Eating While Black — a few new Demands for the list

It’s true that I shouldn’t have bought the ridiculously overpriced bowl of cut watermelon when I went out to the store yesterday. Five dollars! I passed it on my way into the market and made myself look away. Watermelon in New York City on February 28th, never a wise move. The food miles alone make it a big, glaring “NO!”

But I bought it. It was calling my name, and I couldn’t resist.

I tried to scold myself, but why really? Then I put the first pretty red chunk in my mouth.




It was so good. It tasted better than most of the melon I ate last summer. Tasted like watermelon I remember from my childhood.

Sigh. Watermelon is, of course, manna from heaven. Yes, I said that. I’ve written before about my watermelon beliefs. That was all pre-Daniel Handler, of course, but my feelings about watermelon haven’t changed at all, which is also an “of course.” Can’t let racism stand in the way of my pleasure. But here is racism, trying to get between me and my fork. *

In the last few years I have run again and again into people who have felt comfortable sharing with me the idea that I shouldn’t eat watermelon … or at least not in public … or at least not with such obvious joy. Yeah, I’m not here for that. Not even a little. I can’t get with the idea that I need to pretend distaste or disdain when it comes to watermelon. I should let ugly history and someone else’s prejudice stop me from doing any blessed thing I want to do? Not so much.

At an event years ago, I walked along the buffet looking for fruit. I spotted watermelon and grapes (a strong runner-up in the “fruit proofs” competition) and headed over. I put a small bunch of grapes on my plate and reached for the tongs on the watermelon tray.

“I would never eat watermelon at an event like this.”
I turned to see a black man in a lovely suit turning his nose up at my choice.
“That’s great,” I said. “Leaves more for me!” (You know, levity. Because it’s the buffet table, not really the place I want to be having heavy conversations about racism and shame.)
“How can you let all these people see you eating that?”
“How can you care enough to deny yourself?”

I get it. I do. And each person has to make her own choices. But that self-denial frustrates me. I’m tired of being policed even around something as trivial as whether or not I eat watermelon. In public. In keeping with my listing of grievances and demands, I’m putting up a food list.

  1. Watermelon. I eat it. I eat a lot of it. A LOT of it. I love it. This has nothing to do with the fact that I am Black and everything to do with the fact that watermelon is delicious. If you see me eating watermelon, you are welcome to ask me if I’m enjoying it. You are welcome to talk about how much you do or don’t like it, or how your mom always puts salt on hers, or how you have this great recipe for a watermelon and feta cheese salad (which is so good, by the way). You are NOT welcome to give me side eye, to make comments about how I’m proving a stereotype, to say anything that you would feel the need to preface with “Not to be racist, but …”  You are welcome to have those thoughts and keep them to yourself. And if you can’t think of anything else to say, keep silent and step off. And if you’re a Black person, and you have something to say … if it isn’t one of the things noted at the start of this item, or maybe a little solidarity nod to my defiance or some such … you, too, can keep silent and step off.
  2. Soul food. I’m never sure what you mean when you ask me if I like soul food. Sometimes you seem to mean the comfort food of my childhood. Other times you seem to mean macaroni and cheese. Sometimes you want to hear about chitterlings and pigs feet, or other random animal parts that you associate with Black people. I do love the comfort food of my childhood, which for me is my mom’s pancakes, or her biscuits, or grits, or corn bread. There’s a pork chop dish she used to make when we were kids, and I love Massaman curry at Thai restaurants because it tastes like that dish. I never ate mac and cheese that wasn’t pre-fab from Kraft until I learned to cook it a few years ago. I really like it now, but is it really soul food when my recipe is an amalgam of Martha Stewart, the Mueller’s pasta package, and The Joy of Cooking? Maybe you’ll be happy to know my grandmother always threw a piece of fatback into the pot when she cooked vegetables. And, too, she made a delicious sweet potato pie. As for the rest, I’ve never liked pigs feet, or hog maws, or anything like that, so no, none for me. Not sorry to disappoint, but wish you could stop needing to ask me.
  3. Fried chicken. I don’t eat it. But only because I’m a vegetarian now. I used to eat it. I used to love it. I used to be finicky about it — I wouldn’t eat just any fried chicken. I didn’t care for the fast-food varieties, didn’t like nonsense thrown into the batter. Because I no longer eat meat, you won’t see me eating any fried chicken. Which brings me to …
  4. I’m a vegetarian. I’m a Black woman who’s a vegetarian. I’m a fat, Black woman who’s a vegetarian. To all the people who’ve expressed surprise and disbelief upon learning that I don’t eat meat — surprise and disbelief accompanied by less-than-discreet once-overs of my body — it’s really not as unique and shocking as you seem to think. I’m not a vegetarian because I’m on a diet. I’m not a vegetarian because I’m a “roots woman,” whatever you mean when you ask me that question. I’m not a vegetarian because I’m Rastafarian and eat an Ital diet. (And no, being vegetarian and vegan aren’t the same thing. And yes, fish is meat, and I don’t eat it.)
  5. Grape soda (oh we had to get here eventually!). I actually do occasionally like grape soda. And if I buy Snapple, it’s the grape drink. But you know what, other folks must be drinking that stuff, too, because when I’ve been in very un-diverse places, I always manage to find it easily. And, too, you really aren’t going to win any points with me by telling me, as a man at a deli in Park Slope did a few weeks ago when I went to the cash register with my grape Snapple, “I see you’re drinking the national beverage of your people.” Yeah. No points. And also no sale. I left the Snapple on the counter and took my business elsewhere.

