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The Coon Obsession with Chicken & Watermelon
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The Coon Obsession with Chicken & Watermelon
Although the coon caricature can be identified by his appearance alone, creators of pop culture imagery often amplified the negative reaction to the coon by depicting him engaging in one or more disreputable behaviors. As discussed in the History of the Coon section, the coon is often portrayed as a lazy, easily frightened, inarticulate, good-for-nothing buffoon. One of the most prevalent methods of achieving this effect was to depict the coon as obsessed with stealing and eating chicken and watermelon. Of all the stereotypes of African Americans, this is the one that modern youth have the most trouble understanding. "It's just food," they say. "What's wrong with watermelon?" The answer is, that there is nothing wrong with chicken or watermelon. What is troubling is the way in which these foods have been used to portray Black Americans as less than human for the purpose of justifying systematic discrimination.
Postcard: To the Victors Belong the Spoils
Postcard: To the Victors Belong the Spoils
 
Origins of the Stereotypes
It's unclear where the chicken and watermelon themes originated. They may have begun as Southern stereotypes and then evolved into anti-Black stereotypes during the antebellum period. Numerous primary sources chronicle Black resistance to slavery through "silent sabotage," or, day-to-day acts of resistance. Stealing from the master was one example. It seems logical that food would be among the most desirable of pilferable items, and chickens and watermelons would have been commonly available. For example, In his autobiographical account of being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon Northup tells of being put in charge of punishing slaves who got into the master's watermelon patch. Rather than carry out the punishment, Northup had the slaves show him the way to the patch. Whatever the history, by the Jim Crow era chicken and watermelon obsession was firmly entrenched in the imagery of Black Americans being produced by White America.
 
The connecting of Blacks to chicken and watermelon was done with the intention of dehumanizing Blacks, to subject them to ridicule, and to justify and solidify the discriminatory practices of Jim Crow. Although the odd item existed during the Reconstruction period, an explosion of Coon chicken and watermelon imagery occurred at the turn-of-the-century, just as a whole new generation of Black Americans was achieving adulthood who had never known the trauma of slavery firsthand, and who resisted the second-class citizen status imposed on them by Jim Crow. As these "New Negroes" pushed against segregation, they were met with a more violent pushback by White reactionaries. The Ku Klux Klan was reborn, and membership soared, as did White-on-Black vigilante violence, including the lynching of Blacks.

1911 Lynching
1911 Lynching
Concurrently, mainstream White America did their part to maintain the status quo by producing and consuming an endless river of anti-Black imagery, including items depicting coons as obsessed with chicken and watermelon. Nowhere is this more evident than in the imagery found on postcards. There are dozens of them, produced by Whites, marketed by Whites, sold by Whites, purchased by Whites, and sent through the official mail to other Whites, allowing the "in" group to share in the mocking and dehumanizing of the "other" over long distances.
 
Anti-Black imagery often shows Blacks living in poverty. They are dressed poorly and speak in highly stereotypical dialect. Part of the message of the imagery is that Blacks are content with this standard of living. Their ambition does not extend to education, wealth, social and political power. Rather, they are such a lower life form, so animalistic, so lazy, that chicken and watermelon are all it takes to satisfy their ambitions. One postcard, for example, depicts a Black male with facial features so caricatured as to make him look like a circus clown, poised at the bottom of a chicken coop ladder while a row of chickens marches toward his sub-human gigantic open mouth. The caption reads, "A Dream of Paradise".
c.1900s Postcard: "A dream of Paradise"
c.1900s Postcard: A dream of Paradise
 
And the imagery was not restricted to Black adults. The Pickaninny caricature (child coons), are also painted in animalistic terms by chicken and watermelon imagery. One early 1900s postcards shows a black child, on the ground like and animal, with a slice of watermelon in his lap. The image is accompanied by the following poem:

"WHO SAID WATERMELON?"
George Washington Watermelon Columbus Brown
I'se black as any little coon in town
At eating melon I can put a pig to shame

