Watermelon stereotype

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A 1909 postcard, bearing the caption "I'se so happy!"

The watermelon stereotype is a stereotype of African Americans that states that African Americans have an unusually great appetite for watermelons. This stereotype has remained prevalent into the 21st century.[1]


Watermelons have been viewed as a major symbol in the iconography of racism in the United States[2] since as early as the nineteenth century.[3] 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.[4]

The 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.[5]

Free blacks grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and the fruit became a symbol freedom.[6]

The stereotype was perpetuated in minstrel shows often depicting African Americans as ignorant and work-shy, given to song and dance and inordinately fond of watermelon.[7]

For several decades in the late nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century, it was promoted through caricatures in print, film, sculpture and music, and was a common decorative theme on household goods.[8] Even as recently as Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and his subsequent administrations, watermelon imagery has been used by his detractors.[9]

In popular culture[edit]

Pickaninny caricature from the early 1900s. The postcard shows a picture of a black boy eating a watermelon, with a stereotypical poem inscribed underneath.

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.[8]

Watermelon pictures[edit]

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).[10] 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.[10]

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."[11]

Early-1900s postcards often depicted African Americans as animalistic creatures "happy to do nothing but eat watermelon" – a bid to dehumanize them.[9] Other such "Coon cards", as they were popularly known as, depicted African Americans stealing, fighting over, and becoming watermelons.[12] One poem from the early 1900s (pictured right) reads:[13]

"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!".[14] Such songs were popular during that period and many made use of the watermelon stereotype.[9] 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.[8] Use of this stereotype died down circa 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).[9] Watermelons also provided a theme for many racial jokes in the 2000s.[12]

Protesters against African Americans frequently, among other things, hold up watermelons;[2] 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.[9]

In February 2009, Los Alamitos Mayor 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.[15] Grose claimed that he was not aware of the watermelon stereotype.[16] 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."[17]

On October 1, 2014, the Boston Herald ran an editorial cartoon depicting an intruder asking if Obama has tried watermelon-flavored toothpaste, to much controversy.[18]

On January 7, 2016, Australian cartoonist Chris Roy Taylor published an image of Jamaican cricketer Chris Gayle with a watermelon in his mouth.[19] Gayle had been in the news for making controversial suggestive comments towards a white female interviewer during a live broadcast.[20] He had also been accused of allegedly exposing himself to a woman during the 2015 Cricket World Cup.[21] In an unrelated story, a boy eating a whole watermelon – rind and all – in the stands of a cricket match had also gone viral.[22] Taylor agreed to delete the story after allegedly learning of the stereotype for the first time, claiming ignorance because he lived in Australia.[23]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ a b "II.C.6. – Cucumbers, Melons, and Watermelons". The Cambridge World History of Food. Retrieved March 31, 2013. 
  3. ^ "'Colored' comment: Golf CEO compounds insults to Tiger Woods". The Christian Science Monitor. May 23, 2013. 
  4. ^ "Factors Affecting Watermelon Consumption in the United States" (PDF). Retrieved March 30, 2013. 
  5. ^ Wade, Lisa. "Watermelon: Symbolizing the Supposed Simplicity of Slaves". Retrieved March 30, 2013. 
  6. ^ "How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope". The Atlantic. Retrieved 20 August 2016. 
  7. ^ Fences: Shmoop Literature Guide. 2010. p. 26. ISBN 9781610624190. [dead link]
  8. ^ a b c Smith, Andrew F. (2007). The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195307962. 
  9. ^ a b c d e "The Coon Obsession with Chicken & Watermelon". Retrieved March 30, 2013. 
  10. ^ a b Massood, Paula J. (2008). "Urban Cinema". In Boyd, Todd. African Americans and Popular Culture. ABC-CLIO. p. 90. ISBN 9780313064081. 
  11. ^ Novotny Lawrence (2008). Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s. Routledge. p. 37. ISBN 0-415-96097-5. 
  12. ^ a b "Blacks and Watermelons". Ferris State University. May 2008. Retrieved March 30, 2013. 
  13. ^ "WHO SAID WATERMELON?". Authentic History. Retrieved March 30, 2013. 
  14. ^ "Nigger Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!". Retrieved March 30, 2013. 
  15. ^ Mitchell, Mary (26 February 2009). "Monkeys, watermelons and black people". Chicago Sun Times. Archived from the original on April 29, 2013. Retrieved 13 April 2013. 
  16. ^ "Mayor Who Sent Obama Watermelon Email Quits". Huffington Post. February 27, 2009. Archived from the original on January 2, 2013. Retrieved March 30, 2013. 
  17. ^ Wing, Nick (December 27, 2012). "Danny Hafley, Kentucky Man, Defends Watermelon-Eating Obama Display: He 'Might Get Hungry'". Huffington Post. Retrieved March 30, 2013. 
  18. ^ "Boston Herald apologizes for Obama cartoon after backlash". October 2, 2014. Retrieved October 2, 2014. 
  19. ^ "CHRIS 'ROY' TAYLOR". Herald Sun. Herald Sun. Retrieved 7 January 2016. 
  20. ^ Eastaugh, Sophie. "Chris Gayle: Cricketer fined after telling female reporter, 'Don't blush, baby'". CNN. Retrieved 2016-01-06. 
  21. ^ "Chris Gayle to file defamation case against Fairfax Media". The Times of India. 2016-01-07. Retrieved 7 January 2016. 
  22. ^ "'Watermelon boy' finds fame with Australia cricket fans". BBC. Retrieved 7 January 2016. 
  23. ^ Taylor, Chris 'ROY'. "Twitter". Retrieved 7 January 2016. 

External links[edit]