Chicken and watermelon: Delicious tribute or insensitive menu?

Chicken and watermelon: Delicious tribute or insensitive menu?
A school's Black History Month menu of fried chicken, corn bread and watermelon has some asking: What's so racist about that? (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

It's February, which means another Black History Month -- and yet another school cafeteria serving up fried chicken and watermelon. But should that lead to finger-licking or finger-wagging?

This week, the principal of a girls Christian private school in Northern California apologized for a lunch menu for Black History Month that included corn bread, fried chicken and watermelon.


"Please know that at no time at Carondelet do we wish to perpetrate racial stereotypes," Nancy Libby, principal at Carondelet High School for Girls in Concord, said in a letter to parents.

The statement posted on the school website says the school was "saddened and distressed" by the announcement of "a menu that was racially insensitive." 

Fried chicken isn't particularly healthy -- we can debate its tastiness. But is serving it in February actually racially insensitive? 

The problem isn't necessarily with the food items and their connection to black culture. Brenda Stevenson, professor of African American history and history of the American South at UCLA, told The Times in a phone interview that it's more the notion of "boiling down 350 years of history into a single meal."  

It would be offensive, she said, "if [the meal] is all you can come up with" to highlight the contributions of African Americans to the nation's history.

In other words, it needs the appropriate side dish: context.

"There's a history lesson that has to go along with that meal," she said, a history based on survival.

Frankly, there's nothing inherently "black" about fried chicken and corn bread -- these are more a Southern staple.   

The association of watermelon, in particular, with black culture in America seems to continue to be a delicate subject. (Truth be told, the black population isn't a huge segment of the watermelon-eating universe today.)

The fruit has over the years been rotted with the seeds of derision, the images of very dark-skinned people with gleaming white teeth biting into the broad, messy fruit.

But the connection doesn't have to continue to be negative. Watermelon, Stevenson said, was one of the fruits that African Americans could grow on their own garden spots. "It is part of African American food culture." 

For the record, watermelon is refreshing for all races. 

A bigger question that could be asked is whether Black History Month is serving its purpose, if it comes down to only gastronomic tributes. 

There remains a certain amount of embarrassment -- even shame -- for some black students when the topic turns to slavery and the like, Stevenson said.

I recall, as a child, feeling my face burn every time anything related to black history was mentioned in class. Black history was a source of embarrassment, not pride, since it was not something the rest of the class -- the white students -- felt any ownership of.  

"It's a magnificent, glorious history that has been perverted," she said. This is "one of the ways Black History Month has not served its purpose ... and why it needs to continue," Stevenson said. 

But back to the fried chicken.  

There's been a divide within social media about whether there's something inherently racist about serving those foods for Black History Month. Below is a sampling from Reddit.

Tell me whether you think a meal of chicken and watermelon is offensive -- and whether Black History Month is still a relevant celebration -- via Twitter: @mmaltaisLAT