For Watermelon am my middle name

In just four lines, the writer is able to mock the notion that Black children are worthy of being named after White founding fathers, to emphasize the child's "otherness" through his skin tone, and to use watermelon as a method of dehumanizing the child as being beneath a pig.
c.1900s Postcard: "Who said watermelon?"
c.1900s Postcard: Who said watermelon?
Postcard: "Down in Sunny Dixie"
Postcard:"Down in Sunny Dixie
The postcard on the left epitomizes the imagery. The coon is lazy, illiterate, and happy to do nothing but eat watermelon. He is a self-described "nigger". And, as if to emphasize his animalistic tendencies, it's made clear that he intends to eat not just the pulp of the watermelon, but the rind as well. Numerous images in the gallery below share this theme. Chicken and watermelon anti-Black imagery was also reflected in coon songs, a music genre that was a phenomenon around the turn of the century. The most profound example of this is the song at the right, "Nigger Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!. For more examples of the anti-Black chicken and watermelon theme in music, see the section on coon songs.
Nigger Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!, by Harry C. Browne (1916)
sound Nigger Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!, by Harry C. Browne (1916)
Stereoview: Jus' dis Niggah's fool luck--bofe arms full an' dat chicken a beggin' to be took along
Stereoview: Jus' dis Niggah's fool luck--bofe arms full an' dat chicken a beggin' to be took along
c.1910s Postcard: "I'm in it with both feet."
c.1910s Postcard: I'm in it with both feet
c.1910s Darkey Five Pins bowling game
c.1910s Darkey Five Pins bowling game
To emphasize the coon's lack of ambition, he is often shown stealing chickens and watermelon, rather than producing them. Although there are a few images of Black-on-Black theft, most of the imagery shows or infers Blacks stealing from Whites. Sometimes they get caught, or endure physical trauma, and the violence is presented in such a way that the White consumer is made to feel content that a kind of social justice has been meted out. Subsequent imagery includes violence against blacks as a kind of game, such as the Darkey Five Pins bowling game shown here, and images of Black children as targets shown in the Pickaninny section.
 
By the 1930s a chain of restaurants by the name of Coon Chicken Inn was doing business on the West Coast. Above the entrance to each restaurant was the image of a giant, grinning coon, wearing a porter's cap. The same image was plastered on everything from the menu, to advertisements, silverware, and takeout containers (see more Coon Chicken Inn imagery below). Chicken and watermelon imagery was prevalent in the Our Gang comedies of Hal Roach, and in cartoons produced well into the 1940s. In the 1950s, the imagery began a steady decline. It was most often found in softer versions on postcards and as knickknack souvenirs from the South (presumably presented as "Old South" imagery for Northern tourist consumption), and in other household items. In more recent years, old imagery from the early 1900s has been resurrected, plastered on posters, mouse pads, and watch faces, and sold as "new" items.
c.1930s Coon-Chicken Inn Menu
c.1930s Coon-Chicken Inn Menu
2000s Dixie Boy Brand Poster
2000s Dixie Boy Brand Poster
Movie Poster: The Watermelon Man (1970)
Movie Poster: The Watermelon Man (1970)
By 1970, anti-Black chicken and watermelon imagery had largely disappeared, but adults from that era had no trouble identifying the theme and its racial connotations. In some cases, the imagery became instructional. A 1970 film, The Watermelon Man, told the story of a White bigot who wakes up one morning to discover that he has become a Black man. The rest of the film chronicles the numerous injustices done to him, even by persons who had known him when White, and his gradual acceptance of his condition. By the turn of the next century, a whole new generation of Americans, Black and White, had grown up with limited exposure to the imagery. In 2009, a play by David Mamet opened on Broadway called Race. It told the story of a wealthy White man accused of raping a Black woman, who is defended by a legal partnership--one White, one Black. In an interview with NPR, actor David Alan Grier described how reaction to the play varied from audience to audience. When his character says to a little Black child, "where's your watermelon?" Grier described how the older generation of Blacks in the audience reacted with horror, while the younger generation found it extremely
funny. Ignorance of the hatred and degradation associated with this and other anti-Black imagery was a theme Spike Lee explored in his film, Bamboozled (2000). A Black television executive, hoping to get fired from his job, pitches the idea of a new television show based on the old Black minstrel shows. Much to his horror, the show is not only approved, but becomes a huge hit. Even one of the Black street performers recruited to star in the show in blackface is seemingly oblivious to the imagery, seeing only his chance to be a big star. Ignorance about the racial history of this stereotype clearly cuts across racial lines. In 1989, while stationed at a Marine Air Station in Yuma, Arizona, this author was standing in the chow line and noticed that the menu had a particular theme--fried chicken, black-eyed peas, and watermelon. I soon realized, to my horror, that it was Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. I do not know if this gesture was intended as a racist joke, or if the head cook really thought that offering such food was a way of honoring Dr. King, but none of my fellow Marines, Black or White, batted an eye. Similarly, in 2010, a Black woman in charge of the cafeteria at NBC studios was given permission to
Movie Poster: Bamboozled (2000)
Movie Poster: Bamboozled (2000)
NBC Menu, 2010
NBC Menu, 2010
create a special menu in honor of Black History Month. She created a similar menu of fried chicken, collard greens, and black-eyed peas. A cafeteria patron snapped a photo of the menu and it was soon zipping around the Internet. It was quickly removed and an apology was issued by NBC. The Black chef, Leslie Calhoun, told a reporter that she did not understand the controversy. "It's not trying to offend anybody and it's not trying to suggest that that's all that African-Americans eat. It's just a good meal. I thought it would go over well." Unfortunately, all too often Whites use instances such as these to excuse their own use of racist slurs and imagery. Obviously, Black Americans are not born with an innate knowledge of the history of this imagery. Blacks sometimes unwitting perpetuate the very same stereotypes they have been victimized by for centuries.

