Marcus Sessoms is a rising junior Kinesiology Major at McDaniel College. I invited him to conduct research with me for an (eventual) digital history site on African American Art and Artists. This is an entry that will find its way to that eventual site. Feel free to comment on his work.
by Marcus Sessoms
Continuing from the spring semester and over summer, I have researched on the topic of African American stereotypes. I focused on the role of watermelon as a stereotype involving the idea that “every black person loves watermelon.”
In my research I have discovered that this connection between black people and watermelon stems from the time when slaves won their emancipation during the civil war. After the war, free blacks grew, ate, and sold watermelons. That is one way that freed slaves made their own money to provide for themselves and their families since they could not get any real jobs during this time, especially in the south where they were newly emancipated. Watermelon grows well in the south because the soil is very dry. Watermelon also needs a hot and humid climate. Because it was easy to grow in the south, many newly freed African Americans turned to this crop to make money and feed their families.
Thus, watermelon became a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by the blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. The racist trope of grinning, cartoonish blacks eating watermelon exploded in American pop culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure. In America, watermelon came to symbolizes uncleanliness because eating is so messy. Through stereotyping, the watermelon also came to be equated with laziness, since growing watermelon is so easy, and to eat and enjoy it, you must sit down to consume it.
The stereotype about watermelon did not just describe former slaves and African Americans. At the height Europeans’ emigration to America in the mid to late nineteenth-century, the typical watermelon-eater was an Italian or Arab peasant. Furthermore, in Egypt in 1801, the British occupiers noted that watermelon was a poor Arab’s feast and a meager substitute for a proper meal. In the port city of Rosetta, a British soldier is recorded as saying he saw local peasants eating watermelons “ravenously… as if afraid the passer-by was going to snatch them away.” He further noted with some disgust at how watermelon rinds littered the streets.
Note from Gretchen McKay
In future summers, I hope to build on this work by Marcus and Ezerea, by highlighting how some artists confront the stereotypes by using them in new ways, such as this assemblage by Betye Saar from 2002. Ezerae's post highlights this. And I hope to have more work shown and researched by artists who embrace the narrative to change it, such as this article from the Chicago Tribune from 1991 that discusses an exhibition in which artists face these stereotypes.