But the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. 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. Few Americans in 1900 would’ve guessed the stereotype was less than half a century old.
Not that the raw material for the racist watermelon trope didn’t exist before emancipation. In the early modern European imagination, the typical watermelon-eater was an Italian or Arab peasant. The watermelon, noted a British officer stationed in Egypt in 1801, was “a poor Arab’s feast,” a meager substitute for a proper meal. In the port city of Rosetta he saw the locals eating watermelons “ravenously … as if afraid the passer-by was going to snatch them away,” and watermelon rinds littered the streets. There, the fruit symbolized many of the same qualities as it would in post-emancipation America: uncleanliness, because eating watermelon is so messy. Laziness, because growing watermelons is so easy, and it’s hard to eat watermelon and keep working—it’s a fruit you have to sit down and eat. Childishness, because watermelons are sweet, colorful, and devoid of much nutritional value. And unwanted public presence, because it’s hard to eat a watermelon by yourself. These tropes made their way to America, but the watermelon did not yet have a racial meaning. Americans were just as likely to associate the watermelon with white Kentucky hillbillies or New Hampshire yokels as with black South Carolina slaves.