…Now ain’t you ashamed er yo’se’f, sur? I is. I’se ‘shamed you’s my son!En de holy accorjan angel he’s shamed er wat you has done;En he’s tuck it down up yander in coal-black, blood-red letters—“One watermillion stolen by Wi’yam Josephus Vetters.”
En what you s’posen Brer Bascom, yo’ teacher at Sunday-school,‘Ud say, ef he knowed how you’s broke de good ole gol’n rule?Boy, whah’s de raisin’ I give you? Is you boun’ fuh to be a black villion?I’s s’prised dat a chile er yo’ mammy ‘ud steal any man’s watermillion.En I’s now gwiner cut it right open, en you sha’n’t have nary bite.Fuh a boy who’ll steal watermillions—en dat in de day’s broad light—Ain’t—Lawdy! it’s green! Mirandy! Mi-rand-y! come on wi’ dat switch!Well, stealin’ a g-r-e-e-n watermillion! Who ever yeared tell er des sich?Can’t tell w’en dey’s ripe? W’y you thump um, en w’en dey go pank! dey is Green;But when dey go to punk! now you mine me, dey’s ripe—en dat’s des wut I mean.En nex’ time you hook watermillions—you heered me you ign’ant, you hunk,
Ef you do’ want a lickin’ all over, be sho dat dey allers go ‘punk!”
I read this poem as a child.
I didn’t grow up in a racist household. My parents actually never said a word about race. It would never have even occurred to me to think anything in particular about someone because of skin color. People were people and were to be treated with respect and kindness. My community was not diverse, I’ll admit. We had one black family and one Mexican family in a town of 6000. Otherwise we were pretty pale folks. I didn’t hang out with the kids because they were popular clique, sports clique and stoner clique and I was neither. I will also admit that I didn’t travel in large circles when I was in school. There could well have been, and undoubtedly were, people with racist outlooks. But my family, my church, the friends I ran with – we just never even talked about it.
There are those nowadays who would point to that as evidence that I’m racist. After all, if you don’t notice race and go out of your way to make a big deal out of noticing it AND you like a poem from a racist era AND you like Brer Rabbit stories… well, isn’t it obvious?
All I know is that this is the way I still remember how to tell if a watermelon is ripe. Not that I can tell “pank” from “punk,” though… And Mom & Brother & I occasionally will reference “coal-black, blood-red letters” and we still call them “watermillions.”
I notice that a lot of the poems I loved as a kid are written in dialect. I wonder if that’s where my love of dialect in writing began.