Racist stereotype of African American people
The watermelon stereotype is a stereotype that African Americans have an unusually great appetite for watermelons. This stereotype has remained prevalent into the 21st century.
Watermelons have been viewed as a fruit in the iconography of fruits and vegetables in the United States.
The stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. ... This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure. ... People used the stereotype to denigrate black people—to take something they were using to further their own freedom, and make it an object of ridicule.
—William Black, The Atlantic, December 8, 2014.
The first published caricature of blacks reveling in watermelon is believed to have appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in 1869. Defenders of slavery used the fruit to paint African Americans as a simple-minded people who were happy when provided with watermelon and a little rest. The slaves' enjoyment of watermelon was also seen by the Southern people as a sign of their own supposed benevolence. The stereotype was perpetuated in minstrel shows often depicting African Americans as ignorant and lazy, given to song and dance and inordinately fond of watermelon.
For several decades in the late nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century, the stereotype was promoted through caricatures in print, film, sculpture and music, and was a common decorative theme on household goods. Even as recently as Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and his subsequent administrations, watermelon imagery has been used by his detractors.
In popular culture
The link between African-Americans and watermelons may have been promoted in part by African-American minstrels who sang popular songs such as "The Watermelon Song" and "Oh, Dat Watermelon" in their shows, and which were set down in print in the 1870s. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago planned to include a "Colored People's Day" featuring African American entertainers and free watermelons for the African-American visitors whom the exposition's organizers hoped to attract. It was a flop, as the city's African-American community boycotted the exposition, along with many of the performers booked to attend on Colored People's Day.
At the end of the 19th century, there was a brief genre of "watermelon pictures" – cinematic caricatures of African-American life showing such supposedly typical pursuits as eating watermelons, cakewalking and stealing chickens, with titles such as The Watermelon Contest (1896), Dancing Darkies (1896), Watermelon Feast (1896), and Who Said Watermelon? (1900, 1902). The African-American characters in such features were initially played by Black performers, but from about 1903 onwards, they were replaced by white actors performing in blackface.
Several of the films depicted African-Americans as having a virtually uncontrollable appetite for watermelons; for instance, The Watermelon Contest and Watermelon Feast include scenes of African-American men consuming the fruits at such a speed that they spew out mush and seeds. The author Novotny Lawrence suggests that such scenes had a subtext of representing Black male sexuality, in which Black men "love and desire the fruit in the same manner that they love sex … In short, black males have a watermelon 'appetite' and are always trying to see 'who can eat the most' with the strength of this 'appetite' depicted by black males uncontrollably devouring watermelon."
Early-1900s postcards often depicted African-Americans as animalistic creatures "happy to do nothing but eat watermelon" – a bid to dehumanize them. Other such "Coon cards", as they were popularly known, depicted African-Americans stealing, fighting over, and becoming watermelons. One poem from the early 1900s (pictured right) reads:
George Washington Watermelon Columbus Brown
I'se black as any little coon in town
At eating melon I can put a pig to shame
For Watermelon am my middle name
In March 1916, Harry C. Browne recorded a song titled "Nigger Love a Watermelon Ha!, Ha! Ha!", set to the tune of the popular folk song "Turkey in the Straw". Such songs were popular during that period and many made use of the watermelon stereotype. The script for Gone with the Wind (1939) contained a scene in which Scarlett O'Hara's slave Prissy, played by Butterfly McQueen, eats watermelon, which the actress refused to perform. Use of this stereotype started to die down around the 1950s, and had mostly vanished by 1970, although its continued power as a stereotype could still be recognized in films such as Watermelon Man (1970), The Watermelon Woman (1996), and Bamboozled (2001). Watermelons also provided a theme for many racial jokes in the 2000s.
Protesters against African-Americans frequently, among other things, hold up watermelons; racist imagery of President Barack Obama consuming watermelon was subject of viral emails circulated by his political opponents. After his election, watermelon-themed imagery of Obama continued to be created and endorsed.
In February 2009, Los Alamitos Mayor Dean Grose tendered his resignation (albeit temporarily) after forwarding the White House an email deemed as racist. The message displayed a picture of the White House lawn planted with watermelons. Grose claimed that he was not aware of the watermelon stereotype. A statue of Obama holding a watermelon in Kentucky drew criticism; the owner of the statue maintained that the watermelon was there because "[the statue] might get hungry standing out here."
On October 1, 2014, the Boston Herald ran an editorial cartoon by Jerry Holbert depicting an intruder asking if Obama has tried watermelon-flavored toothpaste, to much controversy.
