Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for the memoir "Brown Girl Dreaming"
After she accepted the award, "Lemony Snicket" author Daniel Handler shared a story
Handler said he told Woodson to write about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon
Handler later apologized for the joke, which many denounced as "racist" and inappropriate
Jacqueline Woodson’s big win at the National Book Awards on Wednesday was briefly eclipsed by a racially charged joke.
After Woodson accepted an award for her memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming,” host Daniel Handler shared an anecdote he learned over the summer: that Woodson, who is black, is allergic to watermelon.
“Just let that sink in your mind,” said Handler, who writes popular children’s books under the pen name Lemony Snicket.
The non sequitur elicited a few laughs and uncomfortable titters from the audience. Handler went on to say that he advised Woodson to write a book that featured a black girl with a watermelon allergy. Watermelon is historically evoked as a favorite food among black people in racist jokes, and it’s considered by many to be an offensive reference.
Handler said that Woodson, who won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, told him he should write the book instead.
“I’m only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama saying this guy’s OK,” Handler said, with a laugh.
After a clip from the awards ceremony was posed on C-SPAN, viewers and some prominent writers quickly took to Twitter to denounce Handler’s comments as racist and a distraction from Woodson’s accomplishment.
Handler responded with several apologetic tweets, including: “My remarks on Wednesday night at #NBAwards were monstrously inappropriate and yes, racist.”
Handler also pledged to donate $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign and match others’ donations for 24 hours up to $100,000.
Woodson’s post-ceremony social media posts have expressed her happiness about the award and have not mentioned Handler’s joke. The author did not respond to a request for comment on the incident.
Other 2014 National Book Award winners included:
Fiction: Phil Klay, “Redeployment”
Nonfiction: Evan Osnos, “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China”
Poetry: Louise Gluck, “Faithful and Virtuous Night”