos (a racially demeaning term for black people) “may have begun as Southern stereotypes and then evolved into Black stereotypes. It's also possible that these evolved out of American slavery. Numerous primary sources chronicle Black resistance to slavery through ‘silent sabotage,’ or, day-to-day acts of resistance. Stealing from the master was one example. It seems logical that, given that food would be among the most desirable of items a slave would pilfer, and chickens and watermelons would have been commonly available.”

Today, in American popular culture, the most effortless and most effective way to make a racist caricature of black people without saying a word is to draw images of fried chicken and watermelon. In other words, in American pop culture, fried chicken and watermelon equal black America.

For instance, in October 2008, during the last presidential campaigns, a local Californian Republican Party women’s club produced an e-newsletter warning that if Obama got elected as president his face would appear on food stamps (a government-issued welfare package which comes in the form of stamps and given to low-income, usually black, people; it can be used in exchange for food at many grocery stores across the country), rather than on dollar bills like other presidents.

It then included a picture of “Obama Bucks” — a fake $10 bill with Obama surrounded by fried chicken, watermelon, Kentucky Fried Chicken (a chain fast-food chicken restaurant now called KFC), etc. The image provoked mass outrage.

Similarly, in February 2009, the mayor of a small California town caused a stir when he sent out an e-mail picture depicting the White House lawn planted with watermelons under the title, "No Easter egg hunt this year." The implication is that with Obama as the president of America, the White House has now been “blackened” and defamiliarized. The mayor resigned in the wake of the massive backlash that the picture engendered.

But this is all bunkum because today, everybody—white, black, rich, poor—eats fried chicken and some watermelon. The fact, though, is that however much we might resent it, fried chicken and watermelon have become the main stuff of the stereotypical caricatures of black people.

When I first came to this country, I had been blissfully ignorant of this stereotype. So I would often order fried chickens from restaurants without the slightest consciousness that I was feeding a racial stereotype. One day an African American friend of mine joked that my love for fried chicken probably shows that the black American love for the same meat has roots in their African origins. That was the first time I became aware of this stereotype.

I know some upper-middle-class blacks who try to subvert the stereotype by refusing to eat fried chicken and watermelon—at least in public—but this strikes me as an inane reaction that only empowers the people and the culture that spawned the stereotype in the first place. In spite of my knowledge that blacks are stereotyped as chicken-loving, watermelon-gulping people, I eat my fried chicken with relish when I feel like it.

In a country where pork is found in almost every kind of meat under different cute-sounding names, chicken is the safest meat for me. But, more than that, no one can define me without my permission. Not even the most entrenched American gastronomic racism.

Related Articles:
Eighteenth-Century Racism in Twenty-First Century America (I)
Eighteenth-Century Racism in Twenty-First Century America (II)
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