If any doubt exists as to the historical intent of chicken and watermelon coon imagery and its continued power, one need only look at the imagery created during the campaign and election of Barack Obama, the nation's first African American President. As the long, dramatic Democratic Party primary season unwound, White American racists gathered in their own hate-filled corner of the Internet and agonized over the prospect of a Black president. For months, they made an attempt to relieve their anxiety by creating and posting "photoshopped" images and animated gifs for
Animated Gif: Make an Evil Nigger's Dreams Come True, 2008
Animated Gif: Make an Evil Nigger's Dreams Come True, 2008
Photoshopped Image: Candidate Barack Obama with huge slice of watermelon, 2008
Photoshopped Image: Candidate Barack Obama with huge slice of watermelon, 2008
Photoshopped Image: Barack Obama as Buckwheat, 2008
Photoshopped Image: Barack Obama as Buckwheat, 2008
Animated Gif: Michelle Obama performs magic trick with chicken
Animated Gif: Michelle Obama performs magic trick with chicken
Photoshopped Image: Candidate Obama, 2008
Photoshopped Image: Candidate Obama, 2008
Photoshopped Image: Candidate Obama, 2008
Photoshopped Image: Candidate Obama, 2008
Photoshopped Image: A racist's impression of the Oval Office under an Obama administration
Photoshopped Image: A racist's impression of the Oval Office under an Obama administration
Photoshopped Image: Obama shines Sarah Palin's shoes in front of Coon Chicken Inn menu, 2008
Photoshopped Image: Obama shines Sarah Palin's shoes in front of Coon Chicken Inn menu, 2008
their mutual amusement. It shouldn't be a surprise that the common theme was to type-cast this Harvard-educated man, whose most ardent critics admit is one of the most eloquent speech-writers and speech-makers of his generation, as the stereotypical lazy, ignorant, sub-human coon--the very
product of the White created racist imagery of a bygone era. Neither should it be a surprise that their go-to imagery included depictions of then-candidate Obama and his wife as chicken & watermelon obsessed "niggas". And these were the least offensive of the images they created. Many others were so heinous that the Authentic History Center made the determination that they were too offensive to be reproduced here, even though the site is dedicated to educating about the history and consequences of racist imagery. Clearly, the historical hatred connected to this imagery is not forgotten by modern racists.
And anti-Obama chicken and watermelon imagery wasn't confined to the portions of the Internet frequented only by White supremacists. By election day 2008, it was finding its way into the local and national politics of the Republican Party. In May, 2008, a liberal blogger created a satirical post on a fictional Obama food stamp plan, complete with the image of a fake food stamp with classic anti-Black stereotyped imagery. It was intended as a jab at Fox-News-watching right-wingers who, according to the blog's author, would be terrified by the prospect of any extensions of government welfare under an Obama administration. Months later, as the general campaign between Obama and McCain heated up, an organization called Chaffey Community Republican Women, from San Bernardino County, California, included the image in one of their newsletters.
Obama Bucks food stamp, created as satire--satire lost on some Republicans
Obama Bucks food stamp, created as satire; satire that was lost on some Republicans, 2008
RNC Facebook Fan Page Upload, 2009
RNC Facebook Fan Page Upload, 2009
Photoshopped image sent out as a joke by White, Republican small-town mayor Dean Grose, 2009
Photoshopped image sent out as a joke by White, Republican small-town mayor Dean Grose, 2009
Since Barack Obama's inauguration, racist imagery of the President, including chicken and watermelon imagery, has continued to be created and endorsed by the Republican Party and its members. In 2009, the Republican National Committee's Facebook page included a photoshopped image uploaded by a fan. It shows a close-up of President Obama eating a piece of chicken. The caption of the photo is a rant against the Loving v. Virginia 1967 Supreme Court case, which ended all race-based legal restrictions on marriage. The image was taken down only after protests in other media outlets. The message is clear: Blacks are sub-human, and ought not to be able to legally marry and have children with Whites. In February 2009, the Republican mayor of Los Alamitos, a small town in Orange County, California, sent out an image of the White House with the lawn filled with
watermelons, and the caption, "No Easter Egg Hunt This Year." Included on the Mayor's email list was a black businesswoman and city volunteer, who took umbrage to the email. The White Republican eventually resigned over the incident. Additional anti-Black, anti-Obama racist imagery continued to be created as the nation's first Black President served his term in office. Despite the ignorance of some Americans, especially young Americans, about the history of this imagery, its use to degrade, dehumanize and inspire hatred of "the other" is very much alive in the 21st century.
Photoshopped Image
Photoshopped Image
Photoshopped Image
Photoshopped Image
Photoshopped Image
Photoshopped Image
 
Imagery: Postcards
c. 1910 Postcard: "Two 'Heavy Weights,' 149 3/4 Pounds, 304 Pounds"
c. 1910 Postcard: "Two 'Heavy Weights,' 149 3/4 Pounds, 304 Pounds"
c.1900s Postcard: "Oh! dat ar watermillion"
c.1900s Postcard: Oh! dat ar watermillion"
c.1900s Postcard" "ah lubs yo more dan watermelon"
c.1900s Postcard: ah lubs yo more dan watermelon
c.1900s Postcard: "Golly, it's good!"
c.1900s Postcard: Golly, it's good!
1905 Postcard: "I got my eye on you"
1905 Postcard: I got my eye on you
1906 Postcard: "I've got a feeling for you"
1906 Postcard: I've got a feeling for you
1906 Postcard: "If you were only with me"
1906 Postcard: If you were only with me
1908 Postcard: "Jes niggar luck"
1908 Postcard: Jes niggar luck
c.1910s Postcard: "Ah is savin' 'em all foh yo', honey"
c.1910s Postcard: Ah is savin' 'em all foh yo', honey
c. 1910s Postcard: "You can plainly see how miserable I am"
c. 1910s Postcard: You can plainly see how miserable I am
1910 Postcard: "I've been disturbing the piece"
1910 Postcard: I've been disturbing the piece
Postcard: Mammy with oversized piece of watermelon
Postcard: Mammy with oversized piece of watermelon (2 versions)
1911 Postcard: "Mine, all mine"
1911 Postcard: Mine, all mine
1907 Postcard: I'se Got De Best In De Field!
1907 Postcard: I'se Got De Best In De Field!
1907 Postcard: Life Ain't Worth LIving When Your Broke
1907 Postcard: Life Ain't Worth LIving When Your Broke
1907 Postcard: Oh! Dat Ar Watermelon
1907 Postcard: Oh! Dat Ar Watermelon
Postcard: You all can hab de rine
Postcard: You all can hab de rine
1939 Postcard:
1939 Postcard: "Give us de rine!""Ain't goin' be no rine"
1904 Postcard
1904 Postcard
1904 Postcard
1904 Postcard
Postcard: "Oh you watermelon"
Postcard: Oh you watermelon
Postcard: "Don't wake the babies"
Postcard: Don't wake the babies
c.1930s Postcard: "A Refreshing Moment"
Postcard: A Refreshing Moment
c.1930s Postcard featuring Black children with watermelon
Postcard: Boy and girl share watermelon
Postcard-Jest Wishin Mah Pappy, c.1940s Postcard
Postcard-Jest Wishin Mah Pappy, c.1940s Postcard
c.1910s Postcard: "Love at first sight"
c.1910s Postcard: Love at first sight
1909 Postcard: A Kansas Bungalow
1909 Postcard: A Kansas Bungalow
     
