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Tell me why the watermelon grows

A cultural history of a controversial fruit

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The air conditioner was malfunctioning. When I bought the car used in January, the owner said she had just fixed it, but here I was on a steamy August day on the Atlantic coast of Senegal, with the vents pouring hot air into the already hot car. So, it was my imminent dehydration talking when I skidded to a stop in front of a roadside fruit seller’s table. I was once told by a grandmother, who lives in my seaside village but grew up in the northern dry regions where the Senegal River winds across a crispy and prickly savanna not far from the great desert, about a watermelon varietal called beref, which is cultivated mostly for its seeds but also serves as a kind of water reserve.

“There’s water that you can drink from it like a coconut,” she said.

In the north, she explained, if you’re traversing the flat plains under a white-hot sun, and you see a watermelon in someone’s field, you can just pull it up, take it, break it open, and drink. It’s your own portable oasis. “Nobody forbids it,” she told me. The watermelon is for everyone. It was not yet the season for them, but I was overheating, my lips and throat dry, and the idea of a watermelon, even an out-of-season one, seemed suddenly like the ideal solution to my predicament.

Most of the watermelons that Senegalese farmers grow for the local market have rinds that are light yellow-green or occasionally a deep evergreen, but the watermelons at this roadside stand were moss-colored and covered with forest green stripes, indicating that they were probably grown for the European market, where buyers might expect the fruit to look a certain way.

A couple of centuries ago, Europeans might have been more open-minded about the watermelon’s appearance as plant hunters and naturalists searched for the keys to the plant’s past. When David Livingstone, the famed missionary-explorer-colonialist, journeyed across the Kalahari Desert in the 1840s and 1850s, he wrote that he had come across a surprising wild plant that he thought was yet another type of watermelon. “In years when more than the usual quantity of rain falls, vast tracts of the country are literally covered with these melons,” he wrote, the fruit’s thick rind secreting away the rain’s bounty for the future. “Some are sweet, and others so bitter that the whole are named by the Boers the ‘bitter watermelon.’ The natives select them by striking one melon after another with a hatchet, and applying the tongue to the gashes. They thus readily distinguish between the bitter and sweet.”

I like this idea of sweet watermelons coexisting with bitter ones, each type influencing our perceptions. The watermelon is a generous fruit: the flesh of one can feed a dozen people and can parent hundreds of melons with its seeds. Cultures throughout the ages have, and still do, interpret the watermelon as a symbol of good luck and fertility, a plant whose great fecundity might be shared with you. But in the United States, more than a century of racial denigration has cloaked and clouded this primordial symbol of solidarity, generosity, and abundance, transforming it into something almost unpalatable for many Black people. Of course, the watermelon itself is not to blame, but throughout its botanical, cultural, and social history, it has been a vehicle for our ideas about community, survival, and what we owe the future.

At the fruit stand, I searched the oblong bodies for one with a yellowish oval discoloration, the telltale field spot. Only one of them had it, so I picked it up to listen to it as I often saw my mother do, tapping its bottom like a naughty child. But I didn’t know what I was listening for, not really. She could never quite put it into words herself—just something about how this or that one sounded “right.” When you cut into it, the “right” watermelon (for me and my mother) has a fuchsia red color, the deeper the better; a delicate smell; flesh that is tender but not mushy, watery but not spongy, just firm enough for the lightest of chomps; and the sweet flavor of endless summer. Once I got the watermelon home, I chose a big knife to stab it in the middle and then worked the knife around its circumference until I could pry its two halves open. Then I slit a chunk from its belly and tasted it right there in front of the sink, the juice trickling over my fingertips. It was perfect.

When I was a child growing up in Springfield, Illinois, my family hardly ever bought watermelons at big supermarkets with far away supply chains that might have left us with a mushy melon. Instead, we waited until we saw a farmstand or sometimes just a pickup on the side of the road—as long as their sign said: BEARDSTOWN WATERMELONS. We’d swoop in to buy one or two, straight from Beardstown, Illinois, the self-proclaimed Watermelon Capital of the United States.

Today, the road from Springfield to Beardstown is lonely, a two-lane highway that passes almost nothing but fields of corn and soy decorated by seed signs, those flags from corporate nations who offer flashes of yellow and orange and red as the car whizzes by: AGRI GOLD, CROP TECH, NUTECH, ASGROW, DEKALB, FS, BRANDT, BECKS, PIONEER. I was headed not to Beardstown proper, but a few miles away, to Arenzville, metro-Beardstown, if you will. It shares the feature that makes the Beardstown watermelon the best, or so they say: the sandy soils on the Illinois River’s banks. Roger Hendricker runs the Sandy Springs Farm in Arenzville, which has been in his family ever since his Hendricker ancestor came over from Germany in the nineteenth century and settled in Illinois.

