Black History Month: What do Watermelons actually have to do with us?

Watermelon

Following the Civil War, these types of images were purposefully pervasive to disrupt Black progress and financial autonomy.

Nine days into Black History Month 2019, and I already want to holla and throw up both my hands. Virginia blackfacing and Liam Neeson confessions and Trump lauding the abolition of civil rights. Yeah, I’m triggered. Hence, I thought it was great day to talk about us and watermelons.

I didn’t actually develop a taste for watermelon until I became much older and learned that one could place a hole in a watermelon, fill said hole with a certain liquor concoction, wait and then enjoy a very pleasant adult adaptation of the melon. As a child, however, I found nothing desirable about eating a watermelon. It wasn’t as sweet as an orange or a pineapple. Having to constantly spit seeds while eating it seemed rather oppressive.

Plus, even at a very young age—probably around five—I’d become very familiar with the negative trope of Blacks and watermelons. We all know those images: the oil-hued caricature with exaggeratedly huge red lips and pink hands, bulbous nose, headlight eyes, and antennae hair munching away on a huge slice of watermelon. The images usually contained some sort of caption of a statement in the so-called “Negro” dialect:

“I’se so happy.”

“Ah lubs me sum watermelon.”

“Ah lubs you more dan watermelon and chikin.”

I was so disturbed by the stereotype that I’d actually get embarrassed at the supermarket when either of my parents purchased a watermelon. My parents weren’t lazy, ignorant, melon-inhaling jigaboos and I wasn’t a watermelon-infatuated pickaninny. But because of this particular stereotype, the very idea of my family carting home watermelons in plain view at the height of summer made me want to double down on my personal efforts to prove every stereotype about my people wrong.

If the internet would have existed then the way it does now, perhaps I would have had a much different reaction to my family’s watermelon-purchasing habits. I definitely know I would have had a fully-loaded snark arsenal for anyone who dared to try me with any watermelon-related racism.  I know this because I’m quite sure I would have searched out this watermelon thing as it related to my people and would have come across the same illuminating info I found in this excerpt from TheAtlantic.com:

… the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came into full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free Black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by Blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of Black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure. Few Americans in 1900 would’ve guessed the stereotype was less than half a century old.

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.

I also would have discovered that the watermelon and my ancestors share the same birthplace, as per this excerpt from Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits:

Other than botanists, few people consider that watermelon (Citrullus lamatus) is African. Yet this is so: the crop’s wild ancestors occur abundantly in the dry zones of the continent’s southern region. The African origin may come as a surprise only because watermelon spread around the globe so long ago that for most people it has become part of the wallpaper of life.

As for eating them today, I’m down. This summer, you can catch me hauling watermelons for myself and my boys with pride and the approval of ALL the ancestors. Watermelon health benefits are off the hook. According to WebMD, watermelons are chalk full of cancer and diabetes-fighting antioxidants, provide natural sunscreen, promote health blood circulation, protect joints, maintain eye health, provide hydration, make for a great hydrating facial mask, and can prevent muscle soreness after physical activity.

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