Watermelons and Freedom in America
Cold juicy watermelons at cookouts are a traditional part of our July 4th celebration commemorating the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence that led to American freedom from British rule.
But watermelon has an older connection to freedom in America. I discovered this connection when I did a little research as I added my collection of Black Americana to my Etsy store. I had purchased the collection at auction with some trepidation, because I knew that the intent of some of the original figures (mine are reproductions) had been to denigrate Negroes. Included in the memorabilia were several figures of black people sitting on chamber pots and eating watermelon. But I found many of the other pieces in the collection charming, so I made the purchase, hoping for an opportunity to use them to educate. The defamatory pieces are stashed at home on a closet shelf, not for sale.
Most of us know that in school we learned a whitewashed version of American history. But I discovered only recently that southern planters deliberately instilled the idea that black people were subhuman to make the institution of slavery palatable. Southern planters had first tried to use Native Americans, and then white indentured servants as plantation laborers. It was only when these labor sources were deemed economically unfeasible in the late 1600s that North American planters turned to African slaves. That Negroes were less than human was the justification needed by a Christian society proud of its piety to base its economy, both north and south, on systematic and inherently cruel bondage of its labor force. (see“Slavery and the origins of Racism” )
But how did the watermelon become part of this deliberate propaganda to denigrate blacks? The watermelon was brought to America from Africa. On the plantation, slaves grew, ate, and sold watermelons. In Europe, watermelon was considered the food of the poor peasant: messy to eat, easy to grow, a deterrent from work, colorful, sweet, and not very nutritious. Watermelon became associated with uncleanliness, laziness, and childishness, associations that passed from Europe to America.
After emancipation, free blacks grew and sold watermelon as a source of income. They ate watermelons openly in public places, formerly a treat enjoyed only on the plantation with the “benevolent” blessing of the slave-owner. This public display of independence, an overt act of the new order, was displeasing to whites.
Newspapers published depictions of watermelon-eating blacks, associating the freedmen with the fruit of laziness and childishness. The message was that black people were not ready for freedom. History textbooks included a false claim that the majority black South Carolina Reconstruction-era legislature had wasted taxpayer money buying watermelons for their own enjoyment. The 1915 white supremacist film Birth of a Nation includes a scene of blacks being seduced from work by a watermelon feast. In the early twentieth century Jim Crow era, the watermelon was everywhere, salt and pepper shakers, sheet music, potholders, paperweights. (see “How the Watermelon became a Racist Trope”.)
Folk artists in the 1970s and 80s made the reproductions in my collection. I was unable to determine if the crafters were white or black. But I surmise that the renaissance of these items was part of the black history movement of that period. With the superstar status of many black actors, athletes, entertainers, and politicians, the Black Americana items are once again in demand.
Postscript: I wrote this piece and began listing my Black Americana collection to coincide with July 4. However, when I went to link this blog post to my Etsy site, I saw that 6 of my listing had been “deactivated” by Etsy while they decided whether they were in accordance with their “policies.” Ten days and multiple phone calls and emails later, I have still not heard from the Etsy “Specialist,” so I took it upon myself to relist those 6 items and more. Racial tensions are high right now, but in my opinion that makes it all the more important that the true story of race in this country be told. The story goes far beyond figurines, and even beyond African-Americans, to include every ethnic and racial group that had the opportunity to be oppressed by the white male power structure that has always held the reins.