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African Americans and the Watermelon Stereotype

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  • Posted: 04/12/2013 11:08 AM
  • Updated: 04/12/2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

A photo of my expecting mother eating a slice of watermelon is a family favorite. She attributes my lifelong disdain for the fruit to the fact that she ate it every day while pregnant with me. I carry this story in the form of an oval, deep green blemish on my left hand. It's true -- I'm a black man with a watermelon for a birthmark.

In many countries and cultures around the world, this would be unremarkable. But in the United States, where watermelon is associated with historic African-American stereotypes, my birthmark takes on a more complex symbolism. Just as the undesirable leftovers of farm animals, such as pig intestines and feet, are linked to the slave diet, watermelon is the food most associated with the 19th and 20th century depictions of blacks as lazy simpletons.

This phenomenon is more pronounced in the black American experience than in other places around the world. While eating breakfast with colleagues on a recent trip to Brazil, a friend who'd spent several formative years in South Asia casually asked if I'd like to try his watermelon juice. At that moment, the proverbial record scratched. Because he was never exposed to the history of watermelons and American blacks, he was quite puzzled at the awkward silence and darting glances.

The record of watermelon's role in racism is well-chronicled. As Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute fashioned it, "since the earliest days of plantation slavery, the caricature of the dark-skinned black child, his too-red lips stretched to grotesque extremes as they opened to chomp down on watermelon, was a staple of racism's diet. Over time, the watermelon became a symbol of the broader denigration of black people."

As such, though I still dislike the melon, my watermelon birthmark is a badge of pride and a stare of defiance at the stereotype that continues to sprinkle salt in the wound of racism. -- Ted Johnson

Some of the more popular items in America during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era were racist postcards, colloquially called "coon cards" -- coon being a pejorative term for blacks originating in the mid-1800s. Many of these postcards pictured wide-eyed, impish blacks overcome by a rabid infatuation for the huge slice of watermelon in front of them. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University maintains a collection of board games, cookie jars, ashtrays, and other novelty items that perpetuate the debasing African-American-watermelon love affair stereotype.

Naturally, this expression of racism bled over into other forms of art. Minstrel shows, a once fashionable form of theater with blackface actors behaving mindlessly, also latched onto the watermelon narrative. One minstrel song recorded by Harry C. Browne in 1916, entitled "Nigger Loves A Watermelon, Ha Ha Ha!," proclaimed there was "nothing like a watermelon for the hungry coon." The melody is one every American knows -- it's the song that most ice cream trucks have played for decades to attract neighborhood children. How curious that Harry Browne began his song by calling watermelon "the colored man's ice cream."

With such deep and persistent iconography, it's no wonder that disparaging imagery of blacks' obsession with watermelon can still be found in our society long after slavery and the minstrel period. And much like then, it is used to belittle African-American people and their achievements. When Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in Major League Baseball, opposing fans often taunted him by throwing watermelon rinds. After Barack Obama became the first black man to be elected president of the United States, manipulated pictures of the White House, showing rows of watermelon crop in the place of its pristine lawns, popped up around the Internet. And when a Google doodle looked suspiciously like a black athlete running along a watermelon, social networks lit up with equal parts outrage and curiosity about the cause of the clamor.

Though statistics aren't needed to convey the ridiculousness and inaccuracy of the watermelon stereotype, data points out African-Americans actually eat less watermelon than others. The Department of Agriculture reports that whites eat the most, and the largest consumers of watermelon per capita are Asians and Hispanics, the fastest growing segments of the United States population. Ironically, with blacks being disproportionate sufferers of heart disease and hypertension -- largely as a result of poor diet -- consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables, including watermelon, would be a step in the right direction.

Today, many African-Americans resist eating the fruit in public so as not to be seen as confirming the stereotype. I am glad, however, that was of no concern to my mother decades ago. As she sat in her cream-colored ensemble on a blanket under the Georgia summer sun, the photo captured her nurturing the life inside her with the same fruit co-opted by the racism that took the lives of so many others. As such, though I still dislike the melon, my watermelon birthmark is a badge of pride and a stare of defiance at the stereotype that continues to sprinkle salt in the wound of racism.

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