Racism with Grace



I had foot surgery a couple weeks ago, and in the percocet-addled aftermath I apparently spent so much time down the rabbit hole of thinking about animals in picture books that I missed the unfortunate events surrounding Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) M.C.ing of the recent National Book Awards ceremony.

On November 19, Daniel Handler presented author Jacqueline Woodson the award for her beautiful Brown Girl Dreaming, which Woodson describes as “a story of my family, moving from slavery through Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, and end[ing] with me as a child of the ’70s”. And then Handler made a Watermelon Joke.

Woodson described the incident in an eloquent, thoughtful response a week and a half later (November 28) on the Opinion Pages of the New York Times.

As I walked away from the stage to a standing ovation after my acceptance speech, it was the last place in the world I thought I’d hear the watermelon joke — directed by the M.C., Daniel Handler, at me. “Jackie’s allergic to watermelon,” he said. “Just let that sink in your mind.” Daniel and I have been friends for years. Last summer, at his home on Cape Cod, he served watermelon soup and I let him know I was allergic to the fruit. I was astonished when he brought this up before the National Book Award audience — in the form of a wink-nudge joke about being black.

She continued,

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.

Woodson’s pain and her thoughtfulness — and, of course, her great talent as a writer — are all evident in the editorial, which is well worth a read in its entirety.

Handler, meanwhile, was immediately contrite via twitter and elsewhere, following up with what The Guardian has dubbed a “110,000 apology” by making a sizeable donation to the WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign. (The campaign, in myriad ways, is working to draw media attention to the issue and to foster greater diversity in children’s books and in the publishing industry. And there are less than 24 hours to go in the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, so if you haven’t done so already, please take a minute to GIVE!) As importantly — if not moreso — Handler did not attempt to build a card-house of excuses around his behavior; instead, he owned his own racism.

It was a horrible incident; I am certain that everyone involved wishes they could rewind time and erase it. But it is also, of course, nothing new.

How it was handled — with honesty and grace on all sides, and with an eye towards both the personal and the systemic — is the best one could hope for. And it is a spirit to strive for in the moments when we confront our own, and others’ racist words and actions.


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