I spent the 4th of July weekend tooling around the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. (link) Both have been closed for renovation for the past six years, and thus I was easily swept up by the opening weekend excitement. I took a few pictures and jotted down a few notes – I figured it would be a simple task to compose a blog-ode of sorts to these amazing museums, but, well, the very first piece I chose to write about sent this post careening in a totally unexpected direction!
Winslow Homer painted the Watermelon Boys in 1876. It’s an anti-pastoral masterpiece fit for the final days of Reconstruction. But what exactly is the Obtuse Bard (as Homer was known to his pals!) saying? On the one hand we have a clever reversal of convention – this time it’s a lazy white boy whose consciousness barely extends beyond his mandibles! And while the African Americans in the picture do possess poise and grace – that stare into the distance suggests an awareness of a long time coming before Blacks and watermelons can publicly coexist free from prejudice and stereotype.
A long time indeed! Today the juxtaposition seems just as charged as in antebellum times. Just this spring controversy erupted over a Washington State Math test that asked students to calculate what happens after Condoleezza Rice hurls a Watermelon off the top of the Federal Building (link).
It’s one of those questions that only leads to others.
Like: what was George Pal thinking when he created the racially charged cartoon ‘Jasper and the Watermelons’? Mr. Pal protested that he meant no offense but the cartoon was banned anyways – You can watch this 1942 oddity thanks to YouTube. (link)
30 years later Washington DC broadcast personality and community activist Petey Greene asks perhaps the most important question of all: How do you eat a Watermelon? Watch him demonstrate and pontificate in this truly bizarre clip from his 1970s television show (link)
As I said, this post went a bit off track –I hope I have not ruined the Watermelon for anyone – It certainly makes for a fine summer snack. And if you find yourself in DC make sure you visit the museums.