Although the process is slow, American museums are making some attempts to be more inclusive and representative when addressing unsavory parts of US History. Discussions of racism are often avoided all together. If racism is brought up, it’s usually cloaked in language that has a rushed tone. For Marabou it often feels like institutions are saying, “This was bad, but it’s not happening anymore! (Right?!) There, we said it, let’s move on.” As Marabou will say time and again, it’s not just acknowledgement of historical injustice and violence, it’s how you say it and if there is any accountability and realization of impact. To illustrate this point, Marabou shares with you two discussions of the watermelon in relation to African American history. The first is from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York and the second is from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington DC.
The following text is the label for the oil painting “Untitled (Cracked Watermelon)” by Charles Ethan Porter around 1890. It is currently on display in The Met’s American Wing.
From The Met:
The largely Connecticut-based, New York- and Paris-trained Porter was among the first African American artists to exhibit his work nationally and the only one to specialize in still lifes. This is one of his largest and most impressive works. Its subject—originally an African gourd brought to the New World by seventeeth-century Spaniards and cultivated by colonists—is also significant. Porter chose to paint a watermelon, an earlier symbol of American abundance—and during the Civil War period one particularly associated with free blacks—when it was increasingly defined by virulent stereotyping. By reclaiming the subject in artistic terms, Porter challenged a contemporary racist trope.
View this post on Instagram
Before it became a racist stereotype in the Jim Crow era, watermelon once symbolized self-sufficiency among African Americans. Following Emancipation, many Southern African Americans grew and sold watermelons. Seen as a symbol of their freedom, many Southern whites reacted to the self-sufficiency created by the commerce by turning the fruit into symbol of poverty, and “a feast” for the unclean, lazy and child-like. To shame black watermelon merchants, popular ads and ephemera, including post cards pictured African Americans stealing, fighting over, or sitting in streets eating watermelon. In addition, watermelons being eaten hand to mouth, without utensils, made it impossible to consume without making a mess and being branded a public nuisance. #APeoplesJourney #Halloween 📸: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman and Sandra Lindley.
On October 31, 2018, the NMAAHC shared the above post on Instagram, the caption read:
Before it became a racist stereotype in the Jim Crow era, watermelon once symbolized self-sufficiency among African Americans. Following Emancipation, many Southern African Americans grew and sold watermelons. Seen as a symbol of their freedom, many Southern whites reacted to the self-sufficiency created by the commerce by turning the fruit into symbol of poverty, and “a feast” for the unclean, lazy and child-like. To shame black watermelon merchants, popular ads and ephemera, including post cards pictured African Americans stealing, fighting over, or sitting in streets eating watermelon. In addition, watermelons being eaten hand to mouth, without utensils, made it impossible to consume without making a mess and being branded a public nuisance.
The Met’s post has 110 words and the NMAAHC’s post is 112 words. Similar word counts but there is a stark difference in what we learn about the historical relationship between African Americans and the watermelon. The Met’s description of Porter’s painting is pretty standard. However Marabou is left asking “how?” and “why?” when it comes to The Met’s stating the watermelon was defined by “virulent” stereotyping and became a racist trope. The word choice of “virulent” is a strong one, but it doesn’t really provide much information or context. The NMAAHC describes the significance of the watermelon and its shifting symbolism in relation to the Black community in America. NMAAHC’s framing acknowledges past injustice beyond just saying “racism” or “racist” and explains how a symbol of self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship was twisted to degrade and take away agency of Black people in the United States. Marabou hopes The Met is paying attention to the language and approach of its fellow American museum. The Met has something to learn from its peers.
The NMAAHC has over 100 objects in its collection related to stereotypes about African Americans which are explained on the page “Popular and Pervasive Stereotypes of African Americans” on the museum website. The depth in which NMAAHC explores these aspects of African American and American culture is part of its mission. Marabou doesn’t expect The Met to have the same depth or research in this area as NMAAHC does. It makes sense that The Met’s description is more artist-centric. However, Marabou would like to see The Met push its exploration of why Porter painting a watermelon was significant. The watermelon’s African origin is acknowledged, brought over by the Spanish and cultivated by colonists – but isn’t this a good opportunity to also acknowledge that at the same time African people were being sold, enslaved, and brought to the colonies? Marabou would have liked for the Met to go further in explaining how the watermelon “was increasingly defined by virulent stereotyping,” and how by painting a watermelon, “Porter challenged a contemporary racist trope.” Since Porter’s painting is hanging in Gallery 762 “Civil War and Reconstruction Eras and Legacies,” Marabou believes it is The Met’s responsibility to do a better job representing an African American artist’s story in a gallery that shows a very white-centric perspective on the Civil War (as explored in the post “The Met’s Take on Slavery and the Civil War”). Why not explore how challenging it would be for Porter, as an African American artist, to navigate the worlds of white artists and affluent white collectors and patrons? There are many missed opportunities to make an informative and historically accountable statement through “Untitled (Cracked Watermelon)”’s label. Words are wasted and don’t provide any new insights or greater understanding of the significance of the painter, the painting, and its subject matter. Marabou is curious to know if The Met’s American Wing has any initiatives in the works, similar to that of “Native Perspectives,” that will provide contemporary African American perspectives on the museum’s collection.