How Watermelons Became Black: Emancipation and the Origins of a Racist Trope

By Black, William R. | The Journal of the Civil War Era, March 2018 | Go to article overview

How Watermelons Became Black: Emancipation and the Origins of a Racist Trope


Black, William R., The Journal of the Civil War Era


Children are fickle. Henry Evans missed his nanny, Clara, and cried for days when she left, but he also hated her for leaving now that his family no longer owned her. So when he and his former nanny crossed paths in the streets of Houston in the summer of 1865 and she offered him a watermelon, he told her that "he would not eat what free negroes ate" and walked away. (1) In such exchanges as these, the stereotype that African Americans were overly fond of watermelon was born. The stereotype has prevailed even into the twenty-first century; for example, a mayor in Orange County, California, angered many people and ultimately resigned after forwarding an email that mocked Barack Obama's recent inauguration with an image of the White House lawn planted with watermelons. (2) The stereotype has been around for so long, and its origins have remained so obscure, that many people think the stereotype simply appeared out of thin air. An exasperated user of the online bulletin board Reddit wrote, "Nobody knows why watermelons are a racist fruit, they just are," a sentiment that encourages some white Americans to dismiss the trope's power altogether and accuse African Americans of being overly sensitive. (3) But the watermelon stereotype has a past. It emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. White southerners created the racist trope after emancipation in direct response to freedpeople's actions. (4) Freedpeople grew watermelons on their own land, ate them to celebrate their freedom, and sold them in the public square; in short, they used watermelons in ways that signified their claims to citizenship. White southerners were threatened by these claims and therefore transformed the fruit into a symbol of black people's unfitness for citizenship.

We are accustomed to thinking of the court, the ballot, and the noose as tools by which white southerners counteracted black citizenship, but the cultural trope was an important tool as well. Both black and white southerners understood the importance of cultural tropes, and historians have demonstrated the power of such motifs as the black contraband laborer, the black soldier, the carpetbagger, the Ku Klux Klan, the New South, and the Lost Cause. The racist watermelon stereotype was not just a reflection of political conflict but was actually a site of political conflict. Black and white southerners fought to define the watermelon's role in popular culture, whether it would celebrate or denigrate African American citizenship. They knew what was at stake. They knew that a seemingly innocuous cultural symbol had political power. (5)

It is significant that the trope emerged where and when it did. When I first began researching it, I hypothesized that it was primarily a product of the turn-of-the-century North. I supposed that Tin Pan Alley and Madison Avenue types had conflated two images associated with the South--the watermelon and the black Sambo--and thereby given the fruit a racial connotation when it had previously only had a regional one. Instead I found the trope had emerged a generation earlier and white southerners had deliberately constructed it. The watermelon stereotype was part of a larger campaign by white southerners to restore what K. Stephen Prince calls "cultural home rule," an exclusive claim to tell the "stories of the South." The watermelon was briefly a tool and symbol of black citizenship and therefore a threat to white southerners' cultural home rule. The racist stereotype negated that threat and then became popular in the North, helping in its own way to forge the national consensus that Reconstruction had been a mistake and that white supremacy ought to reign in the South. (6)

This article begins by explaining what characteristics made the watermelon conducive to racialization. Indeed, Europeans were racializing the watermelon in the eighteenth century, though they associated it with the Mediterranean and the Near East. …

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