How much difference does a watermelon make? There I was, watching the live stream of the National Book Awards last month, when Jackie Woodson’s beautiful and haunting memoir in verse Brown Girl Dreaming was chosen as this year’s winner in the Young People’s Literature category.
Jackie, her face as radiant as the sun, gave her thanks. Such a moment! A hallelujah moment. A moment dashed by Daniel Handler’s foot, which he stuck directly into his mouth by trying to make a joke about Jackie being allergic to watermelon. “Think about that,” he said.
Of course, by now this is old news, and Handler compensated (somewhat) by tendering a series of apologies and also by making a major donation to the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Jackie, too, in her ongoing graciousness wrote a provocative op-ed in the New York Times, addressing the issue.
All of this to-do over a watermelon!
But it’s so much bigger than that, isn’t it? So much more. For Jackie and so many African Americans, a watermelon is representative of repression and racism and ridicule. Images of slaves and later share croppers bent over in the blazing heat of the deep South, harvesting the heaviest of all melons, cutting the rope-like vines and hoisting them into the back of a wagon or a pick up truck, isn’t the same at all as the image I grew up with.
For me, a watermelon signaled the beginning of summer, of family reunions, of bare feet and neighborhood baseball. It was a harbinger of long days and no homework, of firefly evenings and Coca-Cola chilled in big bucket of ice, a church key tied to the handle with a cotton string.
My grandmother was an expert at thumping watermelons. With her thumb, she tapped the hard green rind and listened for it to make just the right kind of echo before she purchased it. I never acquired this talent, and I sometimes wonder if she did it just to mystify my cousins and me.
A watermelon was for my grandfather to smack with the side of his fist and burst open with a resounding craaack! It was for seed-spitting and sticky fingers and juice so sweet it made us pucker at the first bite. It was for picnics and backyard barbecues and church luncheons. It was for me one of my earliest picture books: Watermelon Day.
And it makes me ask the question: what do we do with all of this? In so many ways, mine and Jackie’s lives were similar. Like her and her siblings, my sisters and I were often left in the care of grandparents. We both had fathers who loved us, but didn’t raise us, who were absent for long stretches. Both of our mothers moved us from one place to another, always seeking something better. Better jobs. Better housing. Better husbands. All of these shared samenesses. And yet, there is still the watermelon.
In the room.
The thing is, neither of us can deny our own histories. I can’t change her experience and she can’t change mine. But when Mr. Handler made his remark, I understood at a deep level what had just happened. I grew up, after all, in the segregated American south of the 1950’s and 60’s. I have my racist ancestors, not all of whom are that long gone. If I’m being honest, I have to check my white privilege, knowing that there are absolutely ways of knowing that I can’t know, not fully anyways. I wish it were different. I wish that we were so far along in our shared history that Mr. Handler’s remark could actually be considered funny. He’s a funny guy. But we’re not there yet.
What I do know is that we can change, we must change, especially for our children, we have to change. And the only way I know to do that is to share our stories without making fun of them. For that, we need to make the room bigger, which is the work of We Need Diverse Books. It’s a start. Just like the scholarship that Barry Goldblatt has established in honor of Angela Johnson at VCFA is a start.
The thing is, I want to keep the watermelon in the room, not in spite of what it represents but because of what it represents. I want to eat a cold slice of it in honor of my cousins and our mystifying grandmother. And at the same time, I want to take a bite out of all the sorrow and antagonism that it holds for my black sisters, so that we don’t forget. And then, I want to plant some seeds from it, to grow a whole patch of new and old stories, some of which may be sour and hard to swallow, but some of which will be sweet and juicy. All those important stories. I want us together to grow stories that all of us can smack our fists against and crack open both truths and untruths, so that all girls, and boys too, no matter their color can be dreaming.