For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.

If you pay attention to racist portrayals of African Americans, you will notice the frequent appearance of watermelons.  The trope has its roots in American slavery.

Why watermelons?  According to David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum, defenders of slavery used the watermelon as a symbol of simplicity.  African Americans, the argument went, were happy as slaves.  They didn’t need the complicated responsibilities of freedom; they just needed some shade and a cool, delicious treat. Abagond has a nice collection of images showing black people delighted to be eating watermelon. Here the copy makes explicit the idea that slaves needed little but a watermelon to make them happy:

I think this is an interesting example of the way in which supposedly random stereotypes have strategic beginnings.  The association of Black people with a love of watermelon isn’t just a neutral stereotype, nor one that emerged because there is a “kernel of truth” (as people love to say about stereotypes).  Instead, it was a deliberate tool with which to misportray African Americans and justify slavery.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.