Jacqueline Woodson Responds to National Book Awards’ Watermelon Joke

By Jamilah King Dec 01, 2014

There have been many responses to writer Daniel Handler’s racist joke about watermelon at this year’s National Book Awards ceremony. Handler, who was emceeing the event, leveled the joke at Jacqueline Woodson, who’d ironically just won the night’s honor for young adult literature for her memoir "Brown Girl Dreaming." "I told Jackie she was going to win," Handler said. "And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer — which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind."

Though Handler issued an apology on Twitter, the reaction was swift and severe. Nikky Finney, who won the award for poetry in 2011 and added a blistering acceptance speech, wrote on her personal website that Handler’s remarks were just one example of the casual racism that’s endemic in the literary world.

The words Handler spoke were spit and spoken into my face just as they have been spit and spoken into my Black face for most of my life. The truth is: his words were spit and spoken into all of our faces. His racist ‘unfortunate’ words are part of what keeps us where and what we are as a country that refuses to deal with ‘race.’

Now, Woodson herself has responded to Handler’s racism with a moving essay in the New York Times. In it, she talks about how so-called humor is often used to minimize the resilience of black folks.

In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.

"Brown Girl Dreaming" is the story of my family, moving from slavery through Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, and ends with me as a child of the ’70s. It is steeped in the history of not only my family but of America. As African-Americans, we were given this history daily as weapons against our stories’ being erased in the world or, even worse, delivered to us offhandedly in the form of humor.

Read more at the New York Times