A Brief Cultural History of Blacks and Watermelons.

by Scott Eric Kaufman, and cross-posted from Edge of the American West.

Via Sadly, No! I learn that the mayor of Los Alamitos—a city whose proximity to Los Angeles disqualifies its citizens from claiming they live behind the Orange Curtain—recently sent the city council an email entitled “No Easter egg hunt this year.”  It contained this picture:

When questioned as to the propriety of sending poorly-executed racist photo-shops to government employees, the mayor claimed to be “unaware of the stereotype that black people like watermelon.”  Putting the issue of what exactly is “funny” about the picture in the absence of said stereotype aside, there are some conservatives who claim that the real problem here is hypersensitive blacks and their “rat-fink” instincts:

The fink who ratted him out was a black woman who sacrificed friendship to the motto, “Never Fail to Be Offended.”

His commenters agree:

How dare [defenders of the rat-fink] be offended at everything? So far the list is getting pretty long: fried chicken, monkeys, watermelons, poverty, any number of words in several languages referring to the color Black, any mention of Africa as anything less than the greatest cultural center in the history of mankind, any suggestion that there is some kind of bell shaped curve in the intellectual and physical attributes that all humans share and that Blacks are not clustered at the far right percentile [ . . . ] There is one thing that is certainly apparent and that is that Blacks seem to have a serious genetic deficiency in the lack of a sense of humor.

Being offended because they cannot violate decorum with impunity is bad enough.  This is worse:

What is wrong with Blacks liking watermelons? Should a Scot go crazy if somebody mentions plaid? Should a Norwegian go nuts if somebody has an axe or a spear or a horned helmet and God forbid a mention of lefsa or lutefisk? Should an Irishman go berserk and start screaming discrimination if somebody has a potato?

Scotland is a country.  Norway is a country.  All the other countries mentioned in this comment are countries.  Black is not country.  Even if it were there would be nothing wrong with liking watermelon per se.  The same cannot be said of the claim that blacks have a special affinity for watermelons.  Why?

From “Dr Spencer’s Melons,” The Youth Companion (7 April 1881): 127

It is next to impossible to teach many of the colored people of the South that it is as wrong to steal a watermelon as a calf.  The color man will admit that the calf larceny deserves the severest penalty of the law, and if he were on a jury, he would enforce it too; but let a case of stolen melons come before a court, and he’ll stand up stoutly for acquitted, and he is the delinquent, plead his innocence with an injured air of being unjustly persecuted.

[Dr. Spencer] was asked if he was not afraid to have his melons right on the public road, when just to cross a low fence would being a robber into the very midst of his fruit.

“And what would Fury be doing when the rascals were climbing my fence?” he laughed.  “You’ve never seen my bull-dog, Fury, have you?  Well, he keeps guard over there.  No fear of my melons being touched.”

There was no fear until, in the height of the season, Fury was taken ill, and in a very few hours gave up his breath.  “Those lazy, thieving boys will be down on my patch to-night,” he said to his wife.

[ . . . ]

Meanwhile, the news of Fury’s death had spread through the colony of O—.  “I tank the Lord!” said old Hannah Dickson, when the news of Fury’s death reached her cabin.  “I prayed agin dat dog eber sence he tuck a nip outer my Joe.  He wa’nt no dog, but a plumb debbil, and now he’s gone to jedgment.”

Knowing the blacks will be unable to resist his unguarded melons, Dr. Spencer poisons them. The blacks steal the watermelons and fall ill.  “Lord hab massy on us!” they cry.  “Jist let us git out ob dis prickly brier.”

From the New York Times (6 July 1895): 9

From the Chicago Defender (12 September 1925): A1


From the Chicago Defender (20 July 1935): 5

From “Hate Mail: The Black Athlete’s Heavy Burden.” Los Angeles Times (18 February 1975): E1

From the New York Times (27 August 1989): 23

History’s only ancient if you’re an idiot.

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  • Thank you for putting this together. For real. It is a huge pain to have to educate people on what should be obvious, and it’s awesome that you decided to take it on.

  • Melissa

    I didn’t get it. I had to look at the picture three times and re-read the opening twice, before the rest of the post educated me on the ridiculousness of the “joke”.

    Maybe it’s because I’m in Toronto, but I had no clue this was a stereotype. Those newspaper clippings blow my effing mind.

    Seriously … how the HELL does something like this get distributed by a city official (a mayor no less)? And how do people defend it by asking if an Irish would be mad about a potato? Ridiculous, and not funny, and not worth the attempt at being funny.

    People amaze me.

  • jaye

    I didn’t get it at first. When I saw the picture, I thought…oh, that’s so pretty and kind of cool, watermelons on the lawn of the White House. It’s like someone painting pink sunflowers or lemon trees…something kind of whimsical. And then I saw the caption to go along with it…oh shit, it’s supposed to be racist.

  • Scott

    I have to agree that it is unbelievable that anyone in this day and age would try and claim that they didn’t know that such a stereotype would be offensive.

  • camillionz

    dope ass post. Thank you.

  • I’m sick and tired, of being sick and tired! I’m sick and tired of (some) people running around saying ignorant comments and later recanting with the “I’m sorry I didn’t know” card. Come on now – buy a clue. What’s next? A painting of a noose on the White House lawn claiming it’s the new White House Swing, and when people get upset – claim they didn’t know it had a racial undertone? I can hear the apologies now: “Oh I’m sorry, I heard about lynchings in America, but I didn’t know you people were talking about THIS America.”

    So let’s see, I send an email with pics of John McCain and George W. Bush – can I label it “Honk E.” and “CRACKER Jack” and then claim the ignorance card if whites get offended? I mean just let me know, since everybody’s getting a pass, maybe I should jump on the bandwagon too.

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