The Queer Syllabus: The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye


The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. New entries will run on Thursday, September through December, and then will be collected as a living document on the Foglifter website. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.


When I watched Cheryl Dunye’s film The Watermelon Woman, I kept having to remind myself that it was released in 1996. Of course, markers of the ‘90s are everywhere in the movie: Dunye’s character works at video rental store stocking shelves with VHS tapes, she and her friend Tamara wear amazing butch outfits of oversized t-shirts with boxy jorts and chunky earrings, research is all done in real libraries and archives. Yet the world of Dunye’s mid-‘90s Philadelphia feels so present, showing many of the same systemic failures, ambivalent desires, and moments of dyke joy that populate our queer world more than twenty years later.

The Watermelon Woman follows a twenty-something black lesbian filmmaker (also named Cheryl and played by Dunye), who takes on a new creative project documenting her research into the archival absences and misrepresentations of black women in early cinema. She focuses on a talented actress who was relegated to mammy roles and credited only as “The Watermelon Woman.” As Cheryl dives into her new film project we see her navigate her day job and her side hustle, bad dates and a fling with a less-than-woke white gal (played by Guinevere Turner), dead ends in her research, and enlightenment from elders. We also get to see scenes like a shot of her dancing alone on a rooftop, Black, gay, and alive, having fun. Over and over again we see Dunye’s gorgeous smile, which seems to shift everything else around it into soft focus.

Young butch lesbians of color have always been artists, scholars, activists, performers, daughters, colleagues, neighbors, lovers, friends. None of this is new. And perhaps that’s what most striking about watching The Watermelon Woman now—getting to see proof of this lineage. There is a comfort to be found in knowing that we are not trying to build this world from scratch. We are not the first ones to chip away at the wrongs and to patch up the gaps in the story. The Watermelon Woman shows us powerful and personal moments in the ongoing legacy of black dyke art, inquiry, sexuality, and joy. You can hit pause and rest in it, you can hit rewind and see this familiar past right now, and again and again. You can’t wear out this tape.


Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.


Foglifter is a queer journal and press showcasing powerful, intersectional writing that fosters queer writers and galvanizes the queer community through literary events and programming.

ALICIA MOUNTAIN is the author of the collection High Ground Coward (University of Iowa Press), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and the chapbook Thin Fire (BOAAT Press). She is a lesbian poet, scholar, editor, and educator. Keep up with her at and @HiGroundCoward. More from this author →