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The Watermelon Eating Contest



Hi, this is Dan Baum, host of Redefine U. Thanks for joining us for our summer reading series. We're joined by guest host Candice Mayhill, who we last heard in episode 19 of season two. For this series we've asked members of the AACC community to read excerpts from their original writings, specifically texts and stories that enlighten and inspire. Our readers will also share what led them to write their selection, what they learned, and of course, how they redefined themselves. We hope you enjoy the series and return for season three beginning this fall.

DANNY: My name is Danny Hoey, and I am the assistant dean of English, Communications and Academic Literacy at Anne Arundel Community College, and today I will be reading an excerpt from my short story, "The Watermelon-Eating Contest."

For some reason I had more energy as I got ready for work. Instead of picking out a crumpled T-shirt from my laundry basket, I found a nice Ohio State Alumna T-shirt, ironed it, and put it on with a nice pair of blue jeans. When I got to work, I sat at the table contemplating my next course of action. I knew what I needed to do – stop this contest – but figuring out how to do it was the problem. While I waited for everyone to get there – Ms. Larry, Albert and Sheila Goode (my other co-worker who popped chewing gum incessantly and dressed like she was always at a party) – I made sure that my clothes were not wrinkled, a sense of pride that I had not had in quite some time. When everyone was there, I looked at the always-smiling Ms. Larry, rubbed my temples and said to her,

"A watermelon-eating contest? Is there something else we can do?" Her expression did not change, not one muscle moved in her plastic face; just a flush that she usually experienced when she was presented with something awkward.

"I asked the kids and that's what they want."

"Are we the teachers?" I asked my voice full of desperation and disgust at the kids for even asking for it.

"We are. And as teachers we have to provide them with the things that they may not get at home. That is our job. That is our responsibility."

Her smile, unwavering, caused a slight nausea in me and so I picked at a piece of dried apple that had hardened on the table. Ms. Larry then began to talk about the day's activities and I promptly tuned her out until she called my name. "Melanie. You will have group two and you will be making beaded necklaces."

Great, I thought to myself. Group two had some of the little kids who scared my grown-up self. I wasn't scared to argue with them – I was scared because they told the truth about everything. They were relentless, even, in their pursuit of it. Somehow they had decided that they were given the barometer of what is and what isn't and if they smelled it, felt it, they called you out on it. So I avoided them as much as I could. There were three in particular – Talia, Tawanna and Tiffany – the three T's is what I called them. They were glued to the hip and caused more trouble than any other kid in the program. They headed the truth squad and all three took turns at lead truth captain. "Yay! I get to play with beads!" I said this with a fake smile that I had rehearsed on the way here. Everyone laughed and smiled with me.

I carried the buckets of beads that came from Hobby Lobby and wanted to chuck them in the garbage. I knew better, and when I walked into the cafeteria over to my group they were there: the three T's; Portia, who told us every day about her boyfriend Juan and his gold capped teeth; Randy, an overweight, cocoa brown kid who read X-Men comic books no matter what it was that we were doing; Kris, long and lean and burnt cream colored who was fascinated with what new pair of Michael Jordan's were coming out (I thought, seriously?), and Janet, a Mexican girl who wore full makeup and carried a pink compact with white swirls on top that she opened and closed more times as if she forgot a spot – as if a speck of makeup fell out of place since the last time she checked. I looked at them and realized that this was what I was missing. I would use them, turn them against the idea and watch Ms. Larry crumble under their pressure. I smiled at them, big and wide, told them to follow me to the classroom and I even placed my arm on Portia's shoulder, which she promptly removed with a thick and hard smack of the lips, "Get yo hands off me. I don't even like you, ugh!" I ignored her and tried to think of something witty to say, but it escaped me and so I left it alone and led them into the classroom like a mama mallard.

Inside the classroom the first and boldest of the three T's, Talia, screamed at the top of her lungs, "Get the hell off of me Randy with yo fat self." Normally I would yell at them, try and make them feel the disgust that I had stored away when I left work and brought back with me. But I needed them. "Talia," I said calmly. "That wasn't a polite thing to say to Randy, now was it?"

