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I never realized that my parents (both deceased) had a problem with chicken and watermelon until the summer of 1968. My mother had just completed nursing school and in celebration of her graduation, my parents decided to take us out to eat at Ontra Cafeteria, a restaurant that was located on Crenshaw Blvd., where the Baldwin Hills Wal-Mart stands today. My brothers and I were instructed to grab a tray and follow our parents down the food serving counters and if we wanted a serving of something just let the server know. A simple task. We were familiar with food lines; between the three of us we had years of experience dining in the cafeteria at 49th Street Elementary School.

Following behind my parents we proceeded to select our entrees. My youngest brother—the last in line and not within my parents range of vision—saw a slice of watermelon about the size of his head and he pointed to it. The server placed it on his tray and we continued down the line. He then pointed to a selection of fried chicken and a server placed a couple of pieces on his plate and also gave him a flag to place on his table for unlimited servings. He was instructed to wave the flag for additional servings of chicken—another big mistake. My nine-year-old brother went crazy requesting additional servings of chicken as he enjoyed his chilled watermelon. My dad—a fair complexioned African American—turned red in the face as a result of the food selection and repetitive flag waving. I thought the anger was the result of my dad getting upset at my younger brother’s unbelieveable appetite. I recall now that the restaurant was filled with mostly White patrons, and that evening my brother was at the center of their attention. In retrospect, I do remember countless meals of fried chicken being served in our home; it’s the watermelon I do not remember consuming a lot of.

“Look at this, Jimmie! Chasing that bucket of chicken that the wind was blowing the other day.”

Terry Bradshaw, Four-time Super Bowl champion and Fox analyst, referring to Reggie Bush November 4, 2012

“Really, most of Crenshaw south of Vernon is pretty desolate. There’s even a KFC that closed down. I mean, how do you close down a KFC at Slauson and Crenshaw?”

Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic, September 15, 2012

Chicken and watermelon have been associated with the African American race in a derogatory form since its introduction to the New World. This biased affiliation resurfaces on university campuses during the beginning of each year. It never fails. White college students will dance around in urban gear and take photos of themselves consuming fried chicken and watermelon to post later on Facebook. These so-called Black themed parties are on a upswing according to sociologist Joe R. Feagin from the University of Florida.

The first widely publicized incident describing such behavior took place in 1987, four years after President Reagan signed a bill making Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. That year White fraternities hosted three different parties on three different campuses during Kings’ holiday, all with watermelon and fried chicken. The food choice which has been portrayed as a staple in Black America, has also been served as a Black celebratory dish in corporate cafeterias, schools and other bastions of the so called civilized world.

When these offensive parties are complained about or exposed by local news outlets, the responsible hosts always immediately respond with “sincere” apologies followed by excuses that they didn’t know it was offensive or with a spokesperson saying the incident isn’t tolerated and will be dealt with.

As in the case of a New York immigrant from Bangladesh. The entrepreneur decided to rename his restaurant Obama Fried Chicken—and refused to change the name after complaints were forged against it—reasoning that was he was paying homage to our President. The establishment was eventually shut down due to a barrage of health code violations in 2009. A similar incident occurred in Beijing, China and the owner eventually changed its name, likely due to pressure from the Chinese government.

Although the media resports on these events, they never explain why individuals have a predisposed belief that African Americans love fried chicken and watermelon.

According to Claire Schmidt, a professor at the University of Missouri and a specialist on race and folklore, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent drama “Birth of a Nation” may be the culprit. The movie has a scene depicting a group of African American actors portraying shiftless elected officials behaving like buffoons in a meeting. The Negro legislators are devouring chicken, drinking, and are kicked back with their feet resting on their desks. It is believed the message to the audience that Griffith was attempting to instill was “these are the dangers of letting Blacks vote.”

Professor Gary Prebula of California State University, Long Beach Film and Electronic Arts Department believes movies like “Birth of a Nation” did impact the Black race negatively, but reminds us that the first derogatory movie portraying African Americans lust for watermelon as a food source took place seven years prior in 1896 with Thomas Edison’s production of the silent movie “Watermelon Eating Contest.”

Edison’s company invented the kinetoscope, an early motion picture device you would look into through a peephole viewer. Edison recorded images of the first African Americans on the silver screen. They are depicted in this short film devouring watermelon like a school of sharks eating its prey. The men are very dark in complexion and eventually start to sabotage the efforts of each others consumption by pulling the fruit away their competitors mouths. Prebula says that—combined with other derogatory films that have followed it—has been ingrained in our mind that Black folks love watermelon. Statistically, Asian Americans and Hispanics actually consume more watermelon than African Americans.

A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated that African Americans eat less watermelon than most other races, and that White Americans consume the most. Yet, historically African Americans have been the most closely associated with the fruit.

The world should understand this unfounded connection stems from the Antebellum South and a misunderstanding of African American slaves behaviors in attempt to survive. Food Archeologist Dwight Eisnach blames it on simple ignorance.

Eisnach believes watermelon was introduced in the United States as early as 1629 (some historians give earlier dates) as a fruit indigenous to South Africa. The first successful crops in the United States were grown by slaves who sometimes planted watermelon in the cotton or cornfields to use as a form of hydration while working on hot summer days. There was no one passing out bottles of drinking water to these people as they worked 14-hour days picking cotton and other crops in the harsh sun; they had to do whatever they could to survive.

