Wednesday should have been a big night for author Jacqueline Woodson, who won a National Book Award in the category of Young People’s Literature for her book Brown Girl Dreaming. But after Woodson accepted the award, her achievement was swiftly overshadowed by remarks made by the host of the ceremonies, Daniel Handler, author of the popular kids books he writes under the name Lemony Snicket. Woodson is black, and Handler quipped that “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.”
Handler was aware of the racially charged nature of his joke, since he added, “And I said, ‘You have to put that in a book.’ And she said, ‘You put that in a book.’ And I said, ‘I’m 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!’” Later that evening, Handler also made a comment that the fact there were two black writers in the poetry category could be construed as “probable cause.”
The apology was gracious, but the nature of “ill-conceived attempts at humor” is worth thinking about. Jokes are often a way of marking out territory and hiding social unease — and this was far from the first time a literary awards event has been the site of a badly framed racial comment.
In 1952, the members of the National Book Awards committee met to decide who would win the poetry award. Five members, including Wallace Stevens — who was notoriously reactionary on race and many other issues — had time on their hands while they waited for the final juror, caught in a snowstorm, to arrive. While waiting, the committee members looked over photos of previous judges. One photo showed the African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks. “Who’s the coon?” Stevens asked. The other committee members were too shocked to respond, so Stevens asked again, “I know you don’t like to hear people call a lady a coon, but who is it?”
On April 14, 1968, Samuel Delany attended the Nebula Awards Banquet, run by the Science Fiction Writers of America, where he had two works nominated. It was a tense evening, with Delany’s having outsider status on multiple levels by being an experimental writer, black, and gay. After Delany’s novel The Einstein Intersection won an award, a senior member of the SFWA went onstage and denounced the organization for being fooled by pretentious literary nonsense. Then Delany won a second award for his short story “Aye, and Gomorrah … ” — an especially daring work at the time because of its gay subtext.
Delany, known to his friends as Chip, received a standing ovation. As he walked back to his table, where his mother and sisters were waiting, he felt “a hand on my other sleeve … and I turned to Isaac Asimov (whom I’d met for the first time at the banquet the year before), sitting on the other side and now pulling me toward him. With a large smile, wholly saturated with evident self-irony, he leaned toward me to say: ‘You know, Chip, we only voted you those awards because you’re Negro … !’”
Asimov didn’t mean his remarks to be racist, but rather a good-natured jocular jibe — of the sort he often directed at male literary rivals — designed to break the ice at a tense event.1 He and Delany would subsequently become friends, with Delany including Asimov among the dedicatees of the 1976 novel Trouble on Triton. But Delany remarked about Asimov’s awards show joke: “There was no possibility he had intended the remark in any way seriously … Still, part of me rolled my eyes silently to heaven and said: Do I really need to hear this right at this moment?”
Asimov actually had a long history of antiracism, with his robot stories of the 1940s and 1950s often being allegories about discrimination.
While we can make distinctions between Stevens’s crass racism and the misfired jokes of Asimov and Handler, all three incidents have something in common. The literary world in America is still predominately white. When a black writer earns distinction — is nominated for an award or sits on a prestigious jury — it’s natural for the social antennae to start vibrating as they register a change. Jokes are a way of both taking notice of a changing social scene and trying to domesticate it, to soothe jangled nerves with banter. But these jests also have the sinister effect of trying to put black writers in their place, to remind them that they will be seen as blacks first and writers second.
In the end, the “humor” is an attempt to acknowledge a changing social reality, but has the effect of turning attention away from the award winners and making this a story, once again, about the (white) men who still run our literary industry.
Jeet Heer is the author of two books, In Love With Art: Françoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics With Art Spiegelman and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays & Profiles. He’s appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The Paris Review.