At the National Book Awards ceremony in November 2014, author Daniel Handler made a controversial remark after author Jacqueline Woodson was presented with an award for young people's literature. Woodson, who is Black, won the award for Brown Girl Dreaming. During the ceremony, Handler noted that Woodson is allergic to watermelon, a reference to the racist stereotype. His comments were immediately criticized; Handler apologized via Twitter and donated $10,000 to We Need Diverse Books, and promised to match donations up to $100,000. In a New York Timesop-ed published shortly thereafter, "The Pain of the Watermelon Joke", Jacqueline Woodson explained that "in making light of that deep and troubled history" with his joke, Daniel Handler had come from a place of ignorance, but underscored the need for her mission to "give people a sense of this country's brilliant and brutal history, so no one ever thinks they can walk onto a stage one evening and laugh at another's too often painful past".
On January 7, 2016, Australian cartoonist Chris Roy Taylor published a cartoon of Jamaican cricketer Chris Gayle with a whole watermelon in his mouth. Gayle had been in the news for making controversial suggestive comments towards a female interviewer during a live broadcast. The cartoon depicted a Cricket Australia official asking a boy if he could "borrow" the watermelon, so Gayle would be unable to speak. A couple of days earlier, a video of a boy eating a whole watermelon – rind and all – in the stands of a cricket match had gone viral. Taylor said he was unaware of the stereotype, and the cartoon was removed.
In "Safety Training", an episode of the American television seriesThe Office,Michael Scott (Steve Carell) throws a watermelon off the roof of the office onto a trampoline. After it bounces and hits a car, Michael fears that the car belongs to Stanley Hudson (Leslie David Baker), who is African-American, and that Stanley will think he is racist; Michael tells Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), "Deactivate the car alarm, clean up the mess, find out whose car that is. If it's Stanley's, call the offices of James P. Albini. See if he handles hate crimes."
On October 22, 2017, the Fox & Friends morning show on the Fox News Channel dressed a Hispanic boy, who was mistaken by many in the mainstream media as an African-American, in a watermelon Halloween costume, drawing ire on social media.
In 2019, the video game Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled featured an alternative skin for the character of Tawna, named "Watermelon Tawna". The skin has darker fur and darker hair and wears a watermelon-themed T-shirt. Shortly after the skin was introduced, and after some social media discussion of the issue, a patch was issued that renamed the skin "Summertime Tawna".
Lithograph of a black boy holding a watermelon, circa 1850–1900
Lithograph of black people dancing around a pile of watermelons, circa 1900
Postcard ("Coon card") from the 1900s
"Coon card" from 1911, with the title "You can plainly see how miserable I am"
"The Coon's Trade-mark: A Watermelon, Razor, Chicken and Coon", sheet music of an 1898 minstrel song. The razor was used for fighting, while fried chicken is also used in stereotypes of African-Americans.
Reproduction of an old tin sign advertising Picaninny Freeze, a frozen treat.
- Pilgrim, David. Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors: Stories from the Jim Crow Museum. PM Press. Oct 9, 2017.
- How Watermelon's Reputation Got Tangled In Racism. University of Maryland. Aug 2, 2019
- Greenlee, Cynthia. On eating watermelon in front of white people: “I’m not as free as I thought”. VOX. Aug 29, 2019.
- Black, William R. How Watermelons Became Black. Journal of the Civil War Era Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 64-86 (23 pages). University of North Carolina Press. March 2018.
- Sousa, Emily and Manish Raizada. Contributions of African Crops to American Culture and Beyond: The Slave Trade and Other Journeys of Resilient Peoples and Crops. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. July 23, 2020.
- Maynard, David and Donald. The Cambridge World History of Food - Cucumbers, Melons, and Watermelons. Cambridge University Press. 2000.
- ^Sheet, Connor Adams (August 3, 2012). "National Watermelon Day Brings Racists Out Despite Lack Of Facts To Back Up Stereotype". International Business Times. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
- ^ ab"II.C.6. – Cucumbers, Melons, and Watermelons". The Cambridge World History of Food. Archived from the original on June 1, 2013. Retrieved March 31, 2013.
- ^ abcdBlack, William (December 8, 2014). "How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope". The Atlantic. Retrieved August 20, 2016.
- ^Wade, Lisa (December 26, 2012). "Watermelon: Symbolizing the Supposed Simplicity of Slaves". The Society Pages. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
- ^Fences. Shmoop Literature Guide. Los Altos: Shmoop. 2010. p. 26. ISBN .
