April V. Taylor
While many people have known for decades that watermelon is associated with racist depictions of Black people, most have no idea where the racist trope originated. It is most associated with 19th and 20th century depictions of Black people, and even today, some Black people go to great lengths to separate themselves from the racist image.
Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute points out that the association of watermelon with racism dates back “since the earliest days of plantation slavery,” and that “the caricature of the dark-skinned Black child, his too-red lips stretched to grotesque extremes as they opened to chomp down on watermelon, was a staple of racism’s diet. Over time, the watermelon became a symbol of the broader denigration of Black people.”
Images were printed on post-Civil War Reconstruction Era post cards, known as “coon cards.” The image was also printed on such items as cookie jars, board games, ashtrays and many other novelty items. The printed image spilled over into real life through Minstrel shows, including a minstrel song recorded by Harry C. Browne in the early 1900s entitled “Ni—- Loves A Watermelon, Ha Ha Ha.” Most Americans have listened to the song unknowingly for years as it is the song played by most ice cream trucks.
The image has remained a consistent part of American racism, from Jackie Robinson having watermelons thrown at him when he broke the color barrier in major league baseball, to President Barack Obama having his likeness included in racist images that included watermelon. The stereotype is so ingrained that the Department of Agriculture has found that Black people actually eat less watermelon than other racist groups in a bid to downplay and discount the stereotype.
Rather than feeling shame, Black people should feel a sense of pride regarding the fruit, as watermelon is a symbol of Black people’s freedom in the U.S. because it was grown, eaten and sold by free Black people after they won emancipation during the Civil War. White Southerners who despised Black people’s freedom decided to make watermelon a symbol of what they perceived to be Black people’s uncleanliness, laziness, childishness and unwanted public presence.
The image goes back even further, having been used by early modern Europeans to depict Italian or Arab peasants, but for white Southerners, the goal was to push the notion that Black people were not ready for freedom. It may seem illogical to those outside the United States for a fruit to have such significant meaning attached to it, but racism’s ugly effects are so deeply ingrained in the Black American experience that little can be done to erase its lasting impact.