A Black History Month cafeteria special of watermelon, fried chicken and cornbread proposed at an all-girls Catholic school has sparked outrage among community members who are denouncing the menu as a celebration of black stereotypes, not history.
Carondelet High School in Concord, Calif. announced Monday it would be serving the meal that week, but reactions from students and parents prompted an assembly and explanatory letter the next day, NBC reports.
"I'd like to apologize for this announcement and any hurt this caused students, parents or community members," principal Nancy Libby stated. "Please know that at no time at Carondelet do we wish to perpetrate (sic) racial stereotypes," adding that she met with leaders of the school’s Black Student Union, who requested the watermelon be removed from the menu.
According to the Associated Press, the items were removed from the menu, and the school will hold an assembly on diversity.
The menu may have been well-intentioned, University of San Francisco professor James Taylor explained, but ultimately honors prejudice against blacks.
“Chicken, watermelon, collard greens -- these stereotypes of black southern culture come from the same place that the N-word comes from,” he told NBC. “This is not like this food represents some heroic moment in African-American experience. What it represents is the degradation and the stereotyping of African-Americans.”
Fried chicken feasts in honor of Black History Month have long caused disagreement. When a snapshot of a similar menu served at NBC spread on Twitter in 2010, the chef, Leslie Calhoun -- who was black -- retorted that she wasn’t suggesting this was all blacks ate and that she didn’t understand the controversy.
“It's just a good meal,” she said.
Good meal or not, fried chicken and watermelon have been used throughout American history to depict blacks as poor and ill-mannered, says race and folklore expert Claire Schmidt of the University of Missouri.
"It's a food you eat with your hands, and therefore it's dirty," she explained to NPR, breaking down the history of fried chicken imagery in early racist flicks like “Birth of a Nation.”
"It's still a way to express racial (contempt) without getting into serious trouble," Schmidt said. "How it's possible to be both a taboo and a corporate mainstream thing just shows how complicated race in America is."
According to U.S. government data, the black community is actually one of the lowest consumers of watermelon.