During the 2014 National Book Awards ceremony this week, Black author Jacqueline Woodson was presented with the Young People’s Literature Award—only to have the spotlight quickly snatched away by host Daniel Handler’s racially charged watermelon joke.
Handler has since taken to Twitter to apologize for the jokes but the fact that he made the jokes at all may be a sign of a much larger problem in the world of literature.
Woodson earned a round of applause as she accepted her award for “Brown Girl Dreaming,” a book that chronicled her childhood in South Carolina and New York in the 60s and 70s.
Woodson delivered a heartfelt speech and it seemed like there would be hope that more prominent Black authors would be celebrated at the National Book Awards ceremony, which is currently still dominated by white faces.
Handler returned to the stage and informed the audience that the award-winning Black author was allergic to watermelon.
“Just let that sink in,” he added.
As if that wasn’t enough, Handler continued on to say Woodson should put that fact in a book.
The painfully racist joke continued as Handler suggested he would write the book himself.
“I am only writing a book about a Black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from [Woodson], Cornel West, Toni Morrison and Barack Obama, saying, ‘This guy’s okay! This guy’s fine,” he said.
Handler then added that one day he hopes to receive his own Coretta Scott King award.
That particular award is only given to Black authors of young people’s literature.
Many authors in the room were shocked and some took to Twitter to discuss the cringe-worthy jokes.
“’Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon, just let that sink in your mind.’ These are words that were spoken at an awards ceremony,” author Roxane Gay said in a series of tweets. “And like, how many people even realized how f****d up that was? In her career highlight, she has to be reminded, ‘we can still joke.’ “
Another author, Mikki Kendall, tweeted, “At some point we’re going to talk about why Daniel Handler thought his comments would be received well in that room. But not today.”
Handler did not make any comments through his publicist, but the popular children’s book author did take to Twitter to address what happened that night.
“My job at last night’s National Book Awards #NBAwards was to shine a light on tremendous writers, including Jacqueline Woodson…,” his first tweet read. “…and not to overshadow their achievements with my own ill-conceived attempts at humor. I clearly failed, and I’m sorry.”
As of Friday morning he followed up his apology with some philanthropic efforts.
After tweeting that his remarks were “monstrously inappropriate” and admitting that they were “yes, racist” he pushed his followers to donate money to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.
The campaign is meant to promote access to books about people of color and increase the number of Black writers in the industry.
Handler promised to donated $10,000 to the cause and said he will match any other donations up to a total amount of $100,000 for the next 24 hours.
“Let’s donate to #WeNeedDiverseBooks to #CelebrateJackie,” he tweeted. “ ‘Brown Girl Dreaming’ is an amazing novel and we need more voices like Jacqueline Woodson.”
While Handler is on his way to making amends with the public for his racially charged jokes, people were still left pondering the very same thing Kendall said would one day be discussed – “why Daniel Handler thought his comments would be received well in that room.”
The literature industry is yet another American industry that desperately needs a larger diversity of voices.
Last year only 3 percent of children’s books were written by Black authors or featured Black characters, Jia Tolentino noted on Jezebel.
Only 93 of a total 3,200 children’s books were about Black characters and less than 70 were by Black authors.
The troubling statistics mean that the only thing more troubling than Handler thinking his watermelon allergy joke would be hilarious is that fact that the lack of diversity in the literature space means other racially charged comments could be around the corner and those attitudes are likely to persist until the industry addresses its diversity issue.