Watermelon man

The incident of the intruder who recently managed to enter the White House before being captured was obvious fodder for the eternally panic-stricken to call for even more stringent security measures and the use of lethal force because that seems to be the only solution to any problem for those people. But it also provided a field day for humor and one has to merely scan through the collection of editorial cartoons around the nation to see that many cartoonists exploited this event for material. (See here and here for just two of the many cartoons I saw.)

But one particular cartoon generated not laughs but controversy and it was this one created by the Jerry Holbert, the editorial page cartoonist of the Boston Herald.

Holbert cartoon

What caused the furor was the reference to watermelon toothpaste. That seemed to play on the racist stereotype that originated way back from the period of slavery when blacks were depicted as simple minded folk who were inordinately fond of that fruit and did not mind slavery as long as they had access to watermelons.

Holbert and the newspaper have been quick to reject the idea that they had any racist intent and he said that he chose that flavor toothpaste because he just happens to have it at home and it just came to his mind. The cartoonist’s website version of it has since changed watermelon to raspberry.

I am not sure when I became aware of this stereotype. Growing up in Sri Lanka I know that I had heard the jazz staple Watermelon Man composed by Herbie Hancock and covered by musicians of all races, with the version by the Latin jazz ensemble Mongo Santamaria sticking out in my memory. I did not associate the word with racism, at least not then, maybe due to the fact that its composer was black. But by the time I saw the thought-provoking film about racism Watermelon Man (1970) in the US about 25 years ago, I had somehow become aware of its negative connotations.

I wonder if this is a generational thing and to what extent people nowadays, especially younger ones, know that watermelon can serve as a racist symbol. Most overt racist tropes have disappeared from polite society though they are still propagated in the internet underworld by those who harbor such feelings, and they have had a resurgence since president Obama took office. But if one is younger and not that tuned in to political undercurrents, would one know that it is offensive to associate black people with watermelons?

Going back to the cartoon, the fact that the watermelon reference does not add anything to the joke is an argument in Holbert’s favor that it was an incidental, unthinking choice. To have deliberately chosen it would mean that Holbert was actually inviting anger by using a racist trope. On the other hand, you would think that an editorial political cartoonist, of all people, would be more aware than most of political and racial and social nuances. But I have often been surprised by people’s ignorance of things that I thought were common knowledge.

I don’t know anything about Holbert, his political views or even his age, to make a judgment either way. In cases like this, one would have to look at Holbert’s cartoon history and see if there has been a pattern of racist dog whistles. In the absence of any, one would have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Whoopi Goldberg is one person who defends him but she seems to be a minority.

What I am surprised by is that none of the editors of the newspaper, through whom all copy must pass, flagged the problem, unless they are also youngish and also oblivious to this bit of racist history. If that were the case, that may be a sign that this particular racist symbol has lost its potency and is now clung on to only by the die-hard, older racists. I am curious about how many of the readers here, seeing that cartoon, would immediately associate the watermelon reference with race.


  1. ianeymeaney says

    Watermelon, okra and fried chicken are indelibly associated with lower-class black people. This is racist, no matter how you slice it.

  2. lanir says

    I knew watermelon was racist but had no real idea why. When it would come up I’d just naively ask why because I’d never noticed skin color to have anything to do with a watermelon preference. With the slavery backstory I now understand why I kept hearing it. I don’t think the people I used to hear say it knew the backstory either, which is probably why it’s faded. As hateful nonsense goes it’s fairly bland and nonsensical when taken on it’s own.

  3. Mark Dowd says

    I’m rather young and white and naive, and I didn’t know watermelon was part of racial a stereotype. I knew about fried chicken, but watermelon is knew to me. I can totally believe it was an innocent mistake.

  4. lorn says

    Chicken and watermelon are the stereotypical negro favorites.

    The account I heard, from cultural anthropologist studying southern culture, was that on antebellum plantations the slaves would get enough to eat when the watermelon crop was ripe. Watermelons, in the days before refrigeration and high-speed travel, didn’t go very far in the summer heat so any not consumed in a reasonable amount of time would rot. The excess went to the slaves. Once or twice a year the slaves had more than they could eat and a reason to celebrate.

