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.
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
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.