Watermelon Joke

Posted Thursday March 5, 2009 by John Gunders in |

How long does it take for racist stereotypes to disappear? Quite a while, if a recent controversy in the United States is anything to go by. As reported by CBS, Dean Grose, the mayor of Los Alamitos, a two and quarter-square-mile Orange County city of around 12,000 people, has been forced to resign after sending a “joke” email that showed the White House surrounded by fields of watermelons. When the controversy broke Grose tried to play down the email by saying that he was unaware of the racial stereotype that links African-Americans to watermelons. This event happened less than a week after the appalling New York Post cartoon that arguably compared Obama to a rabid chimpanzee.

One respondent to the discussion list where I discovered this provided some information about the origins of the stereotype:

There’s an excellent article about the racist meanings associated with watermelons by Pat Turner (an African-American folklorist in California) in Rooted in America, edited by Wilson and Gillespie. She points out that although the historical images of watermelons and African-Americans often seem simply cutesy and benign, they suggest that Blacks are animalistic and savage-like in their enjoyment of “raw” food eaten by hand (“unmediated” by culture, therefore less civilized.) These images then play into the Sambo stereotype in which Blacks were considered childlike and innocent, therefore needed the “protection” of the more “civilized” races.

Other people on the list contributed with stories of students who, like Mayor Grose, claim to be unaware of racist connotations concerning watermelons. I find this to be remarkable: I thought the stereotype was widely known. It was certainly well-enough known in 1975 for the BBC2 comedy The Goodies to parody it in the episode “The End”, in which Bill Oddie plays a stereotypical “sambo” character called Rastus Watermelon. I’d be interested to see how many people are aware of the stereotype and its significance in race relations in the US and elsewhere. Let me know via comments your take on the issue.

One argument is that “this generation” doesn’t understand or care about old prejudices, and that we should get over it and stop living in the past. I don’t agree: as one respondent on the discussion list put it:

None of us chose our history; that doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible to it.

You’ll have to cut and paste the Wikipedia links yourselves, because Textpattern can’t handle brackets in urls:

Your Comments

  1. Matthew Smith writes:

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