Yesterday, this startling ad from the Daily Jocks firm, specializing in premium men’s underwear from various companies — in this case, from the cheeky Australian company Supawear, offering its Fruitopia line in the color Watermelon:
Startling, because it shows a black man in a field of watermelon slices — an image that will evoke a racist stereotype, no matter what the intentions of the creators were.
[Added a bit later, with a note of mitigation. It turns out that not only Supawear but also the Daily Jocks company itself are Australian, and Australians can hardly be expected to appreciate the peculiarities of racial history in the U.S. (I’m not sure that Canadians will see the black + watermelon problem.) You might argue that a company that markets itself so heavily in the U.S. should be aware of sociocultural sore points, but frankly I think that’s asking a lot. So I suspect that Supawear and DJ have inadvertently fallen into a sinkhole, when they merely meant to be playful, colorful, and sexy.]
My main text here is a December 2014 piece in Atlantic magazine by William Black, “How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope: Before its subversion in the Jim Crow era, the fruit symbolized black self-sufficiency”. The full story is full of historical twists and turns, which Black’s account treats in detail, so it’s hard for me to avoid quoting most of it here. But I’ll put some material from 20th-century black culture, including black pushback against the stereotype, early in my discussion.