 
Products & Advertising
c.1890s Victorian Trade Card: Sapolio Scouring Soap
c.1890s Victorian Trade Card: Sapolio Scouring Soap (2 views)
c.1890s Victorian Trade Card: "nigger eating watermelon"
c.1890s Victorian Trade Card: nigger eating watermelon
c.1910s Ink Blotter
c.1910s Ink Blotter
c.1900s Subscription card for The Pocket Checker Magazine
c.1900s Subscription card for The Pocket Checker Magazine
1925 Fisk Tire advertisement
1925 Fisk Tire advertisement
c.1920s Advertisement Postcard
Advertisement Card
Vicorian Trade Card for Biliousine (patent medicine)
Vicorian Trade Card for Biliousine (patent medicine) (2 views)
1938 Hoptons Restaurant Matchbook, featuring "Nigger Chicken"
1938 Hoptons Restaurant Matchbook, featuring "Nigger Chicken" (3 views)
Coon Chicken Inn Matchbook
c.1930s Coon Chicken Inn Matchbook
Coon Chicken Inn Takout Container
Coon Chicken Inn Takout Container
Coon Chicken Inn Advertisement
Coon Chicken Inn Advertisement
Coon Chicken Inn Restaurant
Coon Chicken Inn Restaurant
Coon Chicken Inn Restaurant
Coon Chicken Inn Restaurant
Coon Chicken Inn Restaurant Labor Protest
Coon Chicken Inn Restaurant Labor Protest
Coon Chicken Inn Postcard
Coon Chicken Inn Postcard
c.1930s advertisement for The Lakeside Press
c.1930s advertisement for The Lakeside Press
       
 
Souvenirs
c.1900s Souvenir Spoon; St. Augustine, Florida
c.1900s Souvenir Spoon; St. Augustine, Florida (2 views)
c.1920s Postcard Folio: "Greetings From the Happy South" (19 images)
c.1920s Postcard Folio: Greetings From the Happy South (19 images)
c.1930s Souvenir of New Orleans, LA
c.1930s Souvenir of New Orleans, LA (2 views)
c.1940s Souvenir Boy With Watermelon and Cotton
c.1940s Souvenir Boy With Watermelon and Cotton
Souvenir Boy With Watermelon and Cotton
Souvenir Boy With Watermelon and Cotton
Souvenir Boy with Watermelon and Cotton: Product of the South
Souvenir Boy with Watermelon and Cotton: Product of the South (3 views)
Charleston, S.C. Souvenir
Charleston, S.C. Souvenir (2 views)
Postcard: There Was Fine Dining in Des Moines, IA
Postcard: There Was Fine Dining in Des Moines, IA
c.1930s Postcard: "Greetings From Missouri" featuring Black boy with watermelon
c.1930s Postcard: Greetings From Missouri, featuring Black boy with watermelon
 