Talia stared at me. Her cornrows frayed at the ends, she had a blue halter top whose straps were almost at her elbows, a pair of cut-off jeans with hearts drawn on them in black marker, and white high top Pro-Keds. "Why they hell are you being so nice to us anyway?"

I stood frozen in place. I wasn't ready for this. Somehow I thought that I could sweet talk them, get them to see where I was coming from without them knowing that I was doing it. It didn't seem to be working right now but one thing I did know was this: If I got one of the three T's on my side, then the other two would follow and so would the rest of the group. "Talia, it isn't polite for young ladies to use swear words."

"She ain't no young lady." Portia jumped in and laughed.

"Hold-up, I know she ain't talking about Talia." Tiffany, tall and stocky like me and the color of a greasy paper bag, jumped up and threw her book bag on the classroom floor, her long braids swinging like whips.

"OK, OK. We are making beads today." They ignored me, their voices grew louder. "Look," I said a little more firmly without yelling. "If you all don't settle down we will not get to go to the gym. Do we want to stay in the classroom all day?" Talia's face softened a little bit and I felt like I had a small victory.

As they were talking and trying to string the beads on thin wire, I tried to figure out how to get them to think about the danger of this contest. I went to the chalkboard and wrote, "Malcolm X."

"Why you write that on the board?" Kris asked.

All the kids looked at the board. "Do you know who this is?"

"Do we care?' Tawanna, the quietest and smallest of the three T's, asked with a bracelet of pink and green beads around her wrist.

"You should. He is a part of our history. Our family."

"He ain't my family. My mama don't know him." Talia said with her head cocked to one side like she was daring me to challenge what her mama did or did not know.

"Not literally our family. But someone who cared about our future and was like family to all of us."

"He got money?" Janet asked while looking at herself in the compact.

"He is dead," I said.

"Then why we talking about him?"

"Don't you want to know why his last name is "X"? I offered in hopes that it would make them curious.

"Noooooo!" They all said in unison.

"Well, I am going to tell you anyway." I went back to the board and erased the "X" and wrote in large letters the word, "LITTLE," next to his first name." His name was Malcolm Little and he changed it to Malcolm X because he didn't want to have a white man's last name…."

Portia stood up, turned her back to me and started rubbing Randy on the head. Talia started laughing and said, "You got my leftovers." The whole class erupted and, like that, I had lost control. It was Wednesday and the contest was on Friday. I had two days to get them to turn their hatred of me into hatred for watermelons.

At home that night, I scrolled through the pictures for a long time before I cut and paste them to a document. As usual, I should have been working on the thing that was sure to liberate me, but I was dazed by the pictures of pygmies with kinky hair, large noses, large lips and wide grins that held large, sugar-cubed teeth. In each of their white gloved hands were thick slices of watermelon. I cringed. In place of the unnamed pygmy faces I put the faces of my group, all the kids who were ready to bite down. It could have been them, could have been me, or Frankie or any other black person – kid or adult. We were all one second glance away from being pygmy watermelon-eating people. Sugar-cubed teeth dipped in blood.

What the hell was wrong with me? Why did these kids even matter? I told myself the day that I walked into Lodi Middle School that this was just a resting place, just a thing to get me through the summer. The first day I was there Ms. Larry told me their stories, told me of the empty fridges, no one home when they got out the program, the kids who cursed like sailors just to get attention. These kids I used to be. Kids who I never wanted to see again because they reminded me of whom I once was; who I was striving to not be ever again. I told myself that first day that the kids weren't my responsibility that they didn't mean much to me. I said it in my head over and over again each day I stood in front of them, every day that I went through the mindless lesson plans. They couldn't mean anything to me. They couldn't belong to me. If I let them, if I did, then I risked becoming the "me" I had tucked away with each school, each degree. And even though I couldn't risk becoming the me that I hid, I couldn't let them subject themselves to something that they couldn't understand. There was no way. And if these pictures couldn't change their minds then we were all in trouble.


DANNY: Is this when Candice comes in or no?

CANDICE: Sure! Good morning, Danny! Can you talk to us a little bit about your story and what inspired you to write this piece?

