January 27, 2024 Abdul Haqq

Watermelons & Palestine: Symbolism and Overtures of Emancipation

“In occupied Palestine, watermelon is a symbol of resistance. With its colors mirroring the Palestinian flag, the fruit can be seen from the stone walls of Gaza to the galleries of Ramallah, hinting at the political history of a cherished summer fruit.” [1]

In contrast, historically the same fruit was also weaponised to provide racist stereotypes of freed African Americans:

“By the mid-to-late 19th century, watermelon began to become racialized… negative descriptions about African American watermelon-eaters started becoming more prominent. 

 Throughout the Jim Crow era, smear campaigns involving African Americans eating watermelon began to be spread, partially as a form of bigotry, but also as an attempt to squash African American businesses.” [2]

The underlying purposes for selecting this particular fruit evoke symbolisms that are difficult to ignore; resistance on the one hand as it relates to the continuing struggle of Palestinians, and humiliation on the other, insofar as racist caricatures of Black Americans persisted. How could such a staple food be utilised for such polarised objectives? Palestinians have been utilising it as an alternative to the national flag since the latter was initially banned from public display 57 years ago:

“After the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israeli government banned all public displays of the Palestinian flag and its colors. Any outward show of the flag, from publications to advertisements and even old photographs, could result in imprisonment or worse. Watermelon – with its red, green, black, and white coloring – became a subtle method for Palestinians to display national pride. Even holding a slice of fresh watermelon outside became an act of protest.” [3]

Racist stereotyping of African Americans arose because of the prevailing white supremacist culture (and psychosis) that could not accept the idea of black entrepreneurism and advancement of recently freed slaves:

“Post-emancipation after the Civil War ended, newly freed African Americans continued to grow watermelons and sold them to generate income for themselves.

…this new economic model upset some former slave owners in the South, who were angered that formerly subjugated African Americans had carved out a lucrative business niche for themselves and were enjoying the fruits of their labor.

“This air of freedom among those formerly enslaved further humiliated Southern whites,” Dr. McCalester said. “The sheer audacity for Freed Africans to persevere in spite of their deplorable action, caused the concerted effort and sharp response of Southern whites to create a racist trope around the fruit and freed Africans.”

Degrading African Americans by way of watermelon also acted as a ploy to derail Black people from gaining and sustaining positions of power.”” [4]

Many parallels can be drawn between these two resilient cultures as a result of the oppression, enslavement (currently psychological) and occupation they continue to endure. Palestinians also experienced adversarial strategies to usurp both land and associated agricultural businesses:

“Before the Nakba in 1948, Palestine was world-famous for growing succulent watermelons in Jenin, the Jordan Valley, and Arabet Al-Batouf. As Israel Defense Forces (IDF) started occupying Palestinian neighborhoods, settler authorities brought in their own seed companies and flooded the market, driving the Palestinians out of competition.” [5]

ICJ Ruling: A Fruitful Outcome?

On 26th January, The International Court of Justice delivered a ruling considered by many to be devastating for Israel and awkward for its allies.[6] South Africa has been widely lauded for initiating proceedings to make Israel accountable for its disproportionate and ongoing assault, ethnic cleansing, and apparent genocidal behaviour towards Palestinians. It is apt that South Africa instigated this case; its history and successful struggle against apartheid placed it in a strong position to do so. Indeed, during its own struggle, anti-apartheid luminaries, such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, spoke unequivocally in support of Palestine. In fact, the Palestinian struggle was, and continues to be, overarching and synonymous with the plight of marginalised, subjugated peoples globally:

“Black Power activists believed fervently that they were part of a wider battle against imperialism and white settler colonialism directed against fellow peoples of color like the Palestinians… The Palestinians also mirrored their image of themselves, the concept of identity they were creating: militant warriors, colonized people of color getting off their knees and fighting back against alien oppression. In so doing, they wanted to overturn the existing structures of power that enslaved them.” [7]

