Volume 10: Create
By Marcia Degia
“We’re the only people on the planet who have been taught to sing and praise our demeanment. I’m a bitch. I’m a hoe. I’m a gangster. I’m a thug. I’m a dog. If you can train a people to demean and degrade themselves, you can oppress them forever. You can program them to kill themselves and they won’t even know what happened.”
Frances Cress Welsing
The watermelon has long been a racially motivated thorn in our side. The caricature of the “negro”, the shininess of the black skin against the exaggerated white clown’s mouth savagely devouring the red ripe fruit had the sole purpose of presenting a whole race of people as subhuman.
Deeply entwined with blackface, a popular theatrical form that sprung up in the 1930s, it was part of a campaign to normalise depicting Black people as inferior. Characters were lazy, lying or buffoonish – stereotypes that are still with us today. So why were African Americans stage performers in the 1860s plastering burnt cork or black greasepaint onto their faces and demeaning themselves for the sake of entertainment? Is this where the willingness to parody our own people began?
The answer is long and complex. For those of the bygone era, the theatrical mask itself had many layers of meaning. For the white audience, it made them feel safe, comfortable, and superior. As for the Black patrons, they knew what was up – there were limited options for Black performers, and it gave them access to the stage. A thread that runs through, in some quarters, even today. Even though the Minstrel shows died out in the 1920s, blackface lived on in the movies. In 1927, Al Jolson blacked up and burst into the screens in the first ‘talkie’ The Jazz Singer.
In fact, the dark history is all around us – and ingrained in us – more than you know. Some of you might remember chasing after the ice-cream van when you heard its jingle ringing out as it arrived in your area. By this point would you be surprised to know it also has racist origins and is an adaptation of a vaudeville song with the lyrics: “N****r want a watermelon, ha, ha, ha.” Yup, even our childhood can’t catch a break.
Some might argue that to move forward, we need to put this painful past behind us and move on. Others believe it’s time to reclaim back the racial stereotypes instead of letting it trigger us, as does artist Zeh Palito, who masterfully addresses the thorny issue on this issue’s front cover (interview, page 38). The role of the watermelon, after all, allowed our people to survive both slavery and post-emancipation.
KOL Social will continue to play its role by providing authentic stories and supporting the often unheard. This upcoming February, we are proud to be collaborating with the British Film Institute to host the UK Premiere of African Redemption: The Life and Legacy of Marcus Garvey by filmmaker Roy Anderson (interview, page 22). Find out more about the event on page 54. We hope you will join and help us beat the drum.
Publishing Editor: Marcia Degia