DANNY: Three things. The first thing is most of the stuff that I'd been working on before the story started was very heavy. So, I was working on my first novel, I was writing short stories, and I had my friends reading it, and they asked me, "Do you ever write anything that's funny?" And so I got a sense that they appreciated what I was doing, but they were tired of reading some stuff that was always heavy. So I said, well, you know, I'm going to set out to write a funny story, and I thought about that for a while, but then the summer before I had just finished my comps, and I was all but dissertation, and for about three years I was a teaching assistant, so over the summertime I would get teaching assistance-ships. And so I went to the graduate school office and they told me that because I had finished all of my hours and all I had left was dissertation hours, that I could not teach over the summer, which meant that, hey, I wouldn't have a job. And so I thought about that. I said, right, that makes sense. But then I found out that some of my other classmates who were in the same situation that I was in, they were awarded a teaching assistance-ship for the summer. And so, being the only black male in the PAC program at my institution, I said, well, Danny, no, it's not necessarily racism, right? Because that's the first thing I thought about, and then I said, well, let me let that go. But then I saw more and more of my white colleagues getting these assistance-ships, and we were all in the same situation. And so I went back to them and I said, well, I'm not really clear on why we're doing what we're doing. And she obviously said that's the way that it is. And so then I thought, oh, this is problematic. And so I had to figure out how I was going to survive over the summer. So I went to apply for a couple jobs, and I landed at a summer camp for inner-city students who also had behavior issues. And so I was really excited, because I love working with students, I love working with young folks. But then when I started working I didn't realize how much work it would be in terms of working with students who had behavior issues. But the actual watermelon-eating contest, it really happened, and I was so disgusted by it, and I tried to talk to the folks. I was a little bit radical trying to talk to them about it, and they were like, "Well, we're just gonna do it." And it really disturbed me for a very long time. And the students loved it. The children loved it. But I was sitting there thinking to myself, "How do I work through this? "How do I help them understand what this really means and what it look like and the history behind it?" And so I said I'm gonna write a story about it. So it's really a fictionalized version of the summer of 2009.

CANDICE: That is powerful. So, so powerful. So Danny, as you were writing it, did you face any challenges with your writing when doing this?

DANNY: For me, really, I think I'm pretty funny in person, but I think putting it on paper, I was like, "How do I make this work?" And I also know that, thinking about the history of the black arts and comedy, and a lot of times comedians use humor to talk about truth. I said, "You know what, Danny? This is your moment to really talk about these things in a way that." Because you know, a lot of criticism I got from my white classmates with that; it was always about race. And I think, well, we live in America. It has always been about race. So I wanted to tell a story that people could resonate with. It could be funny, but it also make them think about themselves in a way. And I knew that if another story I'd turned into my class was really, really, really heavy, that they would turn away from it without even giving it a chance. So I wrote that story, I made it as funny as I could, but still hitting those critical things. And so some of my classmates at the end, I thought to myself, "Man, am I that person?" So it really achieved what I wanted to achieve. I just had to go about it a different way.

CANDICE: And what did you learn through that process about yourself, about others or about the world?

DANNY: Well, I learned that I was just as bad, right? Because I really had a disdain for those students who look like me. And so I had to try to reconcile that, because I believe on some level that I'm in a Ph.D. program, I felt like really I should have been teaching college students. I felt like I had been betrayed by my department. And so I felt all these different emotions, and I realized that I was taking it out on my students. And I realized that I was being elitist, and I was using them to kind of work through that anger that I had with the institution. But then I realized that, wait a minute, why am I projecting myself onto these students? And then I used to be these students, right? I wasn't a behavior student, but I came from an inner-city family, low income. I was looking at myself, and so I had to step back and say, "Danny, why? Why do you feel that you have moved beyond this sphere to the point where you're not going to be treated as poorly as they were treated?" So really it was, for me, an eye-opener. And when it was finally published a lot of my friends were like, "Oh my God, am I Melanie?" Because a lot of my friends are very successful, and we grew up in inner-city Cleveland, went to an all-black high school, but we were very, very successful. So we started to see ourselves, and that was hard. That was a very hard moment for me. But I was really excited that I was able to get through it and other folks were able to challenge themselves about their notions about poverty and students with behavior issues, and socio-economic status, even though we were those students at one point. So it was really important for me to have that conversation in the story, and I think that I achieved that.

CANDICE: Absolutely. And we're all about redefinition. So how has this redefined you, writing this story and having this experience?

