An earlier post, Problems with Kiki, dealt with problems with language across countries. Now I have another example.
In another post, Bellingen, writing, obituaries and skills, I referred to the just completed first Bellingen Writer's Festival. For those who don't know Bellingen, it is a small town in the Bellinger Valley on the road from the coast to Armidale. It has become a significant alterative life style centre.
In that story, I quoted an Armidale Express article written by Armidale writer and journalist Janene Carey. This drew a comment from Janene.
The printed version of my story contained another section that wasn't put on our website.
"LECTURER TAKES ISSUE WITH WATERMELON LINE
DURING the Q & A part of his session, George Negus was quizzed by University of New England lecturer Jeremy Fisher about a reference he’d made to Barack Obama as ‘the best thing since sliced watermelon’, with Dr Fisher suggesting that the metaphor was racist.
Mr Negus seemed flabbergasted, asking whether ‘you can see my jaw dropping from over there?’ but apologising if he’d caused offence inadvertently.
Dr Fisher persisted, suggesting Negus habitually used tongue-in-cheek comments as a cover for his real views. The facilitator chose as the next questioner someone sitting as far away from the UNE contingent as possible."
BTW my first version of the Negus incident had a line explaining watermelon has a history of being pejoratively linked to black people from the southern states of the USA, but I removed that because I thought it sounded too didactic and it would be best to let people draw their own conclusions.
George Negus (and here) is a well known Australian TV journalist who lives at Dorrigo near Bellingen. Jeremy Fisher was previously Executive Director of the Australian Society of Authors and is now a Senior Lecturer at the University of New England teaching writing practice and theory in varieties of genres. He was in Bellingen to chair a Festival session relating to professional writing.
Dr Fisher clearly has broader issues with Mr Negus. My interest lay in the phrase itself.
The greatest (or best) thing since sliced bread is a common Australian colloquialism, especially among older Australians. I use it myself. I say older Australians because I have sometimes got puzzled looks from younger colleagues when I use it. I would therefore have interpreted Mr Negus's description of President Obama as 'the best thing since sliced watermelon’ as a variant, a compliment. I simply would not have seen a negative context unless there was something very specific to make me think otherwise. Among other things, I happen to be very fond of watermelon.
All this caused me to do a little digging.
I had always thought that the phrase the greatest thing since sliced bread was Australian. Not so, it seems. It actually originated in the US derived from a 1928 advertising slogan, and then spread. So the phrase should be understood in the US. Then what about watermelon? Now things get a little complicated.
Now it's quite clear that watermelon has been used as a pejorative term for American blacks. The Urban Dictionary gives a few examples:
1. Black persons favorite fruit 2. Nigger bait
"Our nigger slave ran away, get the watermelon'
2. A food that white people who live in a 1%-or-less black neighborhood think that black people like
White guy: "I heard you like watermelon nigger"
Black guy: "Nobody in my family does..."
An apparent Australian example:
Code-word used to be racist to black people, especially in South-East Queensland, Australia.
"Dude that fuckin' watermelon stole my bike I swear to God"
There appear to be a number of other pejorative or even obscene uses of watermelon not connected with race. I won't bore you with those.
The Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University says of the US racial use of the word:
It seems almost silly to say that watermelons have been racialized, but that is exactly what happened in this culture. For much of this country's history, postcards showing Black people comically eating watermelons were popular among White Americans. Many of these so-called "Coon cards" show Black people stealing watermelons, fighting over watermelons, even being transformed into watermelons.
One understandable outcome of all this is that it appears that Black Americans actually eat less watermelon than Americans as a whole. I have no doubt that when President Obama carried a watermelon from the plane he was making a very deliberate statement. One might even say that he was trying to redeem the fruit, as well as addressing prejudice.
I said that things got complicated, because digging around it is clear that the US use of watermelon is morphing. Still pejorative, it has now acquired political overtones among the US right.
As an example, from the Millennium Weekend Ministries best quote of the day:
The green activeist (sic) democrats are lots like watermelons..........................
they are green on the outside and red on the inside.
I very much doubt George Negus had any pejorative intent, for if he had he would have been guilty of a gross and conscious misuse of an Australianism. If you want to be pejorative, why modify an Australian term whose normal content is positive? It doesn't make a great deal of sense. I just can't see him doing it in that way.
Still, it does show how problems with language arise. Who would have thought that Mr Negus would strike such trouble at a writers' festival in what is, after all, his home area far removed from the US?!
And Dr Fisher?
He clearly has broader problems with Mr Negus. I cannot comment on those because I don't know. But what he does seem to have done in this case is to impose his own perception of the meaning of words filtered through his views on Mr Negus onto a variant of a common and positive Australian phrase. I don't think that's actually very sensible.
And the loser in all this? The poor watermelon!
In a comment, KVD wrote:
Just a reflection on your personal reflection:
"I have no doubt that when President Obama carried a watermelon from the plane he was making a very deliberate statement. One might even say that he was trying to redeem the fruit, as well as addressing prejudice."
I think that picture you use is a photoshop of a picture of Obama carrying a Halloween pumpkin - the clearest use of which is attached to this article: http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/10/31/the-boo-of-politics (You will see remarkable similarity as to the Presidential tie, hand position, facial expression, etc).
If this is the case, then the picture you use is possibly a racist jab, or maybe a joke, depending upon your point of view, and political, racial sensitivity.
And you - a historian! A seeker of facts and truthiness...
As I said in my response to KVD, ouch! This is the second time that I have been caught in this way. Even though I know that it's not so, my age means that I still have a tendency to treat a photo as a photo.
Thank heaven for commenters. Even though it's a bit embarrassing at a personal level, it's very important that writing like mine is subject to external correction. Otherwise, its just another piece of misreporting in a web full of it.
In a follow up comment, KVD wrote:
Jim - just a bit of introspection.
I found that pic of President Obama so unlikely as to be almost guarenteed to be faked. The thought that the first black President of the United States would attempt to make such a "statement" was beyond my understanding.
Again, KVD is probably right. I was trying to write a piece that might inform under time constraints. I was focused on that task. Again, ouch!
As I said, thank heaven for commenters