Eisnach believes there were also acts of passive rebellion during the Civil War. Slaves would commit “silent sabotage” or day-to-day acts of resistance which included stealing food such as chickens and watermelon which were readily available and fair game. The shortage of male overseers created by the south needing troops allowed slaves to at times work unsupervised.

“I believe these acts of sabotage have morphed into the false association of Blacks having a strong palate for chicken and watermelon. This stereotypical belief has been reinforced with 375 years of images and print, so how can we change it?” asked Eisnach. “Did you know Captain America circa 1941 had a African American sidekick known as “Whitewash” who would have dreams about eating watermelon? Every angle of Americana has associated Blacks having a passion for this fruit.”

According to cultural historian Jeffrey Singleton from the Smithsonian, he does not doubt that at one time African Americans consumed a lot of fried chicken; however, everyone eats fried chicken down South.

“When we look at fried chicken and the belief that it became a favorite dish in Black households, I do not think it is disgraceful,” said Singleton. “What is disgraceful are the images America has painted about Blacks and chicken if you examine any item that has been manufactured prior to the 1950’s and fits into the collectors category of Black Americana. It has a Sambo face, accompanied with chicken, watermelon, and laziness.”

Singleton believes that some Africans brought to the United States during the slave trade were familiar with agriculture, as vegetables were their main form of nutrition. However raising African guineafowl as pets—or food—may have familiarized them with poultry and the domesticated chicken of the New World which came from Southeast Asia.

Slaves were entrusted to care for their masters chickens and this association made chicken a item in their foodway. Singleton believes his theory may be correct due to ship logs that indicated certain parts of West Africa provided Black slaves with what they interpreted as primitive agricultural knowledge.

African American slaves usually ate fried chicken on Sundays; a tradition still practiced today. Blacks were the first to experiment with seasoning due to our misfortune of receiving tainted and spoiled meat (seasoning masked taste), and indigenous crockery used for frying was prevalent due to the fact that slaves did not have access to ovens.

This fowl was an obtainable meat that was integrated with opossum, fish and racoon or anything African Americans could hunt. As we moved west, a lot of the meats our ancestors grew up eating were no longer practical but chicken remained a mainstay.

South Los Angeles resident Francis Foley, or Moma Foley as she prefers to be called, came to town with her mother and older sisters in 1938 from Tennessee.

“I would ask any person if they could imagine being African American during the time of Jim Crow and having to travel on a train that refused to serve Blacks food,” said Foley. “Anybody that wanted a better future for themselves or their family got out of the South. We had to pack our own food and we would eat fried chicken and sweet potato pie; anything that wouldn’t spoil because it wasn’t safe to get off the train down South, especially if you had little girls.”

Having a food that was compact and provided nutrition was essential to African Americans traveling through southern states. Trains would often stop to take on water and coal, a necessity for the steam locomotive. Often these stops allowed the average traveler to leave the passenger car and get a bite to eat or explore. However, if you were African American the safest practice was to remain on the train due to lynchings. This is the era when the shoe box lunch became a travel companion.

According to Psyche A. Williams-Forson author of Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, during the “great migration” African American woman took advantage of rail travel and became entrepreneurs known as “waiter carriers.” These women would wait at train stations and sell shoe box lunches filled with fried chicken and sweet potato pie, according to Williams-Forson. These early entrepreneurs were the predecessors to eateries like Roscoes House of Chicken and Waffles,Wingstop Restaurants, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Jim Dandy, and Popeyes.

Harland Sanders (Kentucky Fried Chicken) and Maxim Lester Graham (Coons Chicken) may have noticed African American waiter carriers and the success they had with selling shoebox chicken. Both had access to funds and took the fried chicken business to a whole new level.

The Coon Chicken Inn restaurant chain in Salt Lake City, Utah flourished for almost 20 years. The restaurant’s motif was a combination of novelty architecture and racism consisting of grotesque 12-foot high ‘coon head’ that served as the entrance to each restaurant. According to a family member who preferred to remain anonymous, the face was a gimmick that was added so that children would beg their parents to stop and dine.

The restaurant was staffed by Black waiters who served a predominantly White clientele in a room filled with the restaurant’s hallmark logo. As you walked towards the restaurant you would see a sub-human effigy of a African American’s face with huge red lips, a bellhop’s hat, and over-exaggerated features portraying African Americans as mere cartoon characters, not humans.

A former head waiter of the Coon Chicken Inn, Ford Winters, was interviewed prior to his death. He was described as “a very nice older gentleman that does not seem to have a mean bone in his body.” During an interview Winters was asked how he felt about the racist images of the Coon Chicken Inn. He responded by saying that he was not at all racist, he just did not think about it at the time; nobody did. “Racism like that was accepted, people just put it in the back of their minds and did not think about it,” he said.

There have been claims that Col. Harland Sanders ripped off the KFC recipe from an African American woman by the name of Mrs. Childress and paid her $1200 dollars in back pay. Sanders’ marketing strategy was completely different from the Coon Chicken Inn, instead plastering his restaurants with a White face and an antebellum South aristocratic tinge “Colonel.”

KFC is the second largest franchise in the world and is now worth $15 billion in sales. Sanders company makes billions off of a food African Americans used just to survive, and have been made a mockery of because of it ever since…and the rest is history.