Melon eaters of 1937

In the NYT on the 11th (in print on the 12th), the entire editorial page given over to an opinion piece by Brent Staples, “The Radical Blackness of Ebony Magazine: The publication was revolutionary for its depiction of middle-class African-American life”, in the middle of which comes an astonishing observation:

As a close student of Life [magazine], [Ebony founder John H.] Johnson would no doubt have seen the dehumanizing images of African-Americans that appeared in the infamous 1937 issue of the magazine whose cover caption read “Watermelons to Market.” The cover photograph showed an unnamed black man — shirtless and well muscled — sitting with his back to the camera atop a wagonload of melons [on a dirt road alongside a cotton field]. The inside photos offered what Ms. Greer describes as a hierarchy of watermelon eaters, with white bathing beauties at the top and pigs at the bottom; in between was an image of a black woman holding a slice of melon to her face with one hand and nursing a baby with the other. The equating of blackness with sub-humanity is unmistakable in the photographs. The photo caption drives home the point:

“Nothing makes a Negro’s mouth water like a luscious, fresh-picked melon,” it reads. “Any colored ‘mammy’ can hold a huge slice in one hand while holding her offspring in the other. … What melons the Negroes do not consume will find favor with the pigs.”

You will say that things have changed, and to some extent that’s true: these days you wouldn’t find such flat-out unthinking racism in a publication aimed at a large audience primarily of the middle class. But the attitudes and images lie just below the surface today, to bubble up in barely coded form for mass audiences (as well as in undiluted form on flagrantly white-nationalist sites).

The Times did a nice photo spread about Ebony, but forbore from printing the 1937 cover or the three-photo spread “All Southerners Like Watermelon” from the article, but I think we need to stare unblinking at this casual wickedness, to be made profoundly uncomfortable by it, to experience sharp pangs of shame and hot flames of anger.

The cover, simultaneously exulting in the power and beauty of the subject’s black body while treating him as a piece of disposable melon-loving pickaninny trash (imagery from BoJo, who is at the moment the Prime Minister of the UK; see my 7/22/19 posting “The boys of Boris Beauville”, but be aware that it’s not at all nice):

(#1) The cover of the 8/9/1937 Life: black buck as watermelon boy

And the inside spread:

(#2) The great chain of Southern watermelon being: white bathing beauties, black mammy, and pigs

For an extended riff on watermelons and race, see my 4/4/16 posting “The watermelon files”. It’s more measured than my BoJo posting, but its content is no nicer.

Melon eaters of 1937. The title is a play on the movie title Gold Diggers of 1937, which is a stunning contrast to Life‘s 1937 coverage of melon eating in the American South. From Wikipedia:


Gold Diggers of 1937 is a Warner Bros. movie musical directed by Lloyd Bacon with musical numbers created and directed by Busby Berkeley. The film stars Dick Powell and Joan Blondell, who were married at the time, with Glenda Farrell and Victor Moore.

The film features songs by the teams of Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, Harry Warren and Al Dubin. It was based on the play “Sweet Mystery of Life” by Richard Maibaum, Michael Wallach and George Haight, which ran briefly on Broadway in 1935…

This is the fifth movie in Warner Bros.’ series of “Gold Digger” films

What makes the movie relevant here, aside from the 1937 connection, is its remarkable absolute whiteness.  I haven’t gone back and watched it through, but I suspect there’s not a single black face in the thing, even in a servant character. There’s certainly no black man doing a turn tap dancing (as there often was in musical movies of the time), to provide some comic relief and some contrast to the overwhelmingly blonde sameness of Busby Berkeley’s chorus girls. (On the origin of tap dancing in minstrelsy, see my 11/3/15 posting “Minstrelsy”.)

Now, the movie is thoroughy enjoyable, as are the others in the Gold Diggers series, but its fantasy world is also about as far socially as you can get from the real world of Life‘s watermelon man.

Side note: if I remember correctly, the fantasy world of Gold Diggers of 1937 didn’t even have one of the film sissies that were such a regular feature of musicals of the time. See my 2/3/16 posting “The prissy voice”, about this character type, well exemplified there by Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore together in the Astaire-Rogers movie Shall We Dance of, yes!, 1937.

Meanwhile, in 1937 the Spanish Civil War was raging, Japan invaded China, and Hitler was consolidating his power in Germany (he annexed the Sudetenland the next year, and invaded Poland the year after that, setting off World War II).



2 Responses to “Melon eaters of 1937”

  1. maxvasilatos Says:

    as often, “like” is the wrong word here… this needs to be here, the subject is dreadful, turning away is unacceptable, so thank you

  2. [BLOG] Some Sunday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky takes a look at coded anti-black racism in the 1937 United […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: