How The Watermelon Went From Being a Symbol of Freedom to That of Dehumanization

Although there is nothing inherently racist about watermelons nor is there anything offensive about eating the fruit, the watermelon trope and stereotype, that African Americans were excessively fond of the fruit, emerged during the Civil War. Behind this trope was a very specific historical reason which served a very specific political purpose, which was to make African Americans look unclean, lazy, childish, and unwanted in public. The funny thing is, the media material for this trope didn’t exist prior to their emancipation after the Civil War and was actually associated with Italians and Arabs. So how did this racist trope come about and why did it explode? Read on to find out.

The Early 1800s – Watermelons and the Port City of Rosetta

During the early 1800s, when British Officers were stationed in Egypt, they noticed that watermelons were being eaten in droves by the Arabic. In the port city of Rosetta, the streets were lined with watermelon rinds as they were eaten ravenously by those in the city streets. Here, the fruit came to symbolize uncleanliness, because it was a messy fruit to eat, laziness because it was super easy to grow and took a long time to eat so you’d stop working, and childish because of its sweet, colorful nature. Beyond this, a watermelon is devoid of nutritional value and is hard to eat by yourself, so it made you an unwanted public presence. This was not a racial meaning though, just qualities that were attributed to the watermelon eating in the port. Unfortunately, these meanings would be brought over to the Americas during post-emancipation.

Emancipation Brought Fear to Southern Whites

After the Civil War, free black people chose to grow, eat, and sell watermelons and in doing so, indirectly made the fruit a symbol of their newfound freedom. Unfortunately, at the time, Southern whites felt threatening by their the black peoples’ newfound freedom and chose to take the same symbol and make it a sign for their laziness, uncleanliness, and childishness. How? Through the U.S. print culture in the late 1860s, which was trying to argue that the African Americas were unsuited for citizenship despite their emancipation.

  • Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published blacks reveling in watermelon via caricatures,
  • A Georgian newspaper reported that a black man was arrested for poisoning a watermelon with the intent of killing off his neighbor, with the headline “Negro Kuklux”. This equated that black-on-black violence was the same as the violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan.
  • A white-supremacist epic film (1915) titled The Birth of a Nation, by D.W. Griffith included a “watermelon feast” depiction where corrupt northern whites encouraged the former black slaves to stop their work and enjoy a watermelon.
  • By the early twentieth century, this stereotype was everywhere. You could find it in sheet music, on paperweights, and even on popular postcards which portrayed elderly black men carrying watermelons.
  • In 1903, Edwin S. Porter co-directed a film titled, The Watermelon Patch, which featured “darkies” or black individuals sneaking into a watermelon patch to steal the fruit. In this film, a band of white vigilantes came up face-to-face with the black thieves; a stereotype which perpetuated white violence on blacks. 

Unfortunately, in the case of the watermelon trope, what was once a symbol of freedom, was utterly destroyed by fearful white people who used it to denigrate black people.