The ICJ ruling can be potentially seismic, however, in view of the unfortunate combination of ineptitude, impotence and malaise already witnessed among some nation states and international agencies on the global stage, effective sanctions are unlikely. Bronwen Maddox, director of the Chatham House thinktank, highlighted the following argument surrounding western double standards:

“…the west cares about democracy, but not when it wants to install leaders it likes in other countries. It respects sovereignty except when it does not, as in Iraq. It argues for self-determination in Taiwan, not in Catalonia. It supports human rights, but not in countries from which it needs oil. It defends human rights except when it gets too difficult, as in Afghanistan.

“These accusations, if unanswered, give those countries that want to undermine the west a weapon even if their own hypocrisy is luminous.”” [8]

A litany of examples exists to substantiate Maddox’s observation. Double standards and hypocrisy abound, unashamedly at that, with leaders adopting contradictory positions depending on who they are addressing, i.e. Ukraine or Palestine. Imperialist policies continue to adhere to exploitative hierarchal structures insofar as extractive natural resources and ethnic proximities are concerned. We only have to take a cursory look at current conflicts in Sudan, Ethiopia, DRC, Niger and other regions to witness ample evidence in support of this assertion:

“In France’s former African colonies, imperialist monetary policies from Paris continue to cripple domestic economies and undermine democracy. Colonialism in Africa won’t have meaningfully come to an end until true economic sovereignty is allowed to flourish.” [9]

In addition to this, Burkino Faso’s late president, Thomas Sankara, observed during the Organisation for African Union (OAU) conference in July 1987:

“Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who colonised us’… ‘Debt is neocolonialism’, with the fiscal and monetary policies of many of the African states taken over by the ‘technical assassins’ of the IFIs [International Financial Institutions]. ‘Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa aimed at subjugating its growth and development through foreign rules’, he continued, with the IFIs setting policy by using the debt as an instrument to demand ‘structural adjustment’ of domestic finance ministries and central banks.” [10]

Sankara’s assassination 3 months after delivering this address will come as no surprise to a few. This is an established trend of the Global North to maintain hegemony over the Global South, often enlisting proxies to conduct such bidding. Verbose claims of protecting national security, or the right to defend populations are usually precursors to disproportionate aggression; Ronald Reagan ordered the 1983 invasion of Grenada, stating, “What is at stake in Grenada is not nutmeg. It is U.S. national security.” [11] US fears about the small Caribbean Island adopting communism was palpable, particularly after Maurice Bishop became prime minister. During his only visit to the US he stated emphatically, to rapturous applause:

“They [the US] like to talk a lot about backyard and frontyard and lake – well, Grenada ain’t nobody’s backyard, and ain’t part of nobody’s lake!” [12]

The US invaded Grenada a week after Bishop’s assassination. If this sounds nuts, fast forward to current events where more than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed and 64,487 injured following 7th October attacks in which 1,269 Israelis died. These figures provide grim reading, as does the sheer disproportionality and subsequent loss of innocent lives on the premise of ‘the right to defend’. When does this right morph into naked revenge? When do those enacting such collective punishments abide by their own religious tenets that state ‘an eye for an eye’? Or is selectivity the order of the day and instead, genocidal Biblical references to ‘wipe out Amalek’ the preferred reading?

Conclusion: A Grin or Grimace?

Former UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, once derided Africans as, “flag waving piccaninnies with watermelon smiles” [13] No one should be under any illusion today that we are witnessing anything other than grimaces from the gross injustices crossing our screens and social media platforms, together with gritted teeth of determination and resolve to continue calling out our leaders and institutions that once held themselves to higher standards as bastions of human rights. The UK and US can bomb Yemeni targets as retaliatory acts to Houthis attacking ships carrying military and other cargo destined for Israel but refuse to condemn or enact punitive measures against the latter, responsible for an unprecedented number of Palestinian deaths. The overall message is resounding – trade and cargo are more valuable than Palestinian lives. It is somewhat of a relief that such cargo no longer comprises African slaves due to the likelihood they would have been thrown overboard like their ancestors during the Middle Passage.

