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A Series of Unfortunate Events: Daniel Handler Makes Racist Jokes At Expense Of African-American Authors

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Last night Jacqueline Woodson was awarded the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Brown Girl Dreaming, her book of poetry about growing up as an African-American woman during the ’60s and ’70s. Upon accepting the award, Woodson thanked the audience of authors for “changing the world,” a statement to which ceremony host Daniel Handler (better known by his pseudonym of Lemony Snicket) chose to respond with a “joke” about watermelon.

You can watch a video of Woodson’s acceptance and Handler’s subsequent remarks here; a webcast of the entire ceremony is also available. After Woodson left the stage, Handler commented:

I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned 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 that 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, Cornell West, Toni Morisson, and Barack Obama saying, “this guy’s ok! This guy’s fine!”

Alright [to Woodson] Alright, we’ll talk about it later.

Woodson wasn’t the only African-American author whose achievements were reduced to punchlines last night for Handler’s MC routine; earlier in the evening he also introduced award-winning author Sharon Draper by mentioning her Coretta Scott King award (an honor given to YA literature about the African-American experience), “a prize I hope to one day receive myself. That’s a children’s publishing joke. We’ll explain it to you later.” According to the CCBC, a miniscule 3% of American children’s books are written by black authors or feature black characters. Get it? Chronic lack of diversity and representation! How hilarious!

In an excellent blog post on Handler’s comments, David Perry writes “for Handler, the disclaimer and humor, the wink that he knows he’s on dangerous ground, functions to excuse a joke linking to a long racist history of associating black people with watermelon.”

Handler’s “routine” was inexcusable regardless of context, but particularly troubling considering his audience and delivery. As National Book Awards spokesperson for the night, he responded to the achievements of African-American authors by belittling the need for greater representation and taking advantage of his vocal role during the ceremonies to undermine the message of Woodson’s work and attack her personally. But Handler’s tongue-in-cheek, casual racism indicates that this reflexive impulse to punch down isn’t just a “Daniel Handler problem–” it’s indicative of a more widespread problem within publishing culture as a whole.

Handler has since released an apology for his comments:

National Book Awards attendees and at-home spectators also took to Twitter to voice their concerns:

 

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