Stereotypes and Racist Depictions

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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While African Americans continued to experience some economic advancement in the food industry, Reconstruction ushered in new, racist ideologies that were expressed in popular and material culture. From the 1880s to the 1930s, black people were portrayed in almost universally derogatory ways as very dark, nappy-headed, bulging-eyed, childlike, and overly deferential. And they were almost always depicted as happy, with an uncontrollable appetite for watermelons.

From minstrel shows to sheet music, postcards to photographs and films, African Americans were caricatured as stealing, eating, and even becoming watermelons. The meanings of this association are many, but the imagery was mainly intended to depict African Americans as simple-minded, content to laze around and happily eat watermelon. The early twentieth century, for example, witnessed white functions and events where blacks provided the entertainment by engaging in watermelon-eating contests. A 1937 cover of Life magazine helped to perpetuate these stereotypes by depicting a wagon full of watermelons with an African American man, his back bared, sitting on the edge of a cart looking out toward a dirt road, with farmland on either side. Another image accompanying the story was captioned “The watermelon starts its journey to market in an ordinary wheelbarrow pushed by a grinning Negro.”