In September 2006, in a tiny tavern off Route 61, some old friends and I claimed a dozen seats around a bar shaped like a baseball diamond and ordered rounds. Come midnight, Laura and I were the only ones left.
“Let’s finish this one and cab it home,” Laura said, but then a soft light rose over the bar (was it closing time?) and the place went noticeably quieter. The bartender, guitar in hand, pulled up a stool across the bar from Laura and me and adjusted a microphone.
Figuring we were in for a treat, we stayed put.
“He calls it The Watermelon Song,” said the drunk guy three stools down, raising his beer in mock salute. “Bartender’s good, writes his own stuff.”
Next thing the crowd is chanting, “Watermelon! Watermelon! Watermelon!” and the bartender/singer has started up, “There’s … a … n***er in the watermelon patch …” The whole place erupted, singing right along.
We could not make out every word, but there was something about how you can always find the n***ers in the watermelon patch, and if you’re good enough with a shotgun it’s just like target practice, and then there was something about New Orleans and how those n***ers down there better think twice before coming up here to our town, looking for refuge, then boom!, back to the refrain.
It was one year after Hurricane Katrina. Laura and I sat there, stunned.
A decade later, the existence of The Watermelon Song is a lot less stunning.
At a campaign rally in Alabama, President Donald J. Trump is playing his greatest hits to rabid cheers. He locks-in on a new target: professional, black athletes taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of police shootings of black men, in protest of racial injustice.
“Wouldn’t you love to see,” the president crows to his mostly-white crowd, “one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son-of-a-bitch off the field right now! Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ”
Professional men, reduced to sons-of-bitches. I am reminded of Clint Smith’s poem, “Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class.”
If you’re successful
it is because of affirmative action.
If you fail it is because
you were destined to.
You are invisible until
they turn on the Friday
night lights. Here you are —
star before they render
you asteroid. Before they
watch you turn to dust.
Like the songwriting bartender in that tiny tavern off Route 61, our nationalist president knows his audience. He turns everything, even their sports stars, their heroes, to dust. And yet, they cheer.
The president does this, mistakenly, under the guise of patriotism. He does not understand, nor do his crowds, that patriotism and nationalism are diametrically opposed concepts.
As Timothy Snyder writes in his book, On Tyranny, a “nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us we are the best … endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge.”
At an invitation-only speech at Georgetown Law School, Attorney General Jeff Sessions carried the president’s message forward, suggesting NFL players come up with more palatable means to bring attention to their issues of racial injustice than “denigrating the symbols of our nation.”
We kneel in prayer; we kneel when making the sign of the cross; we kneel in reverence. What is more palatable, more peaceful, than a man on bended knee?
Days later, the president refuses to let it go, tweeting, “The booing at the NFL football game [Monday] night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger.”
What kind of president encourages great anger?
As if in lockstep, Paul Smith, a volunteer fire chief in Pennsylvania, posted on Facebook that Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, “just added himself to the list of no-good n*ggers” for choosing to remain off the field during Sunday’s national anthem.” And he refused to apologize.
Our nationalist president encourages us to be our deplorable worst. “America has a racial demagogue as president,” writes conservative Michael Gerson. “We play hail to this chief. We stand when he enters the room. We continue to honor an office he so often dishonors.”
Turns out Hillary Clinton was right. There is a basket of deplorables.
Deplorables use the n-word without shame. Deplorables march with torches and chant, “Jews will not replace us.” Deplorables scream “Lock her up!” and taunt reporters who have been penned like animals. Deplorables excoriate black men who take a knee to exercise their First Amendment Rights. Deplorables roundly boo war hero and former POW John McCain.
Deplorables are proud to know all the words to The Watermelon Song. And they have a president. His name is Donald J. Trump.