Maybe you’re getting the idea. Black people eat. We eat whatever we eat. Just the way everyone else does. There really never needs to be a conversation about it. And there definitely never needs to be anyone thinking they have the right to lean in and tell me what I should or shouldn’t be eating. Unless I took the food off your plate, or the money to pay for it out of your wallet, you really need to keep your commentary to yourself.

As for the over-priced watermelon, I can see more of that in my immediate future. It was too good to leave alone.

It’s the first of March, and you know what that means: it’s time for the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of teachers and writers (it is actually hundreds now after starting in 2008 with just a dozen or so of us) will be posting their stories. You can meet all kinds of amazing people and start some great conversations. Also, it’s not too late for you to join in!

SOL image 2014

* For those of you who are new here, or haven’t been here since the last Slice of Life Challenge, welcome … and be forewarned. I am writing a LOT about race and anger and all the ways that the status quo of this country is too unbearably unacceptable. Not every slice will be from the heart of my anger, but I’m sure that many will. My anger doesn’t mean I’m not open to conversation. I always am, always welcome it — though it might be a good idea to read my list of grievances and list of demands … and the “can we talk?” piece to prepare yourself for where I am right now. You’re welcome here. I hope you’ll comment, challenge me, ask questions, share your views. As a country, we’re standing in a big, open doorway. I’m looking for folks to walk through with me.

Culture Shock

Today my class and I had a curious, surprising, troubling experience.  I’m giving up my class (that’s not what this post is about, I promise to write that later), and my students are helping to choose the teacher who will replace me, so every applicant has to come and teach class for an hour so we can get an idea of what they’ll be like.  The students and I brainstormed a list of criteria they will use to critique each candidate, and I made an evaluation sheet with both a check list and a comment section.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll write about the lovely young woman who came to teach yesterday.  Today belongs to Howard.  Howard is an older man whose resume interested me not only because it showed many, many years of GED teaching experience, but also for the fact that it listed “The Civil Rights Movement” under “Experience.”  Really.  Howard did voter registration in Neshoba County, Mississippi in the mid 60s.  In my book, that at least gets you in the door.  So I called him to interview.

And I liked him, but I had some doubts after we met.  He seemed a little more “old school” than my students would be comfortable with.  At the same time, some of my students complain that I’m not old school enough.  They want a classroom experience that’s maybe a little more like the ones they had in the past.  And I figured Howard could probably give them that, so I arranged for him to come teach … on Tuesday.  I got to class and announced that we had a guest teacher coming in.

And then he didn’t show.

So we started doing a social studies lesson and talked and did some writing while we waited for him.

And he still didn’t show.

And I checked the messages in my office and checked my email, and we did some more work on social studies.

And he still didn’t show.

And my students were angry and insulted and I was pretty annoyed, too, but much more (foolishly) forgiving, and when I talked to Howard later in the day and he gave me a truly lame excuse for not coming to class, I decided to give him another chance and asked him to come in today.  I talked to my students about second chances, and they were lovely and willing to set aside their bad feelings from Tuesday.

So today Howard joined us … and spent an hour showing me why “The Civil Rights Movement” on your resume isn’t enough to get you an audition in front of my class.

  • He started off by telling the class that he wouldn’t remember their names, so he wouldn’t bother going around the room with introductions.
  • He spent the first 20-25 minutes telling a series of rambling, hard-to-follow stories, some of which seemed to be at least vaguely related to the questions students asked him during the “interview me” section he started off with (a section during which my students asked really good questions and during which he kept telling them they weren’t asking good questions!)
  • When asked what made him apply for the job, he went on to explain that he had a full life outside of teaching and didn’t need to be there with us and that he had applied because the job was open and he figured why not.
  • He told them class with him wouldn’t be fun, that he wasn’t about having a fun class, he was about getting the work done.
  • After wandering through a strange, experimental theater sort of telling of his work history, he stopped and said, “Oh, this will interest many of you –” (looking pointedly at my teen students) “I used to teach at Rikers Island.” (A prison, for those who aren’t familiar with Rikers.)
  • During the interview section, he told them repeatedly not to ask him any personal questions … and then he proceeded to call out each student and ask each to tell him why he or she had left school (oh no, I’m totally serious … he’d point at a student: “What’s your name?  Why’d you drop out of school?  Just tell us in a brief sentence or two.”).
  • During the horrible tell-us-why-you’re-a-dropout section, he encouraged each student to admit that they hadn’t been able to keep up with the work when they’d been in school (“Oh, so you had a hard time with the work?”  “You struggled, you can say that.”).
  • When he got to Miao and she said that she’d left school ten years ago because she needed to work, he shifted his follow-up questions: “But you were a good student before you left school, right?”  “You were probably very good in math, right?” (Oh, gentle reader, how much I wish I was kidding you right now.)
  • He didn’t teach anything.  He gave out a worksheet and then didn’t do any work with it.  He kept saying, “If this were a real class, I would …” without seeming to have any idea that, of course, it was a real class and he was supposed to be teaching it.

But his “finest” moments came toward the end.  He gave out a math worksheet, gave the class a few minutes to work on it then asked if people were done, and two students said they were.  He said, “Ok, well, I’m going to give out the answer sheet so you can correct your work.  I don’t want to embarrass you for not being done.”  He started to pass out the answer sheet and then stopped and said, “I just wanted to point out that the two Asian students finished in three minutes.”

No.  I’m not making this shit up.  I couldn’t.  It hurts my heart just to type it.  He said that.  And when one of my students said, “That’s racist,” he said: “It’s not racist.  I’m just talking about cultural differences.  They’re good in math.  That’s just a fact.”

Howard will not be taking over my class.

(Did I really have to tell you that?)