Daniel Handler’s “watermelon” joke while handing out an award to Jacqueline Woodson at the 2014 National Book Awards didn’t resonate well with those in attendance or the literary community at large.
Woodson the author of the award-winning book Dreaming, was graceful under fire, but it was just a matter of time before she would adequately express her thoughts about the unwarranted fiasco.
In a recent op-ed that she penned for the New York Times, the celebrated author condemns the fact that Handler who she acknowledges as a friend would carelessly reference something with heavy racial implications. She confirms that she did develop an allergic reaction to watermelon as a child but regardless of that fact, she believes the joke was in poor taste and should have been avoided especially considering the arena of choice.
It was also a searing reminder that no matter how much she has achieved in the literary world, she will always be reminded of her black identity. This realization is particularly poignant as the publishing industry tries to make strides in their attempt to become more diverse. But the sting of the joke in front of her colleagues did adequate damage, “ 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”.
The crux of the essay remains Woodson’s best masterpiece yet, as she eloquently uses her own words to detail why Handler’s actions goes beyond the humiliation she suffered at that moment – but rather exposes the embedded issues that make being a minority in a society dominated by an oppressive mantra a daily battle of wills regardless of the circumstance.