“Right here where we’re standing on this river bluff, my great-grandfather raised his family and he raised watermelons,” he told me when I visited in late August. “And then my grandfather raised watermelons. My father did. And we’ve been raising melons,” he said, gesturing to his stepson, Mike Powell, who mostly tends the melons now that Hendricker is in his seventies and can’t bend and squat like he used to.

And bending and squatting is a must, because their six-acre field of organic watermelons resists much mechanization. From some paces away, the patch looked like nothing to me, looked like weeds, but when I got closer, I saw the trailing vines with watermelons hiding amid the vegetation. A listing scarecrow stood, but barely, a faulty sentinel against incursions by varmints who are, in fact, rarely crows. Here and there I could see where a deer bit into or stepped on a watermelon, where a coyote dragged one to a clearing for a snack, or where a raccoon sat down for a feast. Powell said the raccoon damage is the nastiest; the animal will make a hole in the melon and scrape out the insides with its front paws as well as they can but leave behind a lot of liquid that will soon start to ferment and smell.

“It kind of looks like a slushy,” said Powell, but not one you’d want to drink.

This part of Illinois had been in a moderate drought this summer, probably a problem for all those corn and soy growers I saw on the road, but Hendricker noted that the watermelons were doing just fine. “Our vines are healthier than a lot of years. We haven’t had this disease problem,” he said. By disease he means the assortment of mildews, wilts, and blights that typically affect the watermelon plants as the summer goes along. “And that could be due to the lack of rain,” Powell added, “because, of course, the more rain you have, the more fungus can grow.”

That made intuitive sense to me since some watermelon cultivars, like the one in northern Senegal, or wild species, like the ones in the Kalahari, seem to thrive in arid regions, storing water away for times of need. But Zhangjun Fei, a researcher at the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York, later told me that the varieties of watermelon we grow today, after millennia of breeding to focus on bigger sizes or sweeter fruits, have lost some of their ability to fight diseases and to withstand the harsh conditions of the deserts of their forebears, which are much more extreme than the Illinois River basin.

“A crop that is taken care of by humans, they are kind of spoiled,” he said. “They say, ‘Even if I don’t have this ability to fight off disease, I still can survive because people are treating me well.’”

Fei said that as the climate changes and diseases evolve, farmers will need more ways to raise healthy watermelon crops—and not just growers in the United States like Hendricker and Powell, but also farmers in China, which produces more watermelons than any other country in the world, more than 60 million tons in 2020 compared to the next highest country, Turkey, with just 3.49 million tons, or to the United States, with its modest production of just 1.7 million tons. Fei said that researchers all over the world are finding solutions for the watermelon’s future by investigating its past.

I was a self-conscious teen. I couldn’t help it. I had landed on the bright side of the tracking machine but there were only ever a couple of other Black kids in the honors and AP classes that formed the rhythm of my life. I often felt on display, singular, strange. I remember once having a conversation with my father about something I was self-conscious about as the only Black person around, although I can’t remember what. Was it someone who wanted me to play basketball? Or to dance? Or to speak like the sassy Black women they saw on TV? Was it a request to do something or wear something or, even, eat something? I think it must have been about food, because my father told me that he used to avoid eating watermelon in front of white people when he was younger. I knew then without knowing firsthand that watermelon was wielded by racists as a cudgel but I never imagined that he might have deprived himself of the juicy melon, not the least because it was ever-present in our house during the summer.

“For more than a century and a half, the watermelon has been a staple in America’s racist diet,” writes sociologist David Pilgrim in his 2017 book, Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors. “The depiction of black people eating watermelon has been a shorthand way of saying that black people are unclean (the fruit is messy to eat), lazy (it is easy to grow), childish (watermelons are sweet and colorful), overly indulgent (especially with their sexual appetites), and lacking ambition (the watermelon presented as satiating all needs).” Pilgrim is the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum at Michigan’s Ferris State University, and he says the museum has hundreds of racist images and objects encapsulating this stereotype, including “banks, plates, wall hangings, aprons, towels, ashtrays, toys, firecrackers, cookie jars, match holders, dolls, souvenirs, doorstops, lawn jockeys.”

