The idea behind a special, Black History Month cafeteria menu may have been noble and well-intentioned but controversy resulted Feb. 3 when students at Carondelet High School for Girls arrived at the cafeteria and found the lunchroom fare that day included watermelon, fried chicken and cornbread.
The move, a Black History Month special menu, was considered an insult that drew outrage from parents and students.
The outcome of the attempt at recognizing Black Americans and the history of the African Diaspora was an apology from the private school principal who met with the school’s Black Student Union, wrote a letter to the school community that the menu was being scrapped and announced that plans are in the works for a school assembly for faculty and students on diversity.
"I'd like to apologize for this announcement and any hurt this caused students, parents or community members," Carondelet principal Nancy Libby wrote.
"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.
University of San Francisco professor James Taylor said, “Chicken, watermelon, collard greens—these stereotypes of Black southern culture come from the same place that the N-word comes from.”
“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.”
In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Claire Schmidt, a professor at the University of Missouri, said chicken was a part of Southern diet, but that poultry had particular utility for slaves. She said that on pre-Civil War plantations chicken were cheap, easy to raise and a good source of meat.
“Like watermelon, that other food that’s been a mainstay in racist depictions of Blacks, chicken was also a good vehicle for racism because of the way people eat it,” she told NPR. “It’s a food you eat with your hands, and therefore it’s dirty. Table manners are a way of determining who is worthy of respect or not.”
But students, parents and school officials said the controversy could have been avoided if suggestions had been considered, on a school-wide basis, of how to observe Black History Month.