- ^ abcSmith, Andrew F. (2007). The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. ISBN .
- ^ abcde"The Coon Obsession with Chicken & Watermelon". History on the Net. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
- ^ abMassood, Paula J. (2008). "Urban Cinema". In Boyd, Todd (ed.). African Americans and Popular Culture. ABC-CLIO. p. 90. ISBN .
- ^Novotny Lawrence (2008). Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s. Routledge. p. 37. ISBN .
- ^ ab"Blacks and Watermelons". Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State University. May 2008. Archived from the original on May 22, 2013. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
- ^"WHO SAID WATERMELON?". History on the Net. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
- ^"Nigger Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!". History on the Net. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
- ^Johnson, Theodore R., III (May 11, 2014). "Recall That Ice Cream Truck Song? We Have Unpleasant News For You". NPR. Retrieved March 18, 2017.
- ^Mitchell, Mary (February 26, 2009). "Monkeys, watermelons and black people". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on April 29, 2013. Retrieved April 13, 2013.
- ^"Mayor Who Sent Obama Watermelon Email Quits". Huffington Post. February 27, 2009. Archived from the original on January 2, 2013. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
- ^Wing, Nick (December 27, 2012). "Danny Hafley, Kentucky Man, Defends Watermelon-Eating Obama Display: He 'Might Get Hungry'". Huffington Post. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
- ^Killough, Ashley (October 1, 2014). "Boston Herald apologizes for Obama cartoon after backlash". CNN. Retrieved October 2, 2014.
- ^Gambino, Lauren (November 20, 2014). "Lemony Snicket apologizes for watermelon joke about black writer at National Book Awards". The Guardian. Retrieved November 21, 2014.
- ^Cohen, Anne (November 20, 2014). "Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Racist Jokes". The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
- ^Ohlheiser, Abby (November 21, 2014). "Daniel Handler does more than apologize for his 'watermelon' joke". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
- ^Woodson, Jacqueline (November 28, 2014). "The Pain of the Watermelon Joke". The New York Times. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
- ^Frizell, Sam (November 29, 2014). "Jacqueline Woodson Responds to Racist Watermelon Joke". Time. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
- ^"Award-Winning Author Jacqueline Woodson Responds To Racist Joke". The Huffington Post. Associated Press. November 29, 2014. Archived from the original on December 2, 2014. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
- ^ abTaylor, Chris 'ROY' (January 6, 2016). "Cartoon". Herald Sun. Archived from the original on February 2, 2016. Retrieved September 12, 2018.
- ^Eastaugh, Sophie (January 6, 2016). "Chris Gayle: Cricketer fined after telling female reporter, 'Don't blush, baby'". CNN. Retrieved January 6, 2016.
- ^Donnelly, Ashley (January 4, 2016). "'Watermelon boy' finds fame with Australia cricket fans". BBC News. Retrieved January 7, 2016.
- ^Taylor, Chris 'ROY' (January 6, 2016). "Thanx @J_CharlesBM yes Living in Australia I had no idea this stereotype even existed As such I have deleted cartoon". Retrieved January 7, 2016.
- ^"Fox & Friends draws ire by dressing up black child as watermelon slice for Halloween". AOL.com. October 22, 2017.
- ^Taormina, Anthony (July 14, 2019). "Crash Team Racing Renames Racially Offensive Skins". Game Rant. Retrieved October 11, 2019.
- ^Maynard, David; Maynard, Donald (2000), Kiple, Kenneth F.; Ornelas, Kriemhild Coneè (eds.), "Cucumbers, Melons, and Watermelons", The Cambridge World History of Food, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 298–313, ISBN , retrieved January 23, 2021
How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope
Before its subversion in the Jim Crow era, the fruit symbolized black self-sufficiency.
By William R. Black
It seems as if every few weeks there’s another watermelon controversy. The Boston Herald got in trouble for publishing a cartoon of the White House fence jumper, having made his way into Barack Obama’s bathroom, recommending watermelon-flavored toothpaste to the president. A high-school football coach in Charleston, South Carolina, was briefly fired for a bizarre post-game celebration ritual in which his team smashed a watermelon while making apelike noises. While hosting the National Book Awards, the author Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) joked about how his friend Jacqueline Woodson, who had won the young people’s literature award for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, was allergic to watermelon. And most recently, activists protesting the killing of Michael Brown were greeted with an ugly display while marching through Rosebud, Missouri, on their way from Ferguson to Jefferson City: malt liquor, fried chicken, a Confederate flag, and, of course, a watermelon.