Historian William Black traced the origins of the racist association of Black people with the watermelon to the period after Emancipation. Many formerly enslaved people farmed and sold watermelons, a crop that they had often grown in their kitchen gardens in the beforetimes. The watermelon was, for them, an instrument of self-sufficiency, a way to survive and even thrive. But that soon changed. “White southerners,” he writes, “waged a campaign within popular culture to transform the watermelon into a symbol of black people’s unfitness for freedom—an utter negation of the meaning black people had given the fruit.” Black reports that during Reconstruction, as early as 1866, southern newspapers often reported on supposed watermelon thefts by Black people, a kind of fixation that he says stood in for white anxiety about what they perceived as the violation of their property rights and political authority. In 1870, Tennessee legislators even proposed the so-called “watermelon bill,” which would have made trespassing a felony and stripped those convicted of their voting rights. It did not pass but eventually other types of legislation across the south would have the same effect: widespread disenfranchisement of Black voters that endured for nearly a century, and in some ways still endures today. In the meantime, Reconstruction-era white supremacists used popular culture to vilify Black labor and initiative when it came to cropping and selling watermelons, and, of course, the Black consumers eating them.

In addition, traveling minstrel troupes literally spread the “watermelon man” archetype in live form—a blackface actor with big red lips, toting his watermelon, scheming to get more watermelon, giving up everything for a slice. That archetype moved across the United States and beyond it to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, one hateful performance at a time. Historian Chinua Thelwell told me that while researching his book Exporting Jim Crow, he came across a reference to an American group that performed its racist repertoire in Durban, South Africa, in 1881, including a song called, “Oh That Watermelon.” The stereotype did not take root on the African continent as well as it had in the United States—Thelwell found only a handful of references to the watermelon being used in this way—but in the United States, such blackface songs, musicals, and theatricals carried over onto the silver screen. The 1915 Ku Klux Klan classic Birth of a Nation included a scene of Black people (many of whom were white actors in blackface) having a watermelon-filled celebration.

My father, who was born in segregated Arkansas in the 1940s, would have grown up inundated by advertisements, postcards, films, and TV shows that depicted Black people as watermelon-eating buffoons of either the happy-go-lucky-and-ignorant or the thieving-and-conniving types. My mother, born in segregated Chicago during the same period, said she remembers being stung by a watermelon joke on a nightly TV variety show, maybe The Johnny Carson Show of the 1950s. Martin Luther King, Jr., remembered refusing to eat watermelon in mixed company when he was at seminary in Pennsylvania: “I didn’t want to be seen eating it because of the association in many people’s minds between Negroes and watermelon,” he told a journalist from Redbook in 1956. “It was silly, I know, but it shows how white prejudices can affect a Negro.”

And Dr. King was not alone. It was enough to make whole generations of Black people self-conscious about eating watermelon. Psyche Williams-Forson, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and the author of Eating While Black, said it is still common for people of a certain age to have reservations about eating watermelon—or, rather, to be seen eating watermelon. “I cite Black people who are absolutely, in some instances, adamant that they would not eat watermelon in public, unless it’s cut up in cubes or unless it’s served a very particular way,” she told me.

On my latest visit to my parents’ house in Illinois at the tail end of the watermelon season, we bought a big melon in Beardstown, and my father did yeoman’s work cutting most of it into irregular cubes to stash in the refrigerator. The rest he cut into tiny wedges to eat right away. But even when presented with this, the most modest and daintiest wedge of rind-on watermelon, my mother will slice the flesh away with a knife and fork and cut it up before eating it. When I ask why she bothers, she just says that’s how she likes to do it.

In Senegal, where I moved a decade ago, watermelons are a winter fruit, reaching peak ripeness in November or December when the weather cools, so I have started to associate them with the end of the year holidays. No Senegalese Christmas or New Year’s celebration at my mother-in-law’s house would be complete without one or two watermelons cut into manageable wedges so we can eat them directly from the rind.

I wonder about these small differences between my husband’s family in Senegal where the watermelon is simply enjoyed, and my own family in the United States where the watermelon isn’t just a luscious fruit, but also a symbol of violence, a metaphorical weapon whose cut still stings and sometimes burns.

