Professor Dennis R. Hidalgo

Spring 2012, Virginia Tech
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The following post relates directly with my class’ discussions on the evolution of the idea of Race as a determinating factor in classifying humans. You may remember that Jefferson entered in our conversations after reviewing the “Race” quizquestions. Some of you wanted to learn more about Jefferson’s contribution and I relished at the interest, not simply because it relates to my own research project, but because I welcome opportunities to work with primary sources in the classroom.

The relationship (between Jefferson and the post’s topic) is closer at the point when Jefferson wrote about Blacks’ emotive, but diminished reasoning powers. And this may be revealing in many ways because it may indicate the intellectual origins of the new enslaving culture, which patronized and enslaved Black people for “their own good” (this practice flourished in the U.S. and other countries that kept slavery even after the official abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807-8). 

In the 1780s, the author of the Declaration of Independence figured that Blacks were largely emotional beings; that they would gravitate toward pleasure and bliss even when circumstances would not justify it. So, not much free time for Blacks, they should not be left on their own to reflect (they can’t, anyhow), but should be “employed” all the time, and kept busy even against their will (read: enslaved), for their “own good.” The following quote is one that you read out-load in class, where the idea is quite clear:

“A black after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. –When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs (sic) are transient. Those numberless afflictions which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstract from their diversions, and unemployed in labour.”

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 205-6.

The Old Plantation, ca. 1790-1800. Watercolor ...
The Old Plantation, ca. 1790-1800. Watercolor by unidentified artist. Original painting in Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jefferson’s quote is significant because it shows the rationale behind the ongoing process of differentiation (how people accentuate the differences among humans) based now not so much as it was before, on religion, language or even family name, but on perceived biological differences. People in positions of power, particularly slave-masters like Jefferson, imposed these differences, or better-said, biological markers, on all Black people. It did not matter how different would a Black be from another Black, in this new paradigm (relatively new for 1780s), they were all the same.

From this analysis we make sense of two uncommon, yet very descriptive terms, which we have mentioned in class before:

1- Essentialism: applied to our study of the history of race, it means that for every racial category there should be a specific set of traits that everyone in this race should, more or less, share (i.e., “Asian-Americans are smart people”).

2- Racialization: is the discursive process (continuous repetitions of an idea) in which groups of people are gradually categorized by racial markers even when they were not consulted or it was not this way before; when you impose or assume a “race” on somebody (i.e., “Your people…”).

The post that I am reblogging below helps depict how the new 19th Century enslaving culture linked Watermelons to the supposedly Black’s simplicity, and thus, a key justification for their enslavement. Do not lose sight, however, of the difference in timing: Jefferson wrote in the 18th Century and the new patronizing enslaving culture emerged in the 19th Century. In other words, the proliferation of watermelons accompanying Blacks did not happen until much after Jefferson. To be exact, around the time of the Haitian Revolution and the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade (1804-1808) we begin seeing an escalation of arguments justifying slavery and stressing differences according to physical and biological characteristics.

Jefferson’s ruminations (what he wrote in 1787) seem to link him to this transition in thinking about Blacks, and this about race. And thus, we can argue that “Race” as an idea is closely linked to the justification for slavery.  And it is only through digging back, in search of this idea’s genealogy, that we can find the link between the publication of the Notes of the State of Virginia and the supposed fondness Blacks have for watermelons.


Professor Dennis R. Hidalgo


Jefferson’s “happy as slaves.” SLAVERY AND THE WATERMELON by Lisa Wade


If you pay attention to racist portrayals of African Americans, you will notice the frequent appearance of watermelons.  Abagond has a nice collection that includes these:

Why watermelons?  According to David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum, defenders of slavery used the watermelon as a symbol of simplicity.  African Americans, the argument went, were happy as slaves.  They didn’t need the complicated responsibilities of freedom; they just needed some shade and a cool, delicious treat.

Just look at these benevolent White people (sarcasm):

I think this is an interesting example of the way in which supposedly random stereotypes have strategic beginnings.  The association of Black people with a love of watermelon isn’t just a neutral stereotype, nor one that emerged because there is a “kernel of truth” (as people love to say about stereotypes).  Instead, it was a deliberate tool with which to misportray African Americans and justify slavery.

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Historic map of the Swedish Gold Coast, c.1650
The Swedish Gold Coast was a Swedish colony founded in 1650 by Hendrik Carloff on the Gulf of Guinea in present-day Ghana and Togo in West Africa. It lasted to April 1663 when the whole Swedish Gold Coast was seized by the Danes, and integrated in the Danish Gold Coast.

Now, that’s interesting. It fits perfectly with the plethora of mini colonization projects European nations were experimenting with at this time. An example of them, at the other side of the Atlantic, is the Scottish colony of Darien (1695-1701).

(via nefermaathotep)

Sirens, thanks for sharing this. It is our responsibility to open our eyes to how these socially and historically constructed concepts encroach on us if we don’t challenge them. 


The following is a link for pictures which show how fundraiser organizers used lighter skinned mixed race slave children as part of a campaign to raise money for African-American schools in the late 1860s in New Orleans, because they believed that lighter skinned slaves would garner more sympathy, and in turn more money, for their cause.

- The Sirens

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