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Watermelon - A Symbol of Resistance and Propaganda

know your facts Nov 22, 2023
watercolor illustration of a watermelon with paint splashes by sofia golovanova on Canva

Watermelon is popular on social media right now, being used as a symbol of resistance for Palestinians and being called out for being a symbol that stereotypes Black Americans as lazy, unclean, and stupid. Can people who support each other’s right to freedom and self-determination come to some consensus on the use of watermelon as a symbol of solidarity? Maybe. Here’s some history on how watermelon came to be used so differently by different cultures.


Watermelon as a Racist Stereotype

After emancipation, formerly enslaved folks used their farming skills to earn a living. Watermelon was a popular crop that earned good money, allowing newly freed folks to purchase land and build homes. Watermelon was a path to liberation!

As we have seen throughout history, when an oppressed group start to do well, there’s backlash from the dominant group. Former enslavers and people who worked in the various industries that were built around the institution of slavery became resentful that their former subjects could possibly sustain themselves as larger businesses crumbled without the use of free labor. They shamed Black people and watermelon, intending to hurt Black businesses. They used watermelon as part of minstrel shows, where white folks dressed up in blackface, usually in raggedy clothes, pretending to be silly and simple as a form of comedy and as propaganda to normalize stereotypes about Black people.

You can learn more about anti-Black propaganda in the United States from The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI. The website offers virtual tours.

Black folks eating or portrayed as watermelons were used on postcards, in ads, as logos, and in cartoons. The postcard below is for sale on the vintage postcard site It's dated October 3, 1909 and has a message on the back asking "Dear Father" for a jack-o-lantern.


While the images of lazy, watermelon-eating Black folks began during Reconstruction, using the fruit as disrespect still happens. It was used against former President Obama numerous times. Cartoonist Jerry Holbert with the Boston Herald said his use of watermelon in a cartoon wasn’t intentional and claimed he was “naïve.”

In 1916, Harry C Brown took the tune from the folk song “Turkey in the Straw,” gave it new lyrics, and called it "Nigger Love a Watermelon." You might recognize this tune from your local ice cream truck.

I know Black folks who will not eat watermelon in public to avoid the shame it still causes.

What happened with the watermelon is what happens to a lot of symbols and phrases used to uplift marginalized groups. The dominant group uses their power and reach to change the meaning into something negative. Notice what happened with the Black Lives Matter movement, CRT, MeToo, woke, and on and on.


Watermelon as Resistance

If you’ve followed the violence in Gaza at all, you’ve seen people using the symbol of the watermelon. Palestinians have used the watermelon as a symbol of freedom since 1967 after the Six-Day War, when Israel seized control of Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli government made public displays of the Palestinian flag a crime. Palestinians began using images of watermelon as a stand-in symbol because it has the same colors as their flag - red, white, green, and black. In the past, artists have been threatened for using the colors, even to depict flowers and fruit. Art exhibitions have been shut down. Palestinian protesters have been arrested for holding slices of watermelon. The ban was lifted in 1993 under the Oslo Accords, a landmark agreement that was thought at the time to be a stepping stone to peace in the Middle East.

In early 2023, there were again threats against displaying Palestinian flags, with the Israeli military having the power to confiscate them.

Listen to Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour explain how the watermelon became a symbol of resistance for Palestinians.


Watermelon on Social Media

Since October 7, social media platforms have tried to “manage” the information shared by their users. Instagram was accused of inserting the word “terrorist” into specific profiles that used the Palestinian flag. (I saw this myself on some of the profiles I follow.) Others accused the platform of hiding comments containing the Palestinian flag emoji. So people started substituting a watermelon emoji to mean Palestine or Gaza.


Watermelon Controversy

The New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) have been hosting a series of pro-Palestinian events calling for a ceasefire. On a flier calling out House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries for sharing a stage with a far-right pastor John Hagee and demanding that Jeffries support a ceasefire, NYC-DSA featured a huge hand drawn watermelon. Many in the Black community took offense and asked for the flier to be redesigned using the Palestinian flag instead. NYC-DSA refused, saying they meant no offense. They also accused the folks asking for the change of being anti-Palestinian.

I believe the slight was intentional because while watermelons were included on a few fliers for other members of Congress, none were featured as prominently. And they created many other fliers calling for a ceasefire that didn’t use watermelons at all. Why was the big watermelon used for the only Black member of Congress they called out by name? And why pretend that a symbol can’t have two different meanings?

I understand supporting Palestinians. I have the flag and a watermelon on my Twitter (I refuse to call it X) account. I’m using it as a symbol of solidarity with Palestine and as a nod to my ancestors’ will and ability to survive despite the obstacles. But I also think it’s shady to use a huge watermelon on a poster targeting a Black American official. To pretend like using the Palestinian flag is a problem when the flag is not banned here in the United States and watermelon has a derogatory meaning for people you want to support you creates unnecessary problems.

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