Submission Sample Proposal

Overcoming Rhetorics of Deficiency:

The Legacy of Watermelon Postcards


Clive Muir


Recipient, 2019 Distinction in the Practice of Diversity and Inclusion Award


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Why do watermelons matter to workplace communication? This paper discusses the postcard craze of the early 1900s that disparaged Black Americans’ love of watermelons and that still has a debilitating effect today. The watermelon stereotypes became rhetorics of deficiency that even hinder interactions at work. Session attendees are asked to examine deficiency rhetorics in the workplace and the biases that feed them.


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According to, watermelon is the third most popular fruit in the world after the tomato and banana (Mala, 2020). It is known for its superior hydrating, muscle soothing capabilities; for lowering blood pressure; and for its ability to reduce sun damage to the skin (Kadey, 2015). Ancient Egyptians prized watermelons and packed them in the Pharaohs’ tombs for the afterlife (Mala, 2020).


Watermelon is also the most popular summer fruit in America, but not only for its nourishing, ninety-percent water content. New York Times food critic, Peter Wells, personifies watermelons as “social by nature, built for crowds, [and] happiest surrounded by humans.” (Wells, 2018).


So, what’s not to like about this sweet, wholesome fruit? Ask historian Cynthia Greenlee, who felt she was “not as free as I thought,” when she consciously chose strawberry over  watermelon while having lunch with white co-workers (Greenlee, 2019). Or the cafeteria staff at New York University who were fired after serving “watermelon-flavored water” and other foods associated with African Americans to celebrate Black history month (Singal, 2019). Or ask author Jacqueline Woodson who eloquently described the “pain of the watermelon joke,” which recounted an awkward exchange with a friend who was presenting her a trophy at a National Book Awards ceremony (Woodson, 2014). Following such stories, I unearthed a troubled association between watermelons and Black Americans that has lasted from the days of slavery to today. A story that is sourly ironic.


The watermelon originated in Africa, traveled on slave ships to plantation gardens in the Americas, and later became a source of livelihood for former slaves in the southern United States. By the late 1860s, the watermelon appeared as a source of pride and humor in magazine and newspaper drawings and columns. It was a reliable prop for photographers and painters seeking to depict post-War Black culture, and appeared in vaudeville acts across the country. But the most lingering use of watermelon images may have come from the popularity of postcards at the beginning of the 1900s.


Through postcards, people shared fantastic images to support a collection craze that last over a decade. Photographs and paintings were colorized and embellished and made into postcards by printers in the UK, Germany, and the US. Cameras became more specialized and accessible to average people for the first time, and postal agencies across Europe and North America enacted policies that allowed the use of personal images and handwritten notes on the postcard. Many enthusiasts shared the most vulgar images and offensive messages about Blacks on postcards. Although the postcard craze ended by the First World War, the damage had been done. Blacks began to distance themselves from watermelons in public. The narrative reflected the shift toward a rhetoric of deficiency—from watermelons being a beloved fruit to watermelons becoming a loathsome image to be associated with.


A rhetoric of deficiency describes discourse or messages that deliberately cast the features or actions of a person, object, event, or situation mainly in a negative light, despite their inherent worth or previous associations. Deficiency rhetorics succeed when an audience is willing to view the subject negatively due to implicit biases against the subject, exigences of the situation, and perceived credibility and appeal of the rhetor. The message may be depicted in writing, speech, visually, or in physical performance.


Deficiency rhetorics often arise when there is a shift in social, political, or economic conditions. Before the postcard craze, Blacks began to gain some autonomy and access to educational, political, and economic opportunities, just a few years after slavery ended and during the period of Reconstruction. Educators such as Booker T. Washington (1896) and W.B. DuBois (1898) asserted the capacity and capability of Blacks to help rebuild the South if given the support. But such ambitions were thwarted by strict enforcement of segregation laws, physical assault on Blacks, destruction on their property, and other activities at the turn of the twentieth century.


In today’s classrooms and workplaces, Blacks, women, ethnic and religious groups, persons with disabilities, LGBT persons, immigrants, military veterans, and even student athletes still face deficiency rhetorics. It is also worth noting that deficiency rhetorics may exist within groups, often towards members who, for example, display characteristics or behaviors deemed antithetical to the ethos of the group (Workman, 2020). Reversing deficiency rhetorics takes deliberate work, especially when messages are baked into the culture and when the origin of the messages are not fully understood or known.


As instructors, trainers, and consultants who value diversity and inclusion, we should make the effort to locate and reverse deficiency rhetorics in our workplaces. We should note what we do and say that may seem mundane and commonplace, but that may have deep, negative effects on others. At a time of increasing soul-searching and action towards improving social and organizational inclusion and equity, we should find ways to change rhetorics of deficiency that prevent others from having positive workplace and classroom experiences.




Du Bois, W. B. (1898). The study of the Negro problems. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1-23.

Greenlee, C. (2019). On eating watermelon in front of white people.

Kadey, M. (2015, July 15). The 5 healthiest summer fruits.

Mala, A. (2020, August 18). Most popular fruits in the world.

Singal, J. (2019). How NYU and food-service giant Aramark stumbled into a Black history month PR fiasco.

Washington, Booker, T. (1896, September). The awakening of the Negro. The Atlantic Monthly.

Wells, P. (2018, May 22). The 5 best summer fruits, ranked.

Woodson, J. (2014). The pain of the watermelon joke.

Workman, J. (2020). Social costs to trying hard in high school: Differences by race-ethnicity. Social Science Research, 102484.