The irony of the UK loaning back to Ghana a priceless artefact, formerly looted under auspices of empire, underscores the twisted logic we are experiencing today:

“The UK is sending some of Ghana’s “crown jewels” back home, 150 years after looting them from the court of the Asante king. A gold peace pipe is among 32 items returning under long-term loan deals… The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) is lending 17 pieces and 15 are from the British Museum.” [14]

It is the same or similar logic that posits usurpers of a property returning a small section of it to those they have forcibly displaced. Or is this assumption simply bananas?

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Anania, B: ‘How Watermelon Became a Symbol of Palestinian Resistance,’ Hyperallergic, 29th July 2021: https://hyperallergic.com/666111/how-watermelon-became-a-symbol-of-palestinian-resistance/

[2] Cheyenne, A: ‘How the watermelon stereotype came to be weaponized against Black Americans,’ Business Insider, 13th November 2022: https://www.businessinsider.com/watermelon-stereotype-african-american-history-food-racism-2022-8?r=US&IR=T

[3] Anania, B: ‘How Watermelon Became a Symbol of Palestinian Resistance,’ Hyperallergic, 29th July 2021: https://hyperallergic.com/666111/how-watermelon-became-a-symbol-of-palestinian-resistance/

[4] Cheyenne, A: ‘How the watermelon stereotype came to be weaponized against Black Americans,’ Business Insider, 13th November 2022: https://www.businessinsider.com/watermelon-stereotype-african-american-history-food-racism-2022-8?r=US&IR=T

[5] Anania, B: ‘How Watermelon Became a Symbol of Palestinian Resistance,’ Hyperallergic, 29th July 2021: https://hyperallergic.com/666111/how-watermelon-became-a-symbol-of-palestinian-resistance/

[6] Wintour, P: ‘ICJ’s Gaza decision shores up rules-based order and puts west to test,’ The Guardian, 26th January 2024: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2024/jan/26/icj-gaza-decision-shores-up-rules-based-order-and-puts-west-to-test

[7] Fischbach, M R: ‘Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color,’ Stanford University Press, 2019.

[8] Wintour, P: ‘ICJ’s Gaza decision shores up rules-based order and puts west to test,’ The Guardian, 26th January 2024: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2024/jan/26/icj-gaza-decision-shores-up-rules-based-order-and-puts-west-to-test

[9] Sylla, NS; Pigeaud, F & Dite, C: ‘Africa: How France Continues to Dominate its Former Colonies in Africa,’ CADTM, 26th April 2021: https://www.cadtm.org/Africa-How-France-Continues-to-Dominate-Its-Former-Colonies-in-Africa

[10] Dossier 63: ‘Life or Debt: The Stranglehold of Neocolonialism and Africa’s Search for Alternatives,’ Tricontinental, 11th April 2023: https://thetricontinental.org/dossier-63-african-debt-crisis/

[11] Pastor, R: ‘Grenada,’ The Washington Post, 26th October 1983: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1983/10/26/grenada/54913432-431e-4d2d-bc5e-a489b2870f14/

[12] Bishop, M: ‘Maurice Bishop Knew Why He Was Dangerous,’ The Jacobin, 19th October 2023: https://jacobin.com/2023/10/maurice-bishop-grenada-revolution-caribbean-colonialism-us-relations-democracy

[13] Davidson, P: ‘Boris says his ‘racist content’ was taken out of context,’ Daily Record, 14th July 2021: https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/boris-johnson-says-racist-content-24533380

[14] Razzall, K: ‘Asante Gold: UK to loan back Ghana’s looted ‘crown jewels,’ BBC News, 25th January 2024: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-68066877

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