While mainstream-media figures deride these instances of racism, or at least racial insensitivity, another conversation takes place on Twitter feeds and comment boards: What, many ask, does a watermelon have to do with race? What’s so offensive about liking watermelon? Don’t white people like watermelon too? Because these conversations tend to focus on the individual intent of the cartoonist, coach, or emcee, it’s all too easy to exculpate them from blame, because the racial meaning of the watermelon is so ambiguous.
But the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came in full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure. Few Americans in 1900 would’ve guessed the stereotype was less than half a century old.
Not that the raw material for the racist watermelon trope didn’t exist before emancipation. In the early modern European imagination, the typical watermelon-eater was an Italian or Arab peasant. The watermelon, noted a British officer stationed in Egypt in 1801, was “a poor Arab’s feast,” a meager substitute for a proper meal. In the port city of Rosetta he saw the locals eating watermelons “ravenously … as if afraid the passer-by was going to snatch them away,” and watermelon rinds littered the streets. There, the fruit symbolized many of the same qualities as it would in post-emancipation America: uncleanliness, because eating watermelon is so messy. Laziness, because growing watermelons is so easy, and because it’s hard to eat watermelon and keep working—it’s a fruit you have to sit down and eat. Childishness, because watermelons are sweet, colorful, and devoid of much nutritional value. And unwanted public presence, because it’s hard to eat a watermelon by yourself. These tropes made their way to America, but the watermelon did not yet have a racial meaning. Americans were just as likely to associate the watermelon with white Kentucky hillbillies or New Hampshire yokels as with black South Carolina slaves.
This may be surprising, given how prominent watermelons were in enslaved African Americans’ lives. Many slave owners let their slaves grow and sell their own watermelons, or even let them take a day off during the summer to eat the first watermelon harvest. The slave Israel Campbell would slip a watermelon into the bottom of his cotton basket when he fell short of his daily quota, and then retrieve the melon at the end of the day and eat it. Campbell taught the trick to another slave who was often whipped for not reaching his quota, and soon it was widespread. When the year’s cotton fell a few bales short of what the master had figured, it simply remained “a mystery.”
But southern whites saw their slaves’ enjoyment of watermelon as a sign of their own supposed benevolence. Slaves were usually careful to enjoy watermelon according to the code of behavior established by whites. When an Alabama overseer cut open watermelons for the slaves under his watch, he expected the children to run to get their slice. One boy, Henry Barnes, refused to run, and once he did get his piece he would run off to the slave quarters to eat out of the white people’s sight. His mother would then whip him, he remembered, “fo’ being so stubborn.” The whites wanted Barnes to play the part of the watermelon-craving, juice-dribbling pickaninny. His refusal undermined the tenuous relationship between master and slave.
Emancipation, of course, destroyed that relationship. Black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons during slavery, but now when they did so it was a threat to the racial order. To whites, it seemed now as if blacks were flaunting their newfound freedom, living off their own land, selling watermelons in the market, and—worst of all—enjoying watermelon together in the public square. One white family in Houston was devastated when their nanny Clara left their household shortly after her emancipation in 1865. Henry Evans, a young white boy to whom Clara had likely been a second mother, cried for days after she left. But when he bumped into her on the street one day, he rejected her attempt to make peace. When Clara offered him some watermelon, Henry told her that “he would not eat what free negroes ate.”
Newspapers amplified this association between the watermelon and the free black person. In 1869, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published perhaps the first caricature of blacks reveling in eating watermelon. The adjoining article explained, “The Southern negro in no particular more palpably exhibits his epicurean tastes than in his excessive fondness for watermelons. The juvenile freedman is especially intense in his partiality for that refreshing fruit.”
Two years later, a Georgia newspaper reported that a black man had been arrested for poisoning a watermelon with the intent of killing a neighbor. The story was headlined “Negro Kuklux” and equated black-on-black violence with the Ku Klux Klan, asking facetiously whether the Radical Republican congressional subcommittee investigating the Klan would investigate this freedman’s actions. The article began with a scornful depiction of the man on his way to the courthouse: “On Sabbath afternoon we encountered a strapping 15th Amendment bearing an enormous watermelon in his arms en route for the Court-house.” It was as if the freedman’s worst crime was not attempted murder but walking around in public with that ridiculous fruit.