After the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun died suddenly in 1324 B.C.E., the royal staff had to race to prepare his elaborate grave. He came to power at the tender age of nine and had ruled for only about a decade, so maybe they hadn’t expected his death quite so soon. While his body was mummified, a process that took a little over two months, they painted stories of his life and exploits on the walls; constructed his nesting wood-and-gold coffins and a quartzite and granite sarcophagus; fabricated 400 shabtis, figurines of servants who were meant to work for him in the shadow fields of the otherworld; and created the gold death mask that has now become iconic as the treasures of King Tut have been exhibited around the world. They were also tasked with assembling the food the young ruler might need in the afterlife: mummified meats for a mummified human, jars of wine and honey, hundreds of baskets stuffed with wheat, chickpeas, dates, and figs, as well as eleven baskets of seeds from the watermelon (Citrullus lanatus). Excavators opened the inner rooms of Tutankhamun’s tomb more than 3,000 years later and found that some of the foods and seeds had been reclaimed by time, bacteria, and beetles, but the watermelon seeds that had been harvested, cleaned, and dried by unknown hands millennia ago were still in relatively good condition.

And now they had a new purpose: to help solve the mystery of where and why the watermelon grows.

If you pick up an old science textbook from even, say, thirty years ago, you’d probably read that the watermelon originated in southern Africa, maybe even in the Kalahari Desert, where Livingstone saw so many melons. Indeed, four other species of Citrullus (there are only seven total) are native to that region. But German botanist Susan Renner, who calls herself “a classically trained herbarium-based taxonomist,” says that assumption was based on a misinterpretation of one specific specimen from South Africa that had been gathered in 1773 by Carl Peter Thunberg, a student of and successor to Linnaeus.

Renner’s excitement bubbled over as she recounted the tale. Thunberg was familiar with cultivated watermelon, since it was grown in southern Europe, and Linnaeus had already described it in 1753, calling it Cucurbita citrullus. But this South African melon had green flesh, it was bitter, and the fruit was hairy, so he doubted that it could be closely related to cultivated watermelon. He gave it the name Momordica lanata—“lanata”means wooly. “But then, later in 1930, people looked at this specimen [in the herbarium],” said Renner, “and they thought it was the same as the cultivated watermelon that we eat, which is sweet and red.” Thunberg’s sample was the link, they believed, to an ancestor of the watermelon we know and love, and so they renamed the sweet watermelon Citrullus lanatus.

But Renner had her doubts as she looked through Thunberg’s old journals and decided to dig deeper. She and her team asked for a sample of the DNA from the wooly melon that Thunberg collected, which is conserved in the herbarium at Uppsala University in Sweden. When they analyzed it, they found that not only was Thunberg’s sample not sweet watermelon, but it was not even closely related to it. It was, in short, a taxonomy fail. But still, more mysteries about the sweet watermelon remained. “Where was it domesticated?” asked Renner. “To find this out, we needed to sample all over Africa.”

And that’s where Tutankhamun’s seeds come in, as well as seeds from another ancient Egyptian tomb, and some from a Stone Age site in Libya that are about 6,000 years old. Renner and her colleagues analyzed the DNA of most of these ancient seeds, along with more contemporary samples from around the African continent. They were not able to get permission to extract DNA from King Tut’s seeds but used micro-CT imaging of them. The sum of their analyses, DNA and otherwise, added up to a new conclusion: the progenitor of the cultivated watermelon came not from South Africa or even from Egypt or Libya, but from the Kordofan region of central Sudan, not far from Darfur.

Zhangjun Fei, the watermelon researcher in upstate New York, explained that knowing the direct progenitor of the cultivated watermelon will make it easier to use modern breeding techniques to select for traits like drought tolerance and disease resistance. Most wild species of watermelon are quite bitter, but the Kordofan watermelon has varietals that have a nice smell and a bland flavor. Fei hopes that will mean it will be easier to take the benefits of the ancient melon and leave behind the bitter flavor that ruins it for modern palates.

When I asked Fei if there were any cultural obstacles to raising watermelons in China, where he grew up, any stereotypes or negative associations with eating it, he thought for a moment but said he couldn’t remember any. “Watermelon is an essential fruit,” he said. It’s cheap and accessible to the poor in China, but you can also find it at five-star hotels. Everyone eats it, without thinking twice. It’s a fruit of the people.

Recently, when I asked my father about why he avoided watermelon as a young man, he denied ever telling me this. My father and I, the lawyer and the journalist, we rarely give each other answers, but volley questions back and forth like a game. I contended that he did, that I can remember how he tried to offer me comfort during a difficult time, didn’t he remember? Always on the case, he asked me for proof, for corroborating witnesses. I said that no one else was there, or at least I didn’t think they were. If my mother had been there, after all, she would have been the one to try to sympathize with me or cheer me up. But, suddenly, I started to doubt my own memory. Could I have pulled it from a book, a movie, someone else’s story about racism?