DANNY: I think it made me better in the classroom. It made me better in the classroom. It made me recognize my level of privilege as an educated black person and what that can do to a person, right? It made me want to continue to write pieces that really attack the white gaze, and to help people understand that we are, a race, black folks, and that we're artists, intellectual. But more importantly, I wanted to challenge black folks to challenge their own thoughts and ideas about class and race, and gender and what that means.

CANDICE: So how do you hope that this piece helps all of our listeners redefine themselves?

DANNY: A lot of work that I do asks folks to self-interrogate, right? Ask themselves questions, self-reflect. So hopefully the story will have people of all races reflect on their biases, the way that they treat people, the lens that they see the world in. And I think when you write about children, and at first I was going to make these college students, and I realized children are very honest. And so I wanted the students in this story to be as honest as possible. And so I think when we allow ourselves to really look at the truth, examine the truth, I think we can become better folks. But it can be uncomfortable, because it means that you have to acknowledge that you have the capability of treating people poorly because of a perceived privilege or level of goal attainment, monetary attainment. And that's unsettling, but I think it's necessary.

CANDICE: No change comes without discomfort. Absolutely. Our next two questions are about your reading and about your writing. What's something that you're reading lately that you'd recommend for us to also read?

DANNY: Well, I'm reading "How to Be an Antiracist." I think I've said that to you in emails. I'm reading that. I'm also reading a children's book called, "The Crossover," by... I can't remember the author's name, but it's a children's book. And I tend to read a lot of different things when I'm writing, because I just want to see other forms, I want to see other people pull together their ideas. But right now I'm reading a lot of stuff about anti-racism so that I can help as best as I can with the folks that are around me. And a lot of articles. "The Diary of a Mad Law Professor," I'm reading that article as well. I just read something about Dr. Brittney Cooper and I watched a TEDx that she had about the racial politics of time. So I'm picking up on little bits and pieces of things to kind of work through where we are now, the moment that we're in now, and hopefully use that to help frame anti-racism at our institution, and also amongst the people that I'm around.

CANDICE: Thank you. I know one thing that's on my reading list lately is actually your novel. So if you talk to us a little bit about other things that you've written and worked on, or if you're working on any projects now that we're all excited to read that you'd be willing to share a little bit about.

DANNY: At this moment I do have a draft of a second novel, and I have an uncle who was killed during the Hough riots in Cleveland, Ohio. And so I've always wanted to write about the riots and how it had decimated an entire community. And that community to this day is still struggling to revive itself, and I wanted to write about that because of my family's connection to it, but also because of the devastation that occurred and the deaths. And my uncle's murderers, they were acquitted twice. And I read the articles about my aunt and how she had to just go through that process, and she had to raise five boys on her own after he was murdered. But I wanted to write about it, but when you write about family stuff you have to be very careful, because those are still living folks, right? And the work, to me, becomes a living document. And so I wanted to write about that first, which I didn't do, so I wrote the first novel, "The Butterfly Lady," first. Then I realized there was this nagging thing to really talk about those riots. But I also wanted to talk about mental illness, and so my main character in the novel, he is an artist who sings about racial healing, and he also suffers from a mental illness, but he's a son of Cleveland. So all these things are connected to race, class, mental illness, and music. And so I'm working on that. I have a full draft of that and I need to find time to finish it. But right now I'm also working on a short story that's kind of connected to what's happening now in terms of police brutality, of the protests, and so I wanted to kind of write through that and try to make sense of it, and so I started a short story. And so hopefully I will have a good draft of that in the next couple weeks and I would be looking to send it out, but really trying to finish this novel so that I can say that it is done and try to find someone to publish it, and continue to talk about the issues that I think are important to our lives.

CANDICE: Thank you for sharing so much of yourself and your time, and your writing with us today, Danny. We really appreciate it.

DANNY: Oh, thank you so much, Candice.


Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College. Our summer series guest host is Candice Mayhill, executive producer is Allison Baumbusch, our producer is Amanda Behrens, our writer, Amy Carr Willard. Others who helped with this podcast include Jeremiah Prevatte, Angie Hamlet, Ben Pierce, and Alicia Renehan. Find show notes, how to subscribe, and other extras on our website, I'm your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.


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