The primary message of the watermelon stereotype was that black people were not ready for freedom. During the 1880 election season, Democrats accused the South Carolina state legislature, which had been majority-black during Reconstruction, of having wasted taxpayers’ money on watermelons for their own refreshment; this fiction even found its way into history textbooks. D. W. Griffith’s white-supremacist epic film The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, included a watermelon feast in its depiction of emancipation, as corrupt northern whites encouraged the former slaves to stop working and enjoy some watermelon instead. In these racist fictions, blacks were no more deserving of freedom than were children.
By the early 20th century, the watermelon stereotype was everywhere—potholders, paperweights, sheet music, salt-and-pepper shakers. A popular postcard portrayed an elderly black man carrying a watermelon in each arm, only to happen upon a stray chicken. The man laments, “Dis am de wust perdickermunt ob mah life.” As a black man, the postcard implied, he had few responsibilities and little interest in anything beyond his own stomach. Edwin S. Porter, famous for directing The Great Train Robbery in 1903, co-directed The Watermelon Patch two years later, which featured “darkies” sneaking into a watermelon patch; men dressed as skeletons chasing away the watermelon thieves (à la the Ku Klux Klan, who dressed as ghosts to frighten blacks); a watermelon-eating contest; and a band of white vigilantes ultimately smoking the watermelon thieves out of a cabin. The long history of white violence to maintain the racial order was played for laughs.
It may seem silly to attribute so much meaning to a fruit. And the truth is that there is nothing inherently racist about watermelons. But cultural symbols have the power to shape how we see our world and the people in it, such as when the police officer Darren Wilson saw Michael Brown as a superhuman “demon.” These symbols have roots in real historical struggles—specifically, in the case of the watermelon, white people’s fear of the emancipated black body. Whites used the stereotype to denigrate black people—to take something they were using to further their own freedom and make it an object of ridicule. It ultimately does not matter if someone means to offend when they tap into the racist watermelon stereotype, because the stereotype has a life of its own.
In this lesson, drawing a cartoon watermelon – let’s take a look at a more complicated approach… drawing an actual slice as you would eat it — similar to how we drew the orange from before.
Looking at the above image, any idea what sort of shape is best to use in our approach? Half a circle… exactly.
First Step – Half a Circle = Half a Watermelon… Sort of!
Drawing this fruit as a slice instead of a whole, is a lot more fun in my opinion. Not only is it easy to create – but also, you can have some fun placing the seeds when you’re all finished, as well as coloring it pinkish red and green.
Here’s the structure – symmetrically mapped out…
Really – all we’ve got here is two arcs. And yes, each one is half a circle. If you’re using a compass, just position the point at the center of the cross, and change the radius ever so slightly to arrive at the desired image ahead of time.
Now for the lines!
Second Step – Very Simple! Very Easy!
Our outline for this fruit then, with the help of a blueprint if you chose to go about it this way — is again, a half circle. With the structure in place though, drawing the inner arc, separating the fruit from the rhine – is much easier to do.
Here’s one way to go about it…
And sure – having mastered the half circle version, depicting the obviousspherical nature of the fruit, you can then move on to some other shapes and colors if you like. Ever here about those ‘Box-Shaped Watermelons’!? Or how about a yellow center instead of pinkish-red! Seedless?
See you next time! 🙂
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How to Draw A Cartoon Watermelon that looks juicy
In this easy step-by-step tutorial, you will learn how to draw a cartoon watermelon. This delicious juicy fruit is easy to recognize with its bright colors and dark and oval seeds.
However, in this drawing lesson, you won't learn how to draw the entire fruit, but only a colorful piece of it! So grab a pencil and a piece of paper and start practicing right now by moving on to the simple video below. Once you are done, you can also use the written version found after the video for more details.
First, draw a circle (only the half of it). Don't hesitate to draw the entire circle and then erase half of the shape if you feel more comfortable with this technique. Your shape doesn't need to be perfect since this is an organic entity.
Then, create two more outlines around your first shape. Try to make both shape similar by keeping a small distance between each shape. Notice that the new shapes are not visible on top of your watermelon.
Repeat this step once again by creating a larger shape around the last shape you have drawn in the previous step. However, this new shape should be only visible near the right section of your fruit.
Next, add some seeds on your watermelon. Remember that each seed is made of an oval shape with the top part being narrow and the bottom part being larger and rounder.
Add some colors on your image. Notice that the green parts are created from light green to a darker tone.
If you want to add some gradient effects and shadows, don't hesitate to do so. That's it! You have created a cool and simple piece of watermelon in only six easy steps. More fun fruits can be fun below. Enjoy!
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