A Catholic school in California caught some flak this week because they decided to celebrate Black History Month by adding fried chicken and watermelon to their lunch menu. Realizing the insensitivity of this faux pas, the school removed the offending culinary items and issued an apology.
I think most people, myself included, will agree that fried chicken and watermelon are offensive to black people, but the question is; why? I get it that it is a stereotype, but it isn’t a negative one like saying blacks are lazy or prone to violence. These are delicious food items enjoyed by people of all races, creeds, and colors, so why do black people get so bent out of shape when someone implies they like tasty food?
To put it into perspective, I can’t think of any other ethnic, racial, or religious group that would take offense at a food linked to their culture. Italians don’t raise a stink if you suggest they like pasta. Indians don’t stage sit ins because someone said they like curry. I’m half Swedish and half Irish. No one has ever pissed me off by hurling an epithet of corn beef and cabbage or Swedish meatballs at me.
And on top of that, fried chicken and watermelon are not foods that are uniquely attached to black history or culture. So what exactly is it about this stuff that makes black people so mad?
Claire Schmidt, a University of Missouri professor of race and folklore, says that chicken was a staple of the diet of slaves in the South. And as such, it was used to denigrate blacks in popular culture like Birth Of A Nation:
D.W. Griffith’s seminal and supremely racist 1915 silent movie about the supposedly heroic founding of the Ku Klux Klan was a huge sensation when it debuted. One scene in the three-hour features a group of actors portraying shiftless black elected officials acting rowdy and crudely in a legislative hall. (The message to the audience: These are the dangers of letting blacks vote.) Some of the legislators are shown drinking. Others had their feet kicked up on their desks. And one of them was very ostentatiously eating fried chicken.
“That image really solidified the way white people thought of black people and fried chicken,” Schmidt said.
As for watermelon, the best Schmidt can come up with is that it’s racist because of the way people eat it.
“It’s a food you eat with your hands, and therefore it’s dirty. Table manners are a way of determining who is worthy of respect or not,” said Schmidt.
If that is the case, I’m certainly not worthy of respect as my table manners are atrocious, especially when I’m eating BBQ.
So there you have it. Fried chicken and watermelon are offensive to black people because it brings up images of America’s racist past. I searched the web for hours looking for a better explanation and the only thing I found likened it to the wearing of black face. But let’s face it, saying someone likes a certain food isn’t the same thing as painting your face and signing “Mammy.”
It does bring up another question, though: If fried chicken is a stereotype, why do black people perpetuate it by eating the stuff? Last year president Obama snarled traffic in Hollywood for hours so he could pop into Roscoe’s for some chicken and waffles. Doesn’t that send the same negative message as the Catholic school serving fried chicken for lunch during Black History Month?