    The chicken part came from the plantation owners allowing the slaves to keep chickens. Chickens were kept in the yard and allowed to eat any scraps or garbage available. They clean up the yard and also control fleas, ticks, and any insects that they can get to. For a slave family allocated meager rations chickens provide a small but steady supply of protein from meat and eggs. A few times a year, possible coinciding with the melon harvest as part of a celebration, a chicken would be butchered and fried up in lard.

    Other ethnically black foods, like sweet potatoes, poke weed, and greens were a similar legacy of slavery because they were either brought over from Africa, were commonly grown in slave quarters vegetable plots, or were gathered from the woods as a reserve food to hold off starvation.

  5. coragyps says

    @ #5 --
    More like early 1960’s. I popped a few packs of those, and was semihorrified by the racism there even as a kid. Yeah, watermelon was stereotypically “Negro food” back then.

  6. wsierichs says

    I’m old enough to know that watermelons can be used as a racist slur against black people. This incident might have been through sheer ignorance, but someone of a certain age and an awareness of various prejudicial slurs should have spotted this at some news desk. I learned many years ago, as a newspaper editor, to always “think dirty” in reading stories and reading/writing headlines, because if you don’t think about how some words or phrases can be understood, you’ll miss that one double entendre that will get into print and become a joke at your paper’s expense.
    On the possibility of ignorance, I have to add this incident, however: Around 1980, I was working as a reporter on a newspaper in a very conservative part of Louisiana. Someone wrote a story, I think it was about a fatal traffic accident, and identified the victim (a married black woman) as “the Smith woman.” (Don’t recall her actual name.) I had seen a reference once to that phrasing, “the X woman,” as being racist although I did not know why. I mentioned it to the city editor, who had let the phrase get past him. He was a black man and said he did not see it as racist. I eventually learned that the phrase was racist because Southern newspapers did not recognize the marriages of black people, so they never called a black woman “Mrs. Smith” but rather “the Smith woman.” While this probably was an explicit insult from the segregation era, it might go back further to the plantation days when black marriages were not recognized so as to allow the break-up of black families by selling a spouse or child. If black slave marriages had been recognized, culture would have pressured owners against breaking up families.
    So even a veteran black journalist and Southerner was not aware of the racism of a certain phrase. So it’s possible the “watermelon” usage here was from simple ignorance.

  7. schmeer says

    I have lived in the suburbs of Boston my entire life. I’m in my mid-thirties, so maybe I’m not in the demographic that Mano refers to, but I find it completely unbelievable that anyone here would be unaware of the implied racism in this cartoon.
    In my childhood these racist stereotypes were very common. There were always a small number of kids who were openly racist and felt no need to hide their contempt of the one or two non-white kids in our class. As we got older they learned to be more discreet, but if they felt they were in like-minded company they would let it fly.
    There was one time when I was in high school that some of my friends started talking about jumping a black boy because he was dating a white girl. It was shocking to me and frightening. They are no longer my friends.

  8. Mano Singham says


    That is a fascinating bit of history about the origins of the phrase “the X woman” and the purpose it served. I suspect that it is also the likely origins of another practice that I wrote about here.

    That kind of anecdote is one of the reasons why I am hesitant to jump to the conclusion that someone has racist intent unless there is other evidence of willful behavior or a history of such things. People can sometimes miss things that seem obvious to others.

  9. Anne Fenwick says

    I’m not American. I became vaguely aware that watermelons were a racist thing in the US well into my adult life. Previously, I’d associated the word with a fruit you get given for breakfast in Vietnam. Not daring to ask*, I became aware of the reasons this evening, at this post. Other people’s ideas of what is and isn’t racist are often inexplicable without background context.

    * I take it it’s the same story or a very similar one with the fried chicken, right?

  10. WhiteHatLurker says

    I am not an American. I’d heard of the watermelon connotation, but would not have thought of it when I saw the cartoon. The US seems very highly sensitised to it, so it should have been caught there. Could it be that the editors are also not from the US or are from places within the US that wouldn’t immediately make that connection?

    Perhaps ” sea-buckthorn” would be a good substitute for non-traditional flavour for products that would not ave racist overtones? (Or is there something there that I might be missing and it’s offensive to some group somewhere?)

    FWIW, I like watermelons, though the synthetic flavours typically don’t please me.

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