Theodore Johnson III heard from plenty of people when he wrote his NPR Code Switch blog post about the racist origins of the song that has made generations scamper for the neighborhood ice cream truck.
It’s a 1916 song — “N***** Love A Watermelon” — which is more commonly identified as “Turkey in the Straw.”
In a follow-up piece today, Johnson says he’s not calling for a ban on ice cream trucks playing the song. He says he’s not even saying the ice cream truck is playing that song and subconsciously implanting racist messages in our children.
And here’s another irrefutable fact: For nearly as long as the melody has been on the American shores, it has been used to denigrate and make fun of black people. Its use as the soundtrack for the blackface minstrel show era is not some trivial aside. By the time of President Andrew Jackson’s administration, “Zip Coon” was the most popular song in the country. The ridiculous black stereotype it etched into the American consciousness spawned an entire entertainment industry focused solely on two things: profits and racism. The role blackface played in defining the melody’s American iconography is central to my argument, and the point holds no matter which song one believes the ice cream truck is playing.
The most common dissent to my article is that the melody we hear from the ice cream truck is solely the result of the popularity of “Turkey in the Straw.” Over at The New Republic, John McWhorter suggests that this is the case and that “Turkey in the Straw” can be entirely dissociated from blackface and racism. Unfortunately, sheet music from the turn of the 20th century depicting familiar denigrating caricatures of black people makes his assertion problematic. Both McWhorter and The American Spectator’s Bill Zeiser cite use of the melody in Warner Bros. cartoons as evidence that blackface was gone from pop culture in the time of the ice cream truck. But Warner Bros. routinely employed blackface stereotype cartoons, to include this censored 1941 Bugs Bunny episode and, more pointedly, a 1943 blackface take on Snow White called Coal Black an de Sebben Dwarfs — the title derived from “Coal Black Rose,” a blackface song from the 1820s thought to be the first ever recorded.
What does it matter? “It is important to recognize the impact racism has had on our country, even, perhaps especially, when it hides in the nooks and crannies of wholesome Americana,” he writes.
All of which was pretty soundly rejected by the NPR.org audience in the comments section of the article.