9

The following passage mentions African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, but the bold's figurative, possibly racist meaning eludes me.

Source: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (1 ed. 2007; but 2008 Reprint ed. exists, p. 137 Top.

  That tap on the shoulder, metaphorical or not, Will Marion Cook came to know well when he returned to America. He tried to make his name as a violinist, advertising himself improbably as a "musical phenomenon performing some of the masterpieces upon his violin with one hand." Making little headway, he then formed the William Marion Cook Orchestra, with Frederick Douglass as honorary president. At around the same time, Cook wrote, or began writing, an opera based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Toni's Cabin. Most significantly, in 1893, he went to Chicago to participate in the World's Columbian Exposition, a momentous event at which America declared its new status as a world power. In an effort to counteract the stereotypes of black savagery that figured in some of the fair's displays—crowds flocked to watch and hear the African drummers of Dahomey Village—Douglass organized a Colored People's Day, which aimed to affirm the nobility of the black American experience. Newspapers mocked Douglass by speculating that watermelons would be sold in bulk. [Bold mine]

  • 5
    By the way, possibly referring to this – justCal Sep 22 '17 at 4:08
  • @user2448131 Thanks. Corrected now. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Sep 22 '17 at 4:10
  • 3
    It used to be something of a stereotype that black people really liked watermelon (as if white people don't :-)). See the passage in "Huckleberry Finn" where Huck figures out where Jim is being held by noticing watermelon rinds. – jamesqf Sep 22 '17 at 5:08
  • 1
    It is an obscure stereotype, unknown to many, but offensive to some. I know several African-Americans who will not eat watermelon on principal. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 22 '17 at 12:08
14

This is one of those stereotypes which, as this question demonstrates, is older then we realize. The entry in wikipedia touches on the assumed meaning:

that African Americans have an unusually great appetite for watermelons

but its history seems best summed up in this article from The Atlantic:

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.

So to answer the question, the newspapers of the time were ridiculing all the organized events by insinuating that the larger population of attending African Americans would require a large number of watermelons to feed.

  • 1
    This is it. FWIW, this progressed to the point where "Watermelon" became another epithet black people were called by rather than their actual names – T.E.D. Sep 22 '17 at 16:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.