Wednesday, September 14, 2011


As the 19th century melded into the 20th, demeaning images of African Americans were ubiquitous and casual racial slights had become socially acceptable. The inferiority of the race was taken for granted by many people whose skin was not deeply pigmented. In particular, racial jokes and 'humorous' racial images permeated the media.

This was not a new phenomenon. The happy-go-lucky image of "Jim Crow" began to appear in the 1830s. By mid-century, white Americans could see nothing wrong in their affection for depictions of Jim Crow in black-face minstrel shows.[1] It's depressingly appropriate that Jim Crow became a by-word for oppressive legislation and "whites only" policies in the Reconstruction South.[2] The association of African Americans with watermelons parallels the history of Jim Crow.[3] It began in the early 19th century (or before) and grew to become a commonplace in the early 20th. Examples abound. Here's one from an unexpected source: the poet Carl Sandburg writing in 1918:
Does a famous poet eat watermelon?
Excuse me, ask me something easy.
I have seen farmhands with their faces in fried catfish on a Monday morning.
And the Japanese, two-legged like us,
The Japanese bring slices of watermelon into pictures.
The black seeds make oval polka dots on the pink meat.
Why do I always think of niggers and buck-and-wing dancing whenever I see watermelon?[4]
Given all this, it's hardly surprising that in turn-of-the-century New York a publisher of a popular line of picture post cards would decide to trade on the watermelon stereotype. But it might surprise that the image records the facts of poverty as much as it exploits a journalistic cliché. Here's the photo:

{"Bliss" by the Detroit Publishing Co. (1901) from collections in the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress}

The photographer staged the photo to show two common racial themes: love of watermelon and low-life theft. However, his main protagonist, the thief, is clearly enjoying the set-up. His pose and facial expression don't conform to the racist norm: no exaggerated features, no wooly hair, no eye-whites, and nothing "aw-shucks" in his body language. He's a real boy -- an urban youth, not a "boy" in the language racism, but an ordinary kid. The victim of theft is shown in stereotypical pose, but in the context of the scene, the pose seems to be a parody of the stereotype. It's as if the photographer is making fun of the trite and endlessly demeaning watermelon joke.

Here are some closer views.

The boy's ragged clothes and bare feet aren't racial markers; they're typical of New York street urchins regardless of race. The box he's sitting on probably wasn't selected as representative of anything in particular, but it's interesting nonetheless that it formerly contained cast-iron horse "feeders" from the Belmont Stable Supply Co. The Belmont family was then one of New York's wealthiest and horsiest.[5]

The "thief" is clearly enjoying himself and he appears to like the role that the photographer has asked him to play.

The disfiguration on his right leg is a tear in the photo, not a wound. Note the string on his left ankle; it re-appears in another photo shown below.

This prop may be where they put the duck at night. It has enough visual interest to stand on its own as a photo.

The duck isn't a subject of the photo and consequently isn't in focus, but its presence is symbolic. The scene is urban-gritty, with rubble underfoot and nothing growing. The duck suggests hardships endured — life lived at the bottom of the social pyramid, but not hopelessly so.

Here are the other photos in the set.[6]

{"Seben come 'leben" Detroit Publishing Co. (1901) LC collections}

This photo was taken at the same location. The two boys are joined by two others. There's now a rooster in the scene. The dice have come up boxcars.

{"A Quiet game" Detroit Publishing Co. (1901) LC collections}
This photo isn't so obviously related to the other two. We're on the street side of the buildings rather than the yard side. The boys are dressed for work not play. One of them shines shoes for a living. A man observes from the doorway. Notice the remains of watermelon at the bottom step.

{"Shines" Detroit Publishing Co. (1901) LC collections}
At the same location, we now see the shoe-shine boy in work mode. Notice that he does not shine his own shoes (maybe because they're too worn for shining; maybe because polish costs money).


This "Yellow Kid" comic strip (from Pulitzer's New York Journal, Sunday, December 20, 1896) gives an idea of how racial slurs could by casually used by newspaper cartoon characters. Note the text:
Den he broke that nigger's wind, den he closed his peeps
Den de coon laid down an' took two or tree big sleeps.

Den dat goat et all de wool right off dat nigger's nut.
Den he chucked him troo de ropes wit one small dinky butt.

{"Yellow Kid's Great Fight" source:}

Some sources:
Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University

Chicken & Watermelon Themes

Niggers love watermellons. Check these out !

The Pickaninny Character!!

The Picaninny Caricature

The piccaninny stereotype

Jim Crow laws

What Was Jim Crow?

Talking Race Over a Slice of Watermelon by Keith Woods

Question of the Month: Blacks and Watermelons

Potato Blossom Songs and Jigs by Carl Sandburg, Cornhuskers (1918)

The watermelon stereotype, a blog post by Abagond



[1] This is the title page from sheet music published in 1847.

{"Jim Crow Jubilee" Lithographer: John H. Bufford, Composer: Augustus Clapp, Title of Composition: History ob de World (Boston, Geo. P. Reed, 1847); source: wikipedia}

[2] "Jim Crow was the name of the racial caste system which operated primarily, but not exclusively in southern and border states, between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-Black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-Black racism. Many Christian ministers and theologians taught that Whites were the Chosen people, Blacks were cursed to be servants, and God supported racial segregation. Craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists, and Social Darwinists, at every educational level, buttressed the belief that Blacks were innately intellectually and culturally inferior to Whites. Pro-segregation politicians gave eloquent speeches on the great danger of integration: the mongrelization of the White race. Newspaper and magazine writers routinely referred to Blacks as niggers, coons, and darkies; and worse, their articles reinforced anti-Black stereotypes. Even children's games portrayed Blacks as inferior beings (see "From Hostility to Reverence: 100 Years of African-American Imagery in Games"). All major societal institutions reflected and supported the oppression of Blacks." -- What Was Jim Crow?

[3] "Since the earliest days of plantation slavery, the caricature of the dark-skinned black child, his too-red lips stretched to grotesque extremes as they opened to chomp down on watermelon, was a staple of racism's diet. Over time, the watermelon became a symbol of the broader denigration of black people. It became part of the image perpetuated by a white culture bent upon bolstering the myth of superiority by depicting the inferior race as lazy, simple-minded pickaninnies interested only in such mindless pleasures as a slice of sweet watermelon. Like all racial and ethnic stereotypes, this one's destructive properties have, through the decades, stretched far beyond mere insult. It has helped poison self-esteem, pushing some people to avoid doing anything that seemed too 'black,' lest they be lumped into the company of Uncle Remus, Aunt Jemima, or some other relative of racism." -- Talking Race Over a Slice of Watermelon by Keith Woods

This self-explaining watermelon Montage comes from Stereotypes of African Americans: Essays & Images

[4] From Potato Blossom Songs and Jigs by Carl Sandburg, Cornhuskers (1918)

[5] I've written about Bemont before. See road coaches, living high, and another coach on 5th.

[6] When a couple of these photos appeared on the Shorpy blog, they elicited some interesting comments. See Bliss: 1901 and Roll Play: 1901.

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