The watermelon stereotype is a racist stereotype of African Americans that states that African Americans have an unusual appetite for watermelons. This stereotype has remained prevalent into the 21st century.
Watermelons have been viewed as a major symbol in the iconography of racism in the United States since as early as the nineteenth century. The truthfulness of this stereotype has been questioned; one survey conducted from 1994 to 1996 showed that African Americans, at the time 12.5 percent of the country's population, only accounted for 11.1 percent of the United States' watermelon consumption.
While the exact origins of this stereotype remain unclear,[better source needed] an association of African Americans and watermelon goes back to the time of slavery in the United States. Defenders of slavery used the fruit to paint African Americans as a simple-minded people who were happy when provided watermelon and a little rest. The stereotype was perpetuated in minstrel shows often depicting African Americans as ignorant and workshy, given to song and dance and inordinately fond of watermelon.
For several decades in the late 19th century through to the mid-20th century, it 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 November 2014, Daniel Handler, the master of ceremonies at the National Book Awards, made a joke about watermelons when a black woman author, Jacqueline Woodson, received an award. In a New York Times Op-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.
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 black 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 as, 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!". 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; the actress refused to perform this. Usage of this stereotype died down circa 1970, although its continued power as a stereotype could still be recognized in period 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 has been the subject of viral emails circulated by political opponents. After his election, watermelon-themed imagery of Obama has continued to be created and endorsed.
In February 2009, Los Alamitos Mayor (and Orange County Republican Party Central Committee member) Dean Grose tendered his resignation (albeit very 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."
Lithograph of a black boy holding a watermelon, circa 1850–1900
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Watermelon stereotype.|
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