The racist meaning of the watermelon.

It seems that the expunging of racist images has made racist references more obscure for people these days (such as my astonishment when I published that entry on a certain racist ad and few people even realized that “ching chang” was racist). I thought this article explaining the origins of the watermelon=racism against black people stereotype was pretty interesting.

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 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…

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.

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