THERE'S PRACTICALLY NOTHING I associate more closely with summer and the innocence of childhood than watermelon. One bite and I'm 6 years old again in the sweltering heat of my grandmother's backyard with juice running down my face and seeds shooting from my mouth like a machine gun.
In the 1950s, when I was a kid, I don't remember anybody buying watermelons in grocery stores. You bought watermelons from gas stations, roadside stands, A-rabbers and those little produce boats docked at Pier 4, in what's now known as the Inner Harbor. You always got a good melon because the merchants would "plug it" - cut a chunk out and let you taste it before you forked over your money.
Unfortunately, those were the days when some white folks thought it was fashionable to display racist lawn ornaments. Lawn jockeys holding lanterns were pretty common. One day, I saw one that turned me sour on my favorite fruit. It was statue of a smiling "darky" holding a big slice of watermelon.
The statue had a jet-black face with bulging eyes and grotesque red lips. I was too young to understand prejudice, but the statue made me very uncomfortable. I felt the same way when I saw a movie in which a white man, W.C. Fields I believe, tapped a black man on the head, and said, "Sounds just like a ripe watermelon."
My uneasiness intensified over the years with each and every encounter linking watermelon and racism.
Recently, I called the the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to find out how the watermelon stereotype began.
Judith Gray, a researcher, said it's virtually impossible to pinpoint the sterotype's origin, but she dug out a publication called "Watermelon," written for the center by Ellen Ficklen.
It turns out that watermelon's gene enter, the place where it originated and can be found growing in the wild, has never been located, but the fruit has been known worldwide for centuries. Scientists guess that it may have originated in parts of Africa, southern Asia, India, or Italy.
Ficklen's research shows the following:
* The Egyptians were cultivating watermelons more than 5,000 years ago; the fruit appears in wall paintings and its seeds and leaves have been found in the tombs of pharoahs.
* Watermelon reached China in the 10th century A.D., where its name hsi-kua (pronounced "she-gua") translates as "melon-from-the-West."
* The Moors are credited with introducing watermelon into southern Europe, where Albertus Magnus provided one of the first written descriptions of it in the 13th century. By the end of the 16th century, European botanists had made up for lost time by describing and cataloging a number of varieties, among them exotic watermelons with white meat, others with green seeds, and some with only white seeds.
* Watermelon finally made it to Great Britain in 1597, and came to the Americas with the European colonists. The first written record of North American cultivation dates from 1629 in Massachusetts.
* Indians in Florida are recorded as growing watermelon in the mid-1600s, and the Jesuit explorer Father Marquette found watermelons being grown in the Mississippi Valley in 1673.
* Thomas Jefferson included watermelons among his Monticello plants. As a melon grower he was pleased to note that even the best melons in Parisian markets could not come close to the quality of Virginia melons.
So what's the origin of the watermelon stereotype? Here's Ficklen's best guess:
"Despite its early cultivation records in the Americas, African slaves are credited with distributing watermelon seeds widely throughout the eastern part of North America, the West Indies, and Brazil. In the United States, most African slaves were settled in the Southern colonies, where the soil and the climate also proved the most conducive for growing the fruit. Perhaps, this is why for many years watermelons were associated stereotypically with rural, Southern blacks."
Over the years, there have been lots of jokes about watermelons and black folks, many using the n-word. I remember one joke that got out of hand in Los Angeles and wound up being carried by the media.
Back in the 1970s, a couple of white Los Angeles cops reported that a man suffered head injuries after someone tossed a 20-pound watermelon from a second-floor window in Watts.
It was supposed to have been a station house prank, but the story touched off a furor in the black community, and a subsequent investigation resulted in disciplinary action against the cops.
In recent years, there have been other racial incidents involving watermelon:
* Black students at the College of William and Mary protested a satirical campus magazine which carried a comic strip called "The Adventures of Mighty Whitie."
Mighty Whitie, the caped crusader in "the suburban utopia of Cleantown USA," was "ever vigilant against the incursion of ghetto crime." In one strip, a white woman screamed that she was being attacked by blacks wearing costumes identifying them as "Watermelon" and "Fried Chicken."
* In Alameda, Calif., three city employees were disciplined after they left flyers in a public park depicting a black child eating watermelon.
Under the picture was a rhyme which said: "Who said Watermelon? George Washington Columbus Brown. I'se black as any little coon in town. At eating melon I can put a pig to shame. For Watermelon am my middle name."
* More than 300 chanting, placard-waving black demonstrators led by the Rev. Al Sharpton staged a tense protest march through Brooklyn's racially troubled, predominantly white Canarsie section and were met with taunts, jeers and racial insults but no violence, the New York Times reported.
"At one point, a white man held a large watermelon over his head, as if to hurl it at Mr. Sharpton. The police rushed in and the watermelon crashed to the ground and shattered. The whites retrieved pieces of it, however, and held them up along the way," the story said.
I must admit, the watermelon stereotype has had an effect on me. It's not bad enough to send me to a shrink, but it's something I just can't shake. You see, I love watermelon, but I'm self-conscious when I put one in my shopping cart, and I never eat watermelon around white folks. In fact, I get very uncomfortable when I'm in the same room with watermelon and white folks.
Recent conversations with other black folks confirmed that the sensitivity runs deep.
"I was trained by my parents never to eat watermelon with my hands," one woman said. "At home, I could pick it up, but I was warned that white folks would think of me as a pickaninny if I ate it that way in front of them."
Another woman said her husband never eats watermelon at all.
"I think as a youngster in the South, he was so ridiculed about watermelon, that he is still unable to eat it," she explained.
I turned to my cousin Vic, a chef who runs a catering business in Dundalk, to get his thoughts about watermelon. I might as well have been talking to Bubba about shrimp.
"Well, there's sliced watermelon, diced watermelon, you can make watermelon soup, watermelon wine, you can freeze watermelon on a stick like a Popsicle, you can fry watermelon. ..."
No, I explained, I didn't want to know how to prepare it, I wanted to know how he felt about the stereotype.
"Well, I don't feel funny eating it around white people," he said. "And I've seen folks of all races eat it, and almost everyone likes it. But no matter what you do to watermelon, no matter how you slice it, I guess watermelon will always be a black thing."