Daniel Handler, as already reported, has made public penitence for his racist gaffe at the National Book Awards presentation ceremony. Jacqueline Woodson. subject of the gaffe, has now gone on record in the New York Times Opinion column to give her account of “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.” Her statements on her friendship with Daniel Handler make the whole thing even more remarkable, and raise some really interesting questions about his psychology:
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.
So much for Daniel Handler’s responses under certain types of public pressure. And as for Jacqueline Woodson’s account of what watermelons mean to her:
I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them, watched black migrants from the South try to eke out a living in the big city by driving through neighborhoods like my own — Bushwick, in Brooklyn — with trucks loaded down with the fruit.In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in.
And so far as I know, there wasn’t any contextual reason whatsoever for bringing up the whole watermelon issue at the Awards ceremony. But Woodson’s reaction does highlight what Toni Morrison said on the Colbert Report very soon after: “I wanted to show how painful this constructed horrible racism was on the most vulnerable people in society – girls, black girls, poor girls – and that it really and truly could hurt you.” And as Carol DeSanti remarked in The Guardian, American publishing remains resolutely white. Woodson’s testament confirms just how much some young girls did get hurt by this – and that the racist stereotype is still out there, and still hurting.