This article explicates the origins of the racist watermelon trope and its relationship to white Americans’ attitudes toward emancipation. The trope had antecedents in Orientalist depictions of the growing, selling, and eating of watermelons, but the fruit was not associated with African Americans until after emancipation. Freedpeople used watermelons to enact and celebrate their freedom, especially their newfound property rights. This provoked a backlash among white Americans, who then made the fruit a symbol of African Americans’ supposed uncleanliness, childishness, idleness, and unfitness for the public square. The trope spread in U.S. print culture throughout the late 1860s and supported the post-emancipation argument that African Americans were unsuited for citizenship.


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