 
Household Items & Figurines
c.1900s Man with Watermelon Figurine
c.1900s Man with Watermelon Figurine
c.1910s Bank: Boy with Watermelon
c.1910s Bank: Boy with Watermelon
c. 1910s Bank: Boy with Watermelon
c. 1910s Bank: Boy with Watermelon
Metal Door Stop, c. 1930s
Metal Door Stop, c. 1930s (2 views)
c.1940s Mammy Sewing Pin Cushion, with Watermelon
c.1940s Mammy Sewing Pin Cushion, with Watermelon (3 views)
c.1930s Tablecloth
c.1930s Tablecloth (4 views)
c.1930s Watermelon Figurine
c.1930s Watermelon Figurine
c.1930s Watermelon Figurine
c.1930s Watermelon Figurine
c.1930s Watermelon Figurine
c.1930s Watermelon Figurine
c.1930s Watermelon Figurine
c.1930s Watermelon Figurine
Watermelon Figurine
Watermelon Figurine
Watermelon Figurine
Watermelon Figurine
Watermelon Figurine
Watermelon Figurine
Watermelon Figurine
Watermelon Figurine
Boy on Chest with Watermelon
Boy on Chest with Watermelon (3 views)
Naked Pickaninny Sitting on Watermelon Figurine
Naked Pickaninny Sitting on Watermelon Figurine
c.1920s Watermelon Potholder Hangers
Potholder Hangers
c.1920s Pot Holder Hangers
Pot Holder Hangers
c.1930s Mammy Cookie Jar with Watermelon
Mammy Cookie Jar with Watermelon (2 views)
c.1930s Napkin Holders1930s Napkin Holders
Wooden Pickaninny with Watermelon
Wooden Pickaninny with Watermelon
c.1980s Wooden Pickaninny Children with Watermelon
c.1980s Wooden Pickaninny Children with Watermelon
     
 
Other Imagery
c.1890s Engraving: Pickaninnies feast on watermelons
c.1890s Engraving: Pickaninnies feast on watermelons
1897 Stereoview : "Jinks, I could'a sworn I saw a leetle darky in the melon patch"
1897 Stereoview : "Jinks, I could'a sworn I saw a leetle darky in the melon patch"
1898 Stereoview Card: "Did you say watermelon was no good?"
1898 Stereoview Card: Did you say watermelon was no good? (2 views)
1904 Stereoview: No Massa, I Don't Steal You Chickens
1904 Stereoview: No Massa, I Don't Steal You Chickens
Stereoview of Coons with Watermelons
Stereoview of Coons with Watermelons
Stereoview of 3 coons carrying watermelons
Stereoview of 3 coons carrying watermelons (1 of 2)
Stereoview of 3 coons carrying watermelons
Stereoview of 3 coons carrying watermelons (2 of 2)
Stereoview sequence of 4: Black Children Caught Stealing a Watermelon from Older Black Man
Stereoview sequence of 4: Black Children Caught Stealing a Watermelon from Older Black Man (4 views)
c.1910s Print: The Watch On The Rine (a play on words of the title of a German patriotic song, The Watch on the Rhine)
c.1910s Print: The Watch On The Rine (a play on words of the title of a German patriotic song, The Watch on the Rhine)
1930s Tin Windup Toy by Marx: Hey! Hey!!, the Chicken Snatcher
1930s Tin Windup Toy by Marx: Hey! Hey!!, the Chicken Snatcher (2 views)
Rufus Rastus Brown (1906) (12 images)
Rufus Rastus Brown (1906) (12 images)
1914 Book: Watermelon Pete and Other Stories
1914 Book: Watermelon Pete and Other Stories (7 images)
Jasper and The Watermelons (1945)
Jasper and The Watermelons (1945)
   
 
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