My father’s memory has always been a little slippery, too—birthdays, names, everyday details of all kinds have always escaped him, maybe shoved away to make room for case law; he relies on my mother’s penchant for remembering the minutiae of life. He said he always loved watermelon, that his uncle grew it on the family farm, that he ate it every chance he got. His life was his proof.

No matter his protestations, my father was—and still is—hyperaware of the stereotypes that the white people around us hold. He is a man who never wears light or bright suits, refuses to tip his baseball hat to the back or the side, and would never crank up his music loud, even when barbecuing or picnicking outside. Some months after my parents moved into their current house in a predominantly white subdivision, a neighbor told them that she was so glad that my father kept his yard so tidy, that she had been worried that a Black family would create a mess. Did she imagine a Sanford and Son-worthy junkyard? My dad tells the story with more good humor than I could muster, perhaps because he has spent his life trying to prove white stereotypes wrong.

In her poem, “Salt,” Vievee Francis recounts a time when her much younger sister is pleasantly surprised to be served fruit for dinner at a resort and exclaims, “Watermelon!” in a crowded dining room. Her pleasure is uncomplicated, but the weight of American history intervenes for Francis in the form of a “gentleman from Georgia” who sits with them:

 He, from “a good family”

“strong values” “can go back several generations”

looks at me, directly into my black pupils, and

I know what he knows. A whole history rides

the vehicle, a mule train, the wagon, the dust

track of my sister’s outburst. And we begin

to laugh, hysterically. He for all the expected

reasons. And I, I laugh because somewhere

I want to cry.

Francis’s sentiment conveys something still recognizable to me, even if it does not land on me the same way. I did not really grow up with these watermelon images, so I don’t feel their full weight. I do know that every once in a while, they reemerge in the United States, an atavistic response to any kind of Black success. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, the watermelon trope crept into not only right-wing memes but also mainstream newspapers and comics.

But the United States of America has more racist tools than nefarious stereotypes about delicious fruit. When I was younger, my battle was more likely to be with the servile figures of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, staples of American kitchens and American advertising. In college, in Chicago, I remember finding a print of Murry DePillars’ ink drawing of Aunt Jemima somewhere, on the street or in a thrift shop, one that transformed her from a mammy into a superhero as she broke free from her pancake mix box. I put it up in my kitchen, hoping to channel this Jemima’s force and passion for justice as she lifted her spatula like a weapon. She was reclaiming herself. Telling new stories.

When I spoke with botanist Susanne Renner, she asked me to look at an image related to the watermelon, an artwork. I knew from her scientific papers that she and other botanists often examined ancient artworks for clues, peering at images of watermelons in ancient Egyptian murals, classical frescoes from Greece, paintings in medieval Europe and Joseon Korea, so I expected something similar. But it was an image of a glittery mixed media assemblage by artist and poet Vanessa German, a piece called Glory. On a sparkly background, the flat form of a Black woman is given relief by textural elements: a brush, a mirror, red birds taking flight from her heart, butterflies and flowers swirling about her legs, an applique of a watermelon womb full of fertile seeds, and a holy sign “to state the obvious & the invisible obvious, the submerged obviousness,” she writes in the description. The figure has two legs, but six arms, “alla those arms cuz there’s so much to carry.” German performs a kind of alchemy with this figure, reaching through time to transmute the past and return the watermelon’s original symbolic meaning to us.

Back in metro Beardstown, on the side of a hill, I looked west to the setting sun, squinting across fields of corn in the hopes of seeing the Illinois River. But it was just out of view.

Mike Powell was harvesting now and walked through the field thumping watermelons with the back end of his field knife. “This one’s kind of dead sounding I call it,” he said of one promising-looking melon. It was not ripe yet, or maybe it was overripe. But a few paces later, another melon sounded more promising. “This one has a ping to it,” he said, a higher tone resonating in the water of its body. He cut one open to check, to make sure his ear was calibrated just right so that he could pick ones that were ripe but not too ripe. The first one had just slipped into the first blush of the mushy place of no return. The next one, though, looked a bit better. He asked me, “Would you like to try it?” I hesitated for a moment. I thought about whether I should. I felt an ever-so-slight twinge about me in this Black body in a white man’s field and all that has ever meant. But it was hot, and I was thirsty, and the field was beautiful in its chaos. All this flitted through my mind, and then I said simply, “Sure.” He cut a long chunk from the heart. I took it with my fingers, and I ate.

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