One would hope that a gathering of some of the nation’s most accomplished writers would reflect the nation’s soul. And maybe Wednesday night in New York City, it did just that.
Author Jacqueline Woodson won the 2014 National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category for her “Brown Girl Dreaming” collection of poems about an African American girl growing up in a racially torn society. Woodson, who has done several books diving into real-world territory for young adults, was followed on the stage by host Daniel Handler (who writes under the name of Lemony Snicket), who offered up this:
“I told you [looking offstage, presumably at Woodson, then to the audience], I told Jackie she was going to win. 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. And I said, 'You have to put that in a book.' And she said, 'You put it in a book.' And I said, 'I am only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornel West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama saying, "this guy's OK, this guy's fine!"'"
We can expect now the usual back-and-forth that comes whenever someone of public note (in this case a top-selling children’s author) says something stupid on the public stage. And it’s worth noting that in a video of the event, Handler appears to be delivering the joke from notes, so clearly he had thought this out. Or at least conjured up the joke ahead of time, without fully thinking it out.
The incident has lighted up social media, as you might expect, including some reprimands for the authors in the audience who can be heard laughing. Which is, frankly, as jarring as the stereotype Handler invoked.
Most telling, though, has been the number of people from various minority groups commenting on social media about their own similar experiences with objectionable attempts at humor. A Moroccan-born author mentioned joking references to her as a terrorist. A writer of African heritage related experiences putting up with comments at a banquet from white writers to the effect that the rest of the crowd probably thought she was only there to do the dishes.
Others railed against the sense that whites in this supposed post-racial world feel free to deliver objectionable lines and observations from a struck pose of commiserating insider. Still others tried for the false-equivalency argument, that a black author wouldn’t have been called out for the same joke.
Perhaps not. But in this society, a comment invoking a stereotype about blacks uttered by a white person is burdened with a different history than if delivered by a black person. Failure to recognize that is either an act of willful blindness, or of ignorance.
The reality is that this is not a post-racial society, and our history is with us every day. Despite African Americans gaining levels of professional success and political power, including the presidency, this remains a seriously racially divided nation.
Which is why Ferguson, Mo., erupted once and is on tenterhooks now as it awaits a grand jury decision over the killing of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer. During the initial violent confrontations, whites responded, "Look at what they're doing!" while blacks responded, "Look at what they did!" Context, and history, is a frame that cannot be ignored.
And the divisions are very real. They drive persistently disproportionate levels of poverty for minorities compared with whites. More than a generation after Brown v. Board of Education, our education system is just as separate and unequal as ever. Prisons are jammed with young black men while whites guilty of the same drug-related crimes walk free. Then there's the daily indignity of being looked on with suspicion by fellow citizens simply because of skin color, or marked for hate comments regardless of class. In fact, as Lawrence Otis Graham writes here, our racial divide seems to trump our class divide.
You’d hope that our writers, even – or especially – those who write for children, would have a better grasp of the history of symbols before offering up a stereotype in a moment of ill-conceived levity.
In his stumble, Handler inadvertently invoked a past and a present of racial divisions and misapprehensions which continue to eat away at our social fabric.
Unfortunately, if history is a guide, by tomorrow most of us will have forgotten about Handler and his moment of foolishness. Which is as much a problem, and a national indictment